Weekly Review Free speech in a time of hate speech

Germany, of all places, finds itself on the front line in the clash between purveyors of hate speech and fake news on one side, and defenders of free speech on the other.
Maas, birdie, von Storch. Credit: Dpa, Twitter [M]

History repeats itself, as Karl Marx famously observed, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It is a pity Marx wasn’t alive and visiting his native country this week to scowl and chuckle at a minor tragicomedy that nonetheless presages a major conundrum facing all Western democracies: how to preserve free speech in a time of rising hate speech and fake news – and ideally, without making everybody involved, including democracy itself, look moronic and risible in the process.

First, regale yourself with the farce. Germany has a populist and xenophobic party on the far right called the Alternative for Germany (AfD). It thrives on two things: 1) pandering to resentments against brown-skinned people and Muslims and 2) playing victim at the hands of a “politically correct” press and “elite”. One of the AfD’s leaders is an aristocratic woman named Beatrix von Storch, who dons stern blazers and a huge chip on her shoulder. Considering herself God’s gift to wit, Ms. von Storch, on New Year's Eve, took to Twitter.

It had come to her attention, you see, that the police in Cologne were tweeting to revelers on their way to the fireworks by the central train station. “Celebrate — with respect,” the cops were tweeting, and not only in German but also in English, French, Persian, and — wait for it — Arabic. This would seem sensible in a multicultural city, not to mention refreshingly cosmopolitan. It is also practical in a city where, on New Year’s Eve in 2015, groups of North African men had groped and molested scores of women.

That was not Ms. von Storch’s take, unsurprisingly. “What in hell is happening in this country?,” she tweeted. “Why is an official police station in North Rhine-Westphalia tweeting in Arabic. Are they hoping in this way to assuage the barbaric, Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men?”

And why is the German police using Arabic numerals anyway? I’m not going to dial 110 as I’m being raped by the barbaric hordes! Titanic, spoofing Beatrix von Storch

The appropriate – and most effective – response to such utterances is satire, which was promptly forthcoming. Titanic, a satirical magazine, immediately spoofed “bvs”, tweeting in her name the logical follow-up: “And why is the German police using Arabic numerals anyway? I’m not going to dial 110 as I’m being raped by the barbaric hordes!” (“110” is to Germans what “911” is to Americans.)

This being Germany, however, humor is not officially recognized. Cue again Marx’s insight about the connection between history, tragedy and farce. The historical tragedy is that Germany went through this sort of thing before, in the 1920s and 30s, when the Nazis spouted such nonsense, with Jews taking the place of Muslims in the AfD's slanders. Then as now, fake news propagated this hate speech (albeit not yet in today’s broadband-internet caliber). That’s why Germany today, more stringently than any other free democracy, has laws against “incitement”.

Segue again to farce: Germany, also in part because of this tragic past, has more than the usual share of do-goody, world-saving, righteous types, who will do anything to make headlines with their righteousness, ideally by legislating. One such Gutmensch is Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat who is justice minister in the grand coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Often considered the best-dressed minister in Ms. Merkel’s cabinet (a low bar), Mr. Maas last year pushed through one of the daftest laws produced by this grand coalition (a high bar).

The Teutonic horror of its full name, Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, should have been a giveaway. Mr. Maas’s law requires social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to remove “illegal” content within 24 hours and fines them up €50 million if they don’t. Critics warned loudly about unintended consequences. Who exactly determines (in advance of a court case) what is “legal”? An algorithm? Twitter’s new intern? And why wouldn’t online media start “overblocking”, i.e. removing legal content just to be on the safe side? What, in short, will happen to free speech?

These objections were intelligent – and resolutely ignored. So here we are with the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz. It took effect on January 1st, with the tweets by Ms. von Storch and her satirical retinue still live and coursing. Twitter removed the offending tweet and blocked Ms. von Storch’s account for half a day.

This was a victory for Ms. von Storch and the AfD unlike any they could have hoped for. She immediately switched to her Facebook page to cry censorship. A martyr for free speech was born: “Happy New Year in a free country in which everyone can call barbarians barbarians, even if they are Muslims!” You are probably guessing what happened next. Yes, Facebook censored her, blocking the post. It didn't end there. Twitter, unable to detect satire and evidently playing it safe, also blocked the account of Titanic.

World, behold Germany: A country forever maimed by its past and the humorless, benighted reflexes to that past by the likes of Heiko Maas. The illusion here is that there is some shortcut – such as a hasty law with a big name – out of the hell we humans have collectively created for ourselves, in which haters are often better at lying than refuters at refuting.

“Every country gets the government it deserves,” said Joseph de Maistre, a philosopher who lived through the French revolution. He could have added that every society gets the social media and the speech it deserves. This points to a grown-up understanding of our dilemma.

The right path is not a Maas shortcut, but rather a long, hard slog in daily life that involves each and every one of us. It is up to each of us, not to a law, to evaluate what we hear and read, to reveal bigots to be bigots and idiots to be idiots, rather than sanctifying them as martyrs. The more hate speech there is, the more free speech we need, and the more responsibly we must use it. This is far too serious to succeed without humor. It may even be the challenge that defines our time, and us.

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