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5 December 2017updated 01 Jul 2021 12:15pm

Why people are fleeing to virtual Germany to escape internet Nazis

Ich bin ein Berliner. 

By Amelia Tait

It is no secret that Twitter has a Nazi problem. After nearly every update the site has rolled out in recent months, the response has been the same. “Thanks for the extra characters, but do you want to get started on that whole banning Nazis thing?”

The social network has promised various policy changes – and in August deleted accounts associated with the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer – but overall, fascists are still safe on the site. The American Nazi Party account has over 13,000 followers, while the deputy leader of the ultranationalist, extreme far-right group Britain First was recently retweeted by the 45th president of the United States. (Donald Trump, incidentally, is the first search result for the word “Nazi” on Twitter, presumably because of how many people tweet the term in conjunction with his name).

Short of a new policy by Twitter, then, people have been taking Nazi-hunting into their own hands. By blocking, muting, and training your eyes to glaze over like a Krispy Kreme as soon as soon as you see a frog avi, you can do a reasonable job of avoiding neo-Nazis on the site. But there is any easier way – recently publicised by journalist and author Virginia Heffernan.

“PSA. For anyone beset by Nazi and brownshirt bots: I changed my Twitter address to Germany at the suggestion of a shrewd friend, and they vanished. Germany has stricter hate-speech laws,” she tweeted last night. The writer’s location is now set to “Bad Wildbad, Deutschland” on the network. But why does this work – and what does it tell us about Twitter’s attitude to hate speech?

Legally, Twitter is obliged to hide Nazi content and symbols in Germany, thanks to section 86a of the German criminal code. Since 2012, an account is “withheld” in Germany if it features Nazi ideology, and certain tweets are greyed-out if they have been flagged for anti-Semitism.

Twitter’s support pages explain this policy, noting: “our goal is to respect our users’ expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws.” The page reiterates Twitter’s commitment to free speech, linking to a blog post in which a co-founder of the site writes: “we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

Yet Heffernan’s tweet highlights the sharp difference between what Twitter can and does do. In June, a user discovered that the account of Britain First leader Paul Golding was blocked in Germany, proving to many that Twitter is able to find and block Nazi accounts, and therefore simply chooses not to. This in itself is no real secret, as the social network has struggled against alienating any of its users while maintaining a commitment to (self-defined) free speech.

From 18 December, Twitter will enforce a new policy which suspends anyone affiliated with extremist hate groups from the site. It is yet to be seen whether this attempt will be whole-hearted and successful. In the meantime, if you want to block (some) neo-Nazi accounts by changing your location to Germany, simply:

  • Click on your avatar and click “Settings and Privacy” on the top right hand of your screen
  • Scroll down to “Content”
  • Change your Country to “Germany”

This will change your “country setting” and not your “profile location”, so you can still keep the location that shows up on the left-hand side of your profile as your real one (Heffernan chose to change hers to “Bad Wildbad”).

While this method helps those who want to avoid neo-Nazis, it does nothing to tackle the problem of swathes of young people being radicalised online. The normalisation of Nazism that has occurred on the network over the last few years (with many declaring their Nazism “ironic”) has bolstered far-right extremists to be more public with their views. Twitter’s failure to ban or suspend Nazi accounts has arguably fed into this now global phenomenon, which has already seen many victims. Yet in the mean time, short of big changes by the social network, virtual Germany has become the safest place to avoid Nazis online.

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