Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why people are fleeing to virtual Germany to escape internet Nazis

Ich bin ein Berliner. 

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.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Image: Getty
Show Hide image

Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.