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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.

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.