Europe tries to fight hate, harassment, and fake news without killing free speech

January 17, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers New Year's remarks to the press. Photo: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images.

A toxic combination of misinformation, hate speech, and online harassment is pushing several European countries to take action against social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But some believe their actions—however well-intentioned—run the risk of stifling free speech and putting dangerous restrictions on freedom of the press.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are all either discussing or are already in the process of implementing requirements for social networks to take measures to remove or block online hate speech, harassment, and so-called “fake news.”

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“The real concern here is that all of these measures cede control to unaccountable actors,” says Jillian York, the Berlin-based director for freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “These are knee-jerk proposals that fail to take into account the ways in which companies have failed to protect important speech, and are therefore unqualified to do the job.”

Facebook, for example, routinely removes content or blocks accounts without saying why, and even if the content or accounts are later reinstated, the company rarely explains why it made the decisions it did, except to cite its “community standards” rules.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech to journalists last week that he is considering legislation that would require social networks such as Facebook to be more transparent about who pays for sponsored content, and is also thinking about giving the French media regulator more power to block or remove “fake news” content.

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“If we want to protect liberal democracies, we must be strong and have clear rules,” Macron said, adding that France’s media watchdog, the CSA, would be given the power to fight against “any attempt at destabilization” by media outlets controlled or influenced by foreign states, such as the Kremlin-linked TV network Russia Today.

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Observers say the topic of fake news is of special interest for the French president because he sees himself as the victim of fake news stories that ran during the most recent election, including rumors that he was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, that he has offshore bank accounts, and that he is engaged in a secret homosexual affair.

Critics, however, say Macron’s proposed legislation would not actually solve the problem. “The law focuses on the trees rather than the forest,” French law professor Alberto Alemanno wrote in an essay for Politico. “As such, it will remain irrelevant and aggravate the root causes fueling the fake news phenomenon.”

In Germany, meanwhile, the primary concern is hate speech, and the government is much farther down the road than most other European nations when it comes to enforcing new rules. The recently implemented Enforcement on Social Networks Act requires social networks to remove specific kinds of content or face fines as high as $60 million.

The risks of this kind of measure backfiring have also quickly become obvious: Citing the German law, Twitter recently removed an account belonging to Titanic, a satirical magazine that posted tweets designed to be a parody of anti-Muslim sentiment.

In Germany, social companies face fines as high as $60 million.

Despite such incidents, observers say that a number of other European countries including France and the UK are watching Germany with interest, and are considering following its lead when it comes to introducing legislation aimed at forcing social networks to police their content.

Alison Langley, a freelance journalist and adjunct professor of communications at Webster University in Geneva, says that the moves by France, Germany, and the UK come amid growing concern about the actions of the Russian government in conducting a misinformation war online, something that she says predates the US election. A recent report by the US Senate came to a similar conclusion.

“The EU has been fighting this for some time, and even NATO is worried about how this is affecting the Baltic states and Ukraine,” Langley says. “The problem with disinformation in general is a lot more sophisticated than what people see in the United States. And when it comes to hate speech, Europe has been rocked by self-radicalized extremists, and they feel they need to combat that problem while still keeping the right to free expression.”

That line is a difficult one for social networks to find in some cases. Within days of the new German hate-speech law going into effect, the network suspended the account of Beatrix von Storch, the deputy leader of the country’s right-wing Alternative for Germany party, after she made racist comments about Muslims.

While France is concerned about fake news and Germany worries about hate speech, in the United Kingdom the government has put pressure on the social networks—and raised the threat of potential legislation—because it believes that online harassment aimed at politicians and other public figures puts democracy at risk.

The UK government worries that online harassment aimed at politicians puts democracy at risk.

A recent report from the Committee on Standards for Public Life took Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to task for aiding and abetting the harassment of politicians.

“Social media can lead to widespread access to ideas and information, but they can also facilitate abuse by those who seek to see certain individuals pushed out of public life,” the authors of the report said. “Some MPs and candidates have disengaged entirely from social media due to the intimidation they have received.”

Among other things, the committee recommended new legislation to make social-media companies liable for illegal content and to force them to remove content that might be legal but could also be seen as “intimidatory.”

Critics in the UK such as the Index on Censorship, however, say a requirement that media outlets consider whether their content might “undermine public trust in the political system” would be a gift to any politician who wants to challenge a news story, according to Index on Censorship Chief Executive Jodie Ginsberg. “Rather than enhance democracy and freedoms, as this report claims to want to do, this risks damaging it further,” she said in a public statement.

While the US has the First Amendment, which provides even hateful speech with significant legislative protection, many European countries have a much more nuanced view of the balance between free speech and social order. But that is making it even harder for them to figure out where to draw the line, or where to have social networks draw it for them.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.