Censorship Claim Twitter and Facebook block German politician's posts

Storm erupts after far-right AfD politician's posts are censored under new law combating hate speech on social media.
Beatrix von Storch, of the Alternative for Germany, in parliament.

In the first use of a new law that bans hate speech online, Twitter and Facebook have moved against a far-right German politician after she posted a racism-filled Tweet criticizing the police for wishing a happy new year in Arabic in addition to other languages.

Facing a fine of €50 million ($60 million) for failing to comply with the new rules, Twitter blocked for 12 hours the account belonging to Beatrix von Storch, who is the deputy parliamentary leader for the Alternative for Germany party. The anti-immigration party won 12.6 percent of the vote in last September’s national elections and entered the German parliament for the first time. She then repeated the Tweet on Facebook, which deleted it, saying it had received complaints that it violated local laws against incitement.

Police said Ms. Von Storch is being investigated for incitement, which is a crime in Germany. But other leaders of the AfD, as then party is known in Germany, attacked the US social media firms for censorship for enforcing the new German law, which took effect Monday. Alice Weidel, parliamentary leader for the party, also had her account temporarily shut down.

The law puts companies under enormous time pressure when checking reported content. Bernhard Rohleder, chief executive, Bitkom

The train of events began when Cologne police tweeted a New Year’s greeting in Arabic. Ignoring similar posts in other languages -- including English and French —, Ms. von Storch shot back on Twitter: "What the hell is happening in this country? Why is an official police site tweeting in Arabic? Do you think it is to appease the barbaric, gang-raping hordes of Muslim men?”

That was a reference to the fact that Cologne was the scene two years ago of sexual assaults of hundreds of German women during New Year celebrations. Recent Muslim asylum seekers were accused of committing the crimes.

After Ms. von Storch's tweet was deleted, she vented on Facebook along the same lines. But within a few hours, her Facebook post was erased too. The AfD's deputy leader then wrote: “Facebook has now also censored me. This is the end of the rule of law.”

Both Twitter and Facebook as well as YouTube had campaigned against adoption of the new law, called the Network Enforcement Act, which gives social media firms 24 hours to remove content considered sedition, a threat, insult or slander. Civil rights groups have also raised concern about the possible chilling effect on free speech the law could have.

“The (law) puts companies under enormous time pressure when checking reported content,” said Bernhard Rohleder, the CEO of computer industry association Bitkom . “The high fines reinforce this pressure. This will inevitably lead to the deletion of permitted content.”

It's unclear whether tweets from President Trump and other politicians. for example, could be deleted if they mention Muslims and social media users in Germany complain about them.

Facebook has been under extreme pressure since the US presidential election, when it was disclosed that thousands of news posts on the social media website were fake reports created by Russian websites with the intention of discrediting the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Johannes Steger is an editor with Handelsblatt’s companies and markets desk in Düsseldorf. Charles Wallace is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To reach the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]