Browsing through her social media feed, Laura Dornheim is regularly stopped coldly by a new explosion of abuse against her, including from people threatening to kill or sexually assault her. Last year, one person said he was eager to meet her in person so he could break her teeth.
Dornheim, a candidate for a seat in parliament in Germany’s elections on Sunday, is often attacked for her support for abortion rights, gender equality and immigration. She is flagging some of the posts on Facebook and Twitter, hoping the platforms will remove the posts or the authors will be banned. She is generally disappointed.
“There might have been a case where something was deleted,” Dornheim said.
Harassment and abuse are all too common on the modern internet. Still, he was supposed to be different in Germany. In 2017, the country enacted one of the toughest online hate speech laws in the world. It forces Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to remove illegal comments, images or videos within 24 hours of notification, on pain of fines of up to 50 million euros ($ 59 million). Supporters hailed it as a turning point for internet regulation and a model for other countries.
But an influx of hate speech and harassment in the run-up to Germany’s elections, in which the country will choose a new leader to replace Angela Merkel, its longtime chancellor, has exposed some of the law’s weaknesses. Much of the toxic discourse, researchers say, comes from far-right groups and aims to intimidate female candidates like Dornheim.
Some critics of the law say it is too weak, with limited enforcement and oversight. They also argue that many forms of abuse are considered legal by platforms, such as certain types of harassment of women and public officials. And when companies remove illegal material, critics say, they often don’t alert authorities or share information about the posts, making it much harder to prosecute those posting the material. Another shortcoming, they say, is that small platforms like the Telegram messaging app, popular among far-right groups, are not subject to the law.
Free expression groups criticize the law on other grounds. They argue that the law should be abolished not only because it fails to protect victims of online abuse and harassment, but also because it sets a dangerous precedent for government internet censorship.
Country experience can shape politics across the continent. German officials are playing a key role in drafting one of the world’s most anticipated new internet regulations, a European Union law called the Digital Services Act, which will force Facebook and other online platforms to do more to fight against vitriol, disinformation and illegal content on their sites. Ursula von der Leyen, a German who is president of the European Commission, the executive body of the bloc of 27 countries, called for a European law that would list gender-based violence as a special crime category, a proposal that would include online attacks .
“Germany was the first to try and tackle this kind of online liability,” said Julian Jaursch, project director at German think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, which focuses on digital issues. “It is important to ask whether the law is working.
Marc Liesching, a professor at HTWK Leipzig who published an academic report on the policy, said that among the messages deleted by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, a large majority were classified as violating company policies, not the law. on hate speech. This distinction makes it more difficult for the government to measure whether companies are complying with the law. In the second half of 2020, Facebook deleted 49 million “hate speech” based on its own community standards, compared to 154 deletions they attributed to German law, he noted.
The law, said Liesching, “is not relevant in practice.”
With its history of Nazism, Germany has long tried to strike a balance between rights to free speech and a commitment to tackle hate speech. Among Western democracies, the country has some of the toughest laws in the world against incitement to violence and hate speech. Targeting religious, ethnic and racial groups is illegal, as is Holocaust denial and displaying Nazi symbols in public.
To address concerns that companies are failing to alert authorities to illegal messages, German policymakers have passed amendments to the law this year. They are demanding that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pass data to the police on accounts that publish material that German law would consider illegal speech. The Department of Justice has also been given more powers to enforce the law.
“The aim of our legislative package is to protect all those who are exposed to threats and insults on the Internet,” said Christine Lambrecht, Minister of Justice, who oversees the application of the law, after the adoption. amendments. “Anyone who engages in hate speech and utters threats should expect to be charged and convicted. “
Facebook and Google have filed a lawsuit to block the new rules, arguing that providing the police with personal information about users violates their privacy.
Facebook said that as part of a deal with the government, it is now providing more data on the complaints it receives. From January to July, the company received over 77,000 complaints, leading it to remove or block around 11,500 content under German law, known as NetzDG.
“We have zero tolerance for hate speech and support the goals of NetzDG,” Facebook said in a statement.
Twitter, which received around 833,000 complaints and deleted around 81,000 messages during the same period, said a majority of those messages did not meet the definition of illegal speech, but still violated the terms of service of the company.
“Threats, abusive content and harassment all have the potential to silence individuals,” Twitter said in a statement. “However, regulation and legislation like this also have the potential to dampen free speech by encouraging regimes around the world to legislate as a way to stifle dissent and legitimate speech.”
YouTube, which received about 312,000 complaints and removed about 48,000 pieces of content in the first six months of the year, declined to comment on anything other than saying it was in compliance with the law.
The amount of hate speech has become increasingly pronounced during the election season, according to researchers from Reset and HateAid, organizations that track hate speech online and push for stricter laws.
The groups examined nearly a million comments on far-right and conspiratorial groups on about 75,000 Facebook posts in June, concluding that about 5% were “highly toxic” or violated the law on speeches. hate online. Some of the worst content, including posts with Nazi symbolism, had been online for more than a year, the groups found. Of the 100 posts reported by the groups to Facebook, about half were deleted within days, while the rest remain online.
The election also saw a wave of disinformation, including false allegations of voter fraud.
Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old Green Party leader and the only female among the top candidates to succeed Merkel, has been subjected to a disproportionate amount of abuse compared to her male rivals from other parties, including including sexist slurs and disinformation. campaigns, according to the researchers.
Others have completely stopped running. In March, a former Syrian refugee candidate for the German parliament, Tareq Alaows, dropped out of the race after suffering racist attacks and violent threats online.
While many policymakers want Facebook and other platforms to be aggressive in filtering user-generated content, others fear allowing private companies to make decisions about what people can and cannot. not say. The far-right Alternative for Germany party, which criticized the law for unfairly targeting its supporters, pledged to repeal the policy “to respect free speech.”
Jillian York, author and free speech activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Berlin, said German law encourages companies to suppress potential perfectly legal offensives that violate free speech rights.
“Facebook doesn’t err on the side of caution, they just take it off,” York said. Another concern, she said, is that less democratic countries like Turkey and Belarus have passed laws similar to Germany’s so that they can classify certain documents criticizing the government as illegal.
Renate Künast, a former government minister who once invited a journalist to accompany her as she confronted in person individuals who had targeted her with online abuse, wants the law to go further. Victims of online abuse should be able to directly sue perpetrators of defamation and financial settlements, she said. Without this capacity, she added, online abuse will erode political participation, especially among women and minority groups.
In a 2019 survey of more than 7,000 German women, 58% said they did not share political views online for fear of abuse.
“They are using the verbal power of hate speech to force people to step back, leave their desks or not be candidates,” Künast said.
Dornheim, the parliamentary candidate with a master’s degree in computer science and having worked in the tech industry, said more restrictions were needed. She described the removal of her home address from public records after someone sent a package to her home during a particularly serious episode of online abuse.
Yet, she said, the harassment only strengthened her resolve.
“I would never give them the satisfaction of being silent,” she said.