When you think about hate speech on Facebook, generally the assumption might be that it’s coming from users aimed at other users. Everyone’s familiar with the inevitable devolution of the comment thread. Where someone says something, someone else takes offense, and suddenly everyone is evil incarnate. You know, Godwin’s Law.
But German authorities have begun a hate speech investigation into allegations that may surprise many users – complaints against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The allegations come from attorney Chango Jun, whose complaint includes not only Zuckerberg but also other Facebook executives such as CEO Sheryl Sandberg, as well as European executives Martin Ott, Garth Lambe, and Richard Allan. The “meat” of the complaint: Facebook “acted unlawfully by failing to remove many posts that incite hatred or violence.”
According to CNN, Jun’s evidence includes “hundreds of posts targeting migrants, denying the Holocaust, expressing support for terror groups, and calling for violence…”
Jun brought his complaints to Sandberg, but, he says, received no satisfactory answer to his allegations. Facebook, for its part, released the following statement: “There has been no violation of German law by Facebook or its employees. There is no place for hate on Facebook. We work closely with partners to fight hate speech and foster counterspeech…”
While Facebook said Jun’s complaints lacked merit, company executives admitted hate speech is a problem on the social network. They have pledged, along with Twitter, to delete hate speech on the network within 24 hours of it being posted.
Jun believes Facebook isn’t living up to that standard, telling the media, “For the first time, there is also the political will to impose sanctions against Facebook.”
German authorities are, indeed, investigating Jun’s complaint, and Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the nation could hold Facebook criminally liable for “failing to remove hate speech in a timely manner.”
But who gets to decide what “timely” means and what will that decision mean for users worldwide who might hold offensive opinions? If the Germans try to delineate where the line between “free” and “hate” speech is, how will that play in other cultures where folks may not like what is said, but they protect the right to say it? At what point will authorities decide speech has crossed the line?
The one question answered in this is that the issue isn’t going away without a fight, and without Facebook’s users weighing in.