With the New Year came a new law on online hate speech in Germany, forcing Twitter and Facebook to remove content more quickly in some cases. The AfD party, no stranger to stirring the online pot, is crying "censorship."
The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party complained on Tuesday that its politicians had been the victim of censorship online. This followed news that Cologne's police had pressed charges against two leading AfD politicians, in response to provocative tweets about "barbaric, Muslim, group-raping hordes of men," as one of them had put it.
These developments coincide with the introduction of a new law forcing social media websites like Facebook and Twitter to respond to requests to delete offensive content more quickly.
Gauland calls new law 'Stasi tactics'
A Tuesday press release from party chair Alexander Gauland was given a rather grand title: "Freedom of opinion came to an end in 2017."
"The censorship law of [acting Justice Minister] Heiko Maas is already showing its negative effects on freedom on the first day of the new year," Gauland said. "These Stasi tactics remind me of the GDR [former East Germany]. I call on every single social media user to resist this repression and to publish the deleted comments over and over again!"
Gauland, formerly a Christian Democrat, hails from the former East Germany.
But the AfD's efforts to draw attention were most pronounced on social media itself, an effective channel of communication for the party. Parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel and her deputy, Beatrix von Storch, are both facing investigation by law enforcement authorities in Cologne on the basis of suspected incitement of racial hatred online. The party shared this news with photos of the two politicians, with gags photo-shopped onto their mouths, and linked it to the German government's recent comments about protests in Iran.
"That's just our sense of humor," the sarcastic photo caption reads. "Demand freedom of opinion in Iran — and undermine it in Germany!"
Leading AfD politician Alice Weidel 'pinned' a banned tweet to the top of her Twitter profile for all to see
Shortly after, the party also shared a post from a Bavarian lawyer, Christian Stahl, who was in return pressing charges against Cologne's police, accusing them of launching investigations against Beatrix von Storch without adequate grounds. The lawyer explicitly distanced himself from the comments made by the politicians, but argued that they didn't amount to a breach of German laws.
More scandals, more noise, more followers
But the AfD was also keen to point out that its social media reach was expanding even as this "censorship" scandal unfolded.
"The attempts to censor Beatrix von Storch and Alice Weidel ... are having the opposite effect," the party's Twitter account said. "Roughly 10,000 new followers for this account and soon we will hit six figures. Heartfelt thanks for your great solidarity!"
Both von Storch and Weidel remained vocal after their online reprimands, posting in support of each other, and even writing satirical versions of their deleted material, like this from von Storch: "Hordes of men raping in groups are not barbarians. Especially not if they're Muslims. I think it's great if they feel at home with us and enjoy themselves. Is that better?"
The AfD is frequently accused of intentionally provoking media attention with incendiary comments seeking to raise its profile. An internal party strategy paper for the 2017 election campaign explicitly encouraged members not to shy away from "carefully planned provocations" as a means of generating headlines and getting voters' attention.
Satirical paper 'Titanic' jumps in
In response to the matter, German satirical news outlet Titanic on Tuesday announced that "Beatrix von Storch" would be acting as their "guest tweeter" for the day, signing off with the initials "bvs." Titanic's imagined "von Storch" even announced her presence in English.
"Her" tweets included a joke about watching the world darts championship final on Monday night: "White men getting drunk and shooting stuff, a last bastion of our Germanic traditions."
Within minutes, the inevitable occurred. Not once, but twice, Titanic's satirical tweets in von Storch's name elicited a swift removal on Twitter.
Rather like the AfD politicians in question, Titanic's response was to share its comments again, plus pictorial evidence of their deletion. A few hours thereafter, Titanic editor-in-chief Tim Wolff wrote "now it's getting really funny," sharing news that the magazine's account was being suspended on suspicion of breaching Twitter's rules.
Critics of the new German law — called "NetzDG," which puts more onus on Facebook and Twitter to swiftly delete flagged content or potentially face fines — had argued that the US companies would be more likely to delete posts if in doubt, rather than dedicate the necessary time and money to ascertaining whether comments were covered by rights to free speech or not.
If nothing else, Tuesday's developments seemed to show that the "censors" were struggling to differentiate between politics and parody.