Hate speech curb should look beyond Facebook, Twitter | In Depth | DW | 05.07.2017
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In Depth

Hate speech curb should look beyond Facebook, Twitter

German regulators cracking down on hate speech on social media should also look at lesser known players beyond Facebook and Twitter, say experts. They also think it could be a model for others - with one exception.

The debate over Germany's new controversial law requiring social media companies to promptly delete hate speech or face hefty fines has focused so much on the most commonly known platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Youtube that the measure was even dubbed "Lex Facebook."     

Placing Facebook, Twitter and Youtube almost exclusively in the center of the debate over hate speech on social media websites is understandable given their size and popularity with users and the media.

Read more: German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier accuses social media of spreading anti-Semitism

But it could undermine monitoring less widely known social media players, some of which, say experts, may present more problematic hate speech issues than their better known rivals.  

"The debate certainly needs to extend beyond Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube," Alexander Tsesis, a law professor at Loyola University, who specializes on freedom of expression and hate speech issues, told DW.     

Limited focus is problematic 

"I think the focus on Facebook and Twitter to the exclusion of sites like Reddit, 4chan, or 8chan is extremely problematic," says Caitlin Carlson, a social media scholar at Seattle University.

"Sites like these are home to some of the most offensive and vitriolic hate speech online and therefore should be considered alongside larger platforms," she told DW.

Websites like 4chan or 8chan - so-called image boards where users can post messages anonymously - are relatively small compared to Facebook or Twitter.

Read more: Facebook now has two billion monthly users

But Reddit, which bills itself as the front page of the internet, is no small fry.

Reddit one of the most popular websites

According to web-traffic analytics firm Alexa, Reddit is the eighth-most popular site world, not far behind Facebook which is ranked third and ahead of Twitter which is ranked the 11th most popular website globally.

Reddit recently made headlines when it was revealed that a user of the site published the original version of the controversial Trump mock video that shows the president beating up CNN.

During and after the presidential election the site had gained notoriety for its large alt-right wing forum in support of Donald Trump called The_Donald.

This forum was instrumental in mainstreaming the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory connecting Hillary Clinton to a child pornography ring from boards like 4chan and 8chan where the claim had appeared earlier. 

Social Media - Facebook logo, photo by Jaap Arriens

Facebook is a key target of Germany's new anti-hate speech law

Less accessible than Facebook or Twitter

Reddit and similar sites tend to be ignored in the public debate about hate speech because they are not publicly traded like Facebook and Twitter and therefore receive less attention from outside parties like shareholders, said Carlson. 

"I also think that journalists and lawmakers' familiarity with sites like Facebook and Twitter make them an easier target for criticism and even regulation," she added. "The acronym-filled, text-based nature of platforms like Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, makes them less accessible to these groups and thus, more difficult to deal with."

While Carlson and Tsesis urge the public, the media and regulators to broaden their purview beyond Facebook and Twitter, they both laud the new German law aimed at curbing hate speech on social media.    

More power for regulators

"I do support the legislation," said Tsesis."These platforms have already agreed with the European Commission on Unit Data Protection to monitor, analyze and remove hate speech. The German law adds power to regulators to demand compliance with this agreement because currently no platform meets the 24 hour take-down agreement."

Tsesis said the reason why these platforms have so far failed to comply with rules to take down hate speech is because of an unwillingness to slow down the upload process and to hire more analysts which would reduce their profit margins.

But this will change with the new German law, he predicted: "The statute will make it more costly for the platforms not to comply than it will cost them to comply."

Seattle University social media scholar Carlson also supports Berlin's stance to get tougher on social media firms. 

"I agree with spirit of the law recently passed in Germany," she said. "I also fully support the law's stipulation to reveal the identity of those behind the hateful posts so that they may be prosecuted for any laws broken, from libel, to privacy, to incitement."

Model for other countries

While Carlson and Tsesis think other countries such as Canada or France could adopt similar laws and would support legislation to this effect in the US as well, both don't believe such a measure stands any change of becoming reality there.

"Unfortunately, I do not think this legislation will impact most social media organizations' hate speech removal policies here in the United States," said Carlson.

"There is greater naivete in the United States about the dangers of destructive messages," said Tsesis, referring to the comparatively broad protections offered to freedom of speech by the US Supreme Court. 

Still, he noted, while the German law will be unenforceable in the United States, American companies will need to alter the content visible in Germany even if their data resides on a server located in the US.

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