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Monday 23 April 2018

Meanwhile in Deutschland: die Redefreiheit

April seems to have become an impromptu 'Free Speech' month for me, so I couldn't really ignore this story from the BBC Trending...

So, for those of you that are unable to watch this news video I will make a brief précis, otherwise skip ahead to the second section.

Sektion Ein. "Is a new hate speech law killing German comedy?"

The new German hate speech law, which was passed last year, requires companies to remove 'hate speech' from their social media or face huge fines.

Sophie Passmann is a writer and radio host who works for satirical late-night talk  show Neo Magazin Royale. After last year's annual presentation of 'Dinner for One', a German New Year's institution, Passmann posted this comment of twitter:
"As long as it's tradition here to watch Dinner for One on New Year's Eve, refugees are welcome to come here and destroy our culture."
Passmann explains that the subject of the joke was those people who really believe that refugees do indeed 'destroy culture' which she believes is a stupid position. However, due to the language involved, the comment was flagged by Twitter and she was informed that it would be deleted to comply with German law. However, after a few days being headline news, Twitter reversed their decision and the tweet was allowed back online.

Similarly, the cartoonist Schwarwel had a cartoon withdrawn from Facebook for using 'offensive language'. His cartoon was intended to mock the recent H&M controversy and had used a racial slur although he had put it in the mouth of a member of AfD, a right-wing German political party. After complaining to Facebook himself, Schwarwel was told that it was not due to the new German law and had been taking down 'in error'. Facebook responded when questioned about how they are implementing the new law:
"Facebook reviews every NetzDG report carefully and with legal expertise, where appropriate. Facebook is not pursuing a strategy to delete more than necessary."
Although another comedian, Michel Abdollahi, thinks that although Passmann's tweet did not deserve to be removed that the law is worthwhile otherwise. Although it is not perfect, it will develop over the next few years, but that the intention set out by the law is something important.

The German government has said that it is open to re-evaluating the law in a few years if needed.

Sektion Zwei. Language is not neutral, but computer algorithms are.

The problem here is that Passmann's comment can be read in either way, if you are not familiar with the context, her comedy style, or other factors. Admittedly, it only takes a short examination to determine that there was no malicious intent, however, Twitter (standing-in for all of social media in this example) does not have the luxury of time nor of analysis. Their system works based on a strict interpretation of the law and is flagged to them by a computer algorithm that searches for uses of particular phrases and words (I would assume).

I think it is unlikely that they review each individual case of deletion, unless it is brought to their attention, i.e. via news media. This seems a massive waste of time, until we consider that (1) if gives the press something to write about and better yet, something to complain about, and (2) it does the job of highlighting what was actually an innocuous tweet or attempted joke from those that are not for Twitter, saving them the time/money of employing a real person (or team of people) to 'filter' through these comments and make a perspective judgement on the language being used.

Concerning Schwarwel's cartoon, when is an ethnic slur a joke? Part of the problem here is that the use of certain words and phrases elicits an immediate negative reaction, one that can forerun and overtake any other intention in its use. This, indeed, is the wider problem in continuing to perpetuate the language of bigotry, even if the intent is to somehow undermine or devalue its usage, it requires more than simply repeating the stock phrases of racists.

The law is a blunt instrument. Although the onus is placed upon the law to mediate each situation correctly, ultimately it cannot, in much the same way as the algorithms of Twitter and Facebook merely flag 'inappropriate' language without being able to interpret the contextual use of that language or worse relying on users flagging offensive content themselves (those 'reporting' might have ulterior motives beyond simply civic duty). The final responsibility must fall with those using the language, both at an individual and societal level.

It is a failing to merely reflect the responsibility back to the law and say that if you want free speech you must also accept hate speech. I have already agreed with the folk wisdom, 'there is no right not to be offended' but there is also no right to say whatever you wish in any situation without consequence. To be part of a free society means making certain allowances, agreed behaviours, and drawing limits for tolerance. All within it's context, of course. This should be an ongoing discussion, democratically.

Finally, in this story there is an unstated assumption about Germany that I know British people and I would suspect others make also (especially Europeans and Americans). It is that Germany has more reason to implement laws of this nature due to their recent history, which is often used as a way of excusing our own nationalistic/imperialistic crimes of the past (of which the UK has multitudes, indeed, all nations do). This is a worryingly restrictive viewpoint, as it casts one nation as the 'wrong-doer' and the other (ourselves) as the moral 'hero'. Sadly the reality of our ethical natures is far muddier than fiction paints it, again, this acceptance/realisation relies of responsibility both individual and social. Something that Germany have taken the first step towards. Viel Glück!