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Online abuse and far-right propaganda have increased dramatically in the past 18 months, a new study shows. Social media giants have committed to the government taskforce, but there is still much to be done.
Online racist abuse and hate speech have exploded in Germany in the past 18 months, a new report by the anti-racism foundation Antonio Amadeu Stiftung (AAS) has found, with calls for violence against refugees, false stories and rumors about their crimes, and neo-Nazi slogans (often disguised to avoid litigation) all on the rise.
The 22-page report, released this week, also found a connection not only with the increase in violence against refugees and refugee homes, but also with an increase in "conspiracy-ideology" attacks on politicians, journalists and volunteers helping refugees.
The report found that social media was acting as a powerful amplifier for abuse. "The monitoring report reveals that the agitation is intensifying in the social media," AAS chairwoman Anetta Kahane said in a statement. "The dimensions of hate reach from racist agitation, celebrating the reports of attacks on refugees and arson attacks on asylum homes up to agitation against volunteers who help refugees, journalists, administrators, and politicians."
Skepticism about politics on the rise
There has also been an increase in agitation from across the political spectrum against authorities, the media,and NGOs, according to the foundation - as well as a growing mistrust of the mainstream media and politicians.
"On the social web we are observing the building up of a dangerous front from different political spectrums, but which are increasingly finding a common denominator, and that is 'hate against the system'," Kahane said. "What is noticeable: the longer that agitation on the Internet against refugees continues, the more often one finds conspiracy-ideological statements. Politicians become 'traitors,' journalists are defamed as 'lying press' and supporters from civil society are described as 'dirty leftist do-gooders'."
The report was produced to coincide with Tuesday's release of the latest federal intelligence agency (BfV) report on politically motivated crime in Germany, which noted a 42-percent rise in acts of far-right violence in 2015.
The AAS also detected a more insidious trend - websites set up by far-right groups to appeal specifically to the middle classes. AAS found some 300 "no to refugee homes" Facebook profiles, which, they argued, were designed to appeal to "concerned citizens," by using local information and consciously unprofessional design to attract people with fears and concerns about planned refugee homes. This, they said, was generating support for the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).
"There are a number of signs, but you have to look at these pages more closely," said Johannes Baldauf, one of the authors of the report. "A good sign is always - what kind of language is used there. Are there words like 'system press,' do they claim that you can't believe the press, or that politicians are all corrupt." Another sign used by such profiles, he said, was links to sources that are not credible.
Often, Baldauf argued, it's clear that more extremist organizations are behind such sites. "If the NPD [far-right National Democratic Party] says something like, 'we're against refugees,' then it's very clear for people - that's a taboo," he said. "But if someone else comes along and says, 'I'm really concerned if so many refugees come, there will be problems with drugs and they want to attack our women,' then it has a different effect, even though the content is the same. But if there is an NPD logo there, then a lot fewer people listen."
Facebook's transparency problem
Last December, the German Justice Ministry set up a taskforce to combat online hate speech, and enlisted social media giants Facebook and Twitter to help stamp it out. But Philip Scholz, Justice Ministry spokesman, said that while those companies had acknowledged their responsibility, more could be done.
"It's not enough. The AAS report confirms that," Scholz told DW. "Even though it joined the taskforce, and made certain commitments, Facebook is still very un-transparent. We don't know how many people are employed at Facebook to check the reported content. We don't even know how many complaints are made to Facebook and what percentage of the content is deleted. So for us it is quite hard to judge what the actual reasons are."
"You have to say that the companies that earn a lot of money with the Internet have a responsibility to find an adequate solution," he added.
But Baldauf said there is plenty that the state could do, as well, especially when it comes to comments on Facebook posts, rather than statements made by operators of certain pages. "That's a negotiation between the state and the company, and there's still a lot both sides could do," he said. "The companies have to give criminal prosecutors access to certain things. But the structures that the state puts at the disposal of these things are not adequate either."