It’s Merkel vs. Facebook as Germany Heads Into Election Year

  • Chancellor’s coalition seeks law to limit the site’s power
  • Key target is Net-savvy AfD party that denounces open borders

Angela Merkel.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

While celebrating the 2013 election victory that gave her a third term as German chancellor, Angela Merkel reached over a colleague’s shoulder and removed a German flag from his hand. A video of that small gesture, meant to declutter an image she knew would soon rocket around the globe, went viral on social media as purported evidence of Merkel’s lack of patriotism -- and is now spurring an effort to compel companies like Facebook Inc. to rein in hate speech and fake news.

As Merkel campaigns for a fourth term, her government is upping the pressure on Facebook and other social networks to curb the spread of malicious posts. Her party said Saturday it’s seeking legislation that would require Facebook and its peers to respond to complaints and delete such content within 24 hours or face fines. If passed, the proposal would be the stiffest regulation Facebook faces in any country where it operates.

“Social networks take too long to remove insults before they spiral out of control,” said Stephan Harbarth, a senior lawmaker of Merkel’s CDU party. “There are clear limits to freedom of speech in the real world that aren’t yet applied online and that needs to change. This is about hate posts as well as fake news.”

Harbarth said he would like to see the law enacted before this year’s national election, expected to be held in September. He insists it’s not intended to boost the CDU’s chances in the ballot, but rather to protect Germany’s democratic process against manipulation.

Berlin Meeting

Facebook will get a taste of the growing concern on Wednesday, when lawmakers from Merkel’s party will discuss the spread of “hate and distortion” on social media at a conference in Berlin with the company’s chief lobbyist in Germany, Eva-Maria Kirschsieper.

Facebook says it is grappling with ways to counter hate speech and xenophobic content, and that it aims to investigate and act upon flagged posts within 24 hours. The company says it will soon start working with independent fact checkers in Germany to identify fake news and tag such stories with a warning. During a visit to Berlin last year, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg vowed to rid the site of hate speech, saying about 200 people in Germany were working to remove racist posts.

“We’re aware of our responsibility and accept it unconditionally,” the company said in a statement.

For Nadine Schoen, a deputy CDU caucus leader, Facebook’s plans are welcome but don’t go far enough. The Menlo Park, California-based company should also support law enforcement by sharing internet addresses of users who post criminal content, she said.

Germany’s Justice Ministry will draft a bill that will include a “catalog of fines” for violations, Volker Kauder, Merkel’s top lieutenant in parliament, told reporters Saturday. Thomas Oppermann, his counterpart in the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s coalition partner, last month told Der Spiegel that the penalties could reach 500,000 euros ($532,000), and that sites like Facebook should also be required to publish corrections after removing criminal posts.

The fines “have to hurt, otherwise they won’t work,” Kauder said.

Merkel Photo

The flag video, which has racked up more than 1 million views on social media, is one of countless online attacks on Merkel. A fake photo showing the chancellor with blood on her hands was shared widely after last month’s terror assault at a Christmas market in Berlin, and a Syrian refugee’s selfie with Merkel has been used in fake posts so often that the man has taken Facebook to court for not deleting the image.

While Facebook had a slow start in Germany as it battled local clone studiVZ, it has in recent years eclipsed its rival, growing from about 4 million users in the country in 2009 to 28 million last year. It’s now Germany’s third-most popular site, after Google and YouTube, according to researcher SimilarWeb.

Posts on Facebook have helped fuel the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party fiercely critical of Merkel that took off last year after it started attacking the chancellor for her open-door immigration policies. The AfD blankets Facebook with anti-government messages several times a day with headlines like “Take your country back” and images such as one showing her face on a “wanted” poster.

CDU Concern

While it’s unclear how much of the buzz accompanying the AfD on social media will translate into actual voter support, Merkel’s campaign is concerned such posts could become a serious threat, according to a party official who asked not to be named discussing strategy. The CDU has three people monitoring social media and plans to add more to counter attacks, the person said.

What’s really needed, though, is stricter control of the kind of vicious attacks that have become commonplace online, according to Heribert Hirte, a CDU lawmaker who advocates dialog between Christians and Muslims. His social media comments, Hirte says, have sparked hateful replies and threatening posts.

“I’m being called a traitor and getting messages that say things like: ‘We know where you live,’” Hirte said. “Hate posts can have a real impact on public sentiment. That’s something we have to counter, and the AfD is helping to spread hate messages.”

— With assistance by Patrick Donahue

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