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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gabbert

Racism on Facebook

Dagmar Breitenbach
August 31, 2015

Gigantic masses of content are shared on Facebook every day. But what is banned, and how quickly? Racist, xenophobic comments on Facebook in Germany are rampant these days, and they have many people worried.

https://p.dw.com/p/1GOex

In the course of the current refugee crisis in Germany, there has been a surge of openly hateful, racist postings and comments among German-language Facebook users.

The situation has reached a point where the German government has stepped in, urging Facebook to remove "xenophobic and racist" posts expressing hostility to refugees and migrants from its website. Justice Minister Heiko Maas last week wrote the company an open letter demanding an urgent review of its policy over hate messages.

This much-shared comment on Facebook, for instance, had German-language users up in arms:

Facebook - Screenshot rassistische Kommentare
Image: facebook

"Austria has a problem with spoiled meat, a truck has been seized on a highway with at least 50 clumps of spoiled Syrian meat", says this comment, referring to the bodies of 71 refugees found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian highway last week.

Shocked users reported the comment to Facebook, which runs four worldwide operations teams 24/7 with experts working in more than two dozen languages and promises to examine reports on violations within 72 hours - and sent its standard answer: "It doesn't violate our Community Standards."

Diversity of a community

The company told DW in a statement that it comes up against new content or borderline cases which put its policies to the test. "Because of the diversity of our global community, we do find that sometimes people may post things that may be disagreeable or disturbing to some but may not violate our Community Standards," Facebook said.

As a rule, due to the huge amount of content posted every single day, the company relies heavily on its users to report problems and infringements, said Cologne-based social media expert Hendrick Unger.

Hendrik Unger
Facebook is quick to eliminate sexual content, Unger saysImage: 36grad.de

Facebook has set up community standards on nudity, violence/graphic content and hate speech, but "sexual content that goes too far is blocked, that's their main topic," Unger said, adding that anything that even looks remotely phallic is removed. "Other comments, whether inciting hatred or racist, for some reason are not so high-priority that they would be deleted immediately."

Facebook invokes the freedom of opinion, Unger said - and that can be a fine line indeed.

Balancing interests

Hate speech toward individual groups "violates our guidelines and will be deleted immediately", the company wrote: content that "directly attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, serious disabilities or diseases."

Refugees are not defined as deserving of particular protection, so even nasty remarks directed toward them might still be in line with Facebook's Community Standards.

Naturally, the company isn't immune to political and public pressure, Unger told DW. "But often, it's a cumbersome, slow process, and it takes time for decisions to be taken."

So far, the social media expert's experience has been that Facebook holds fast to its standards, and that users really only have the option of either signing up or signing off. Whether it's an upsetting subject matter, or a change in the company's terms and conditions that might have implications for data protection, the company has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, Unger said. After all, Facebook is used to "problems and turmoil."

In Facebook's own words: "To balance the interests of this diverse population is a constant challenge."

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