Mark Zuckerberg confronts 'hate speech' in Germany and at Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg examined hate-speech and free-speech restrictions, both at home and away, as he responded to Black Lives Matter issues at Facebook and anti-refugee commentary in Germany this week. 

Kay Nietfeld/REUTERS
Mathias Doepfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE, presents a picture and a newspaper to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (L) during the ceremony for the newly established Axel Springer Award in Berlin, Germany, February 25, 2016.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced on Friday in Berlin that he recognized that Facebook needs to crack down more on “hate speech” against migrants.

In response to the refugee crisis in Europe, and the resulting anti-migrant Facebook postings by neo-Nazi sympathizers, the social media platform hired 200 German employees to monitor the site.

At a Friday meeting attended by more than 1,000 Germans in Berlin, Mr. Zuckerberg told attendees that although it had not previously considered migrants a protected class, such as racial minorities, the platform was willing to admit its mistake.

"Learning more about German culture and German law has led us to change our approach on that," said Zuckerberg on Friday. "This is always a work in progress. I'm not going to claim up here today that we're perfect, we're definitely not."

Facebook opened an office in Berlin last month. According to the German news outlet Deutsche Welle, Facebook serves 28 million German users. Reuters reports that the number is closer to 21 million.

Facebook has been in discussions about privacy and hate speech with Germany for months. Last summer, it announced that it would conform to Germany’s strict hate speech laws and attempt to take down racist posts within a day.

In September, Facebook announced that it would work with the German Justice Ministry to crack down on anti-migrant posts. Under German law, social media users who incite hatred or violence against an ethnic or religious group can be punished by up to three years in jail.

“If people, using their own name, incite hatred against other people, not only the government has to act, but also Facebook should do something against those statements,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Rheinische Post.

Prosecuters in Hamburg have opened a lawsuit against Facebook’s Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe managing director, Martin Ott. They say that he hasn’t done enough to stem the tide of hate speech.

Facebook has also pledged more than $1 million dollars of support to the Online Civil Courage Initiative, which also enjoys support from the German Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection and a variety of nonprofits and non-governmental organizations.

“We have repeatedly emphasized that Facebook is no place for the dissemination of xenophobia, hate speech or calls for violence,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg of the Online Civil Courage Initiative. “With this new initiative, we are convinced to better understand and respond to the challenges of extremist speech on the internet.”

Zuckerberg must confront some of the same issues in the United States that he did in Germany. This past week, Zuckerberg issued an internal Facebook memo censuring employees for replacing Black Lives Matter statements on walls at company headquarters with “All Lives Matter.”

“We’ve never had rules around what people can write on our walls,” wrote Zuckerberg. “We expect everybody to treat each other with respect.”

Whenever speech restrictions arise, so do questions of free speech. The US Supreme Court first considered free speech and social media when it heard a case on First Amendment laws and Facebook posts after a Pennsylvania man reportedly threatened his estranged wife through rap lyrics posted on a Facebook wall.

Zuckerberg has stated that crossing out “Black Lives Matter” amounts to restricting others’ speech. In Germany, Justice Minister Heiko Maas indicated that anti-refugee speech goes “beyond the bounds of free speech,” and should therefore be restricted.

Free speech advocates may still have compaints. But as University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock tells The Christian Science Monitor by e-mail, “it can impose any limits its market will stand for.”

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