German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted on Monday as having expressed her concerns that banning US President Donald Trump from Twitter might have been a step too far.
"The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance," government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters at a briefing on Monday. "Given that, the chancellor considers it problematic that the president's accounts have been permanently suspended."
Meanwhile, a hashtag was circulating on the social media site to ban accounts linked to the far-right Alternative for German Party (AfD).
#AfDRausAusTwitter (AfD out) and #AfDTwitterBanNow began trending on the Twitter network on Monday. "We don't want any brown soup. Not here, not in our parliaments," read the call to share the hashtag, in reference to the brown Nazi SA uniforms. The posts drew comments arguing that a ban was unjustified, as long as the AfD adhered to Twitter anti-hate speech provisions.
It is unlikely that social media blackouts would be imposed on the AfD any time, digital and political communication expert Jonas Kaiser told DW, "unless they post something outrageous."
The German constitution protects the freedom of expression. "Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures" reads Article 5. Freedom of expression is limited in accordance with laws to protect personal honor or prevent the dissemination of ideas that violate human dignity.
The AfD is the most active and most successful German political party on social media. Members have been critical of the latest bans of social media accounts.
"Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, are abusing their dominant position in the market to abolish freedom of expression," said AfD MP and party deputy Beatrix von Storch. It was therefore time to use competition law to take action against the tech corporations and "smash the digital cartel," she said.
At the beginning of 2018, von Storch herself received a 12-hour Twitter ban for having posted hate speech against Muslims.
AfD spokesman Tino Chrupalla called on the German government to withdraw the planned anti-hate speech legislation, which, he alleged, would give social media platform the power to censor free speech "The limits on freedom of speech is not just a problem in the US, but also in our country," he wrote on Facebook.
The AfD was founded as a euroskeptic party in 2013 and began to campaign on populist anti-immigration sentiment a year later. It gained traction in 2015, when it took up anti-refugee sentiment, particularly in eastern Germany. It has since managed to get into all 16 state parliaments, the European Parliament, and the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, where it is the largest opposition party.It has an extreme right-wing element wing, which is under observation by security forces, and it has recently teamed up with protesters against the pandemic measures.
When the AfD entered the Bundestag in 2017, then German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel bemoaned the fact that "true Nazis" would once again be part of the parliamentary discussion.
Extremism thriving in the digital age
Far-right political groups and parties have been identified as early adopters of digital communication technology, due to limited mainstream media access.
In Germany, the fear of increased globalization in the form of the 2015 refugee crisis, aligned with the popularity of social media, which Kaiser said helped harness support for far-right organizations. He added that, before social media existed, "there was little public space to voice some opinions. But the internet gave the AfD a platform."
Any potential social media bans may be too late to restrict the effectiveness of the AfD. As Kaiser explains: "If you had taken social media away, let's say in 2015, I think we would have a very different conversation to what we are having now. The refugee crisis was a critical discourse opportunity [in 2015] because that allowed them to really be on the scene, to influence the agenda." But now the AfD is in the public domain, "on talk shows," and "obviously they are in the Bundestag."
Alternative, smaller platforms have gained traction over the last few days. Since Donald Trump's Twitter account was banned, the video-streaming platform Dlive has seen a marked increase in traffic.
Smaller platforms are less likely to see their content regulated in comparison with Twitter and Facebook. This results in much more radical posts.
But that may not be a bad thing, according to Maik Fielitz from the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in the eastern German city of Jena.
"There have long been several platforms for the various groups in society," he told DW. The traditional mainstream media — newspapers and broadcasters — should take care to present facts and depict differing views, Fielitz said, suggesting that this was the best recourse to counterbalance the emotional discourse on social media.
Those calling for a ban of the AfD on Twitter will be watching to see whether closing Donald Trump's account will be effective in cutting off the oxygen supply from which his followers have thrived.