With Facebook having announced last week the launch of measure to flag and eliminate fake news from appearing on its website, Germany does not think the process is fast enough, and according to Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas, German judges and state prosecutors need to crack down straight away on fake news disseminated through social media platforms such as Facebook. Interviewed by Bild am Sontag, Maas, a Social Democrat in conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, has repeatedly warned the U.S. technology company to respect laws against defamation in Germany that are more rigid than in the United States and added that the newspaper the principle of free speech does not protect against slander.
Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas
"Defamation and malicious gossip are not covered under freedom of speech," Maas said cited by Reuters, just days after other top government officials called for legislation to tackle "hate speech" and fake news on Facebook and other social media platforms. He added that the government is keeping close tabs on how efficiently Facebook removes illegal content. If removal rates fail to grow, “urgent legal consequences” could follow.
Urging a criminal crackdown, the Justice Minister said "authorities must prosecute [hate speech], even on the internet," noting that offenders could face up to five years in jail. "Anyone who tries to manipulate the political discussion with lies needs to be aware (of the consequences)."
“We expect significant improvements in Facebook’s removal practice. The standard for removals must be German law,” Maas told Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Friday.
Under German law, which states that spreading information that encourages violence against people due to their ethnic or religious background, hate speech - including online comments - is punishable by up to three years in jail. Yet while more than 218,000 cases involving insults were filed with prosecutors in 2015 under Germany's strict libel and slander laws, few internet cases were prosecuted.
Maas said he wants to change that: "We need to fully utilize all the legal authority at our disposal," he said.
Earlier in the week, the parliamentary chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), Thomas Oppermann, asserted that social media giants like Facebook should be required to remove fake news and illegal posts within 24 hours or face fines up to €500,000 ($522,000). “Facebook has not used the opportunity to effectively regulate the issue of complaint management itself,” Oppermann said in an interview with Der Spiegel on Friday. Therefore, “market dominating platforms like Facebook will be legally required to build a legal protection office in Germany, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he added.
As reported previously, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) party has acknowledged in a statement that, while social media platforms offer “completely new possibilities of political communication,” they also harbor some dangers. The CDU claimed on Friday that Facebook and other social media sites have increasingly become platforms for spreading ‘fake news’ and hate messages, citing manipulation of political discussions on the web as one of the greatest dangers. “Companies are responsible for what happens on their platforms. That is why they have to react,” Volker Kauder, a senior CDU member, noted.
Proposed legislation would oblige social media platforms to set up offices to respond to complaints from people affected by hateful messages. “High penalties” would await companies that fail to meet their responsibilities, he warned. On Thursday, Facebook said in a statement that, although it believes in “giving people a voice,” it is currently working on measures to prevent fake news from spreading on the platform, including “several ways to make it easier to report a hoax if you see one on Facebook.”
Escalating the crackdown against the social network, last week the International Auschwitz Committee accused Facebook of “poisoning the societal climate” in Germany and overseas, warning that the social media giant’s soft treatment and arrogance towards online hate speech is “increasingly intolerable and dangerous.” Facebook “continues to massively participate in the poisoning of the social climate, not only in Germany,” said Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee (IAC), as quoted by German news agencies.“
"Obviously, the responsible persons at Facebook neither take the [German] justice minister nor the German legislator seriously,” he added.
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Ultimately, the reason behind the German urgency to crack down on Facebook likely stems from the German politicians' fear that hate speech and ‘fake news’ could influence public opinion ahead of the federal elections next year, with far-right parties gaining momentum on growing discontent with Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy.
Fears of "fake news" ahead of the election have increased after the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, reported a rise in Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilizing German society. As reported last week, "German Politicians Are Worried About "Striking Increase" In Russian Propaganda And Fake News," and now that Russians have become the global scapegoat (and even Britain has joined in) for any potential political upheavals, it is reasonable that Germany will use US concerns about Russian interference to starwman potential Russian interference ahead of the 2017 elections, especially if the result is an "unexpected" one.
"Facebook is earning an awful lot of money with fake news," Maas told Bild am Sonntag. "A company that earns billions from the internet also has a social responsibility. Prosecutable defamation must be deleted immediately, once reported. It needs to be made easier for users to report fake news."
Which, "under pressure" from politicians, is precisely what Facebook has started, in a move that while some applaud, others see a major threat to freedom of speech around the globe as Facebook, and its "fact checkers", are gradually becoming the de facto arbiters of what is and isn't news in a process that, as presented, provides no checks and balances to "check the fact checkers."