Facebook's European Head Faces Investigation Over Hate Speech Claims

Hate Speech in Germany
A member of BAGIDA, the Bavarian section of the anti-immigration movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), holds a poster depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a march in the centre of Munich in January this year. Anti-refugee posts have appeared on Facebook. Michael Dalder/Reuters

German prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into Facebook's European head due to complaints that the social media platform is not removing posts containing hate speech related to the country's influx of refugees.

Under German law, anyone who makes a public comment that incites hatred or violence against a person on the grounds of ethnicity or religion can face up to three years in prison. Under the same law, a person can be imprisoned for attacking the "human dignity of a person or group of people by insulting that group." Politicians have grown concerned that hate speech, and even outbreaks of violence, are growing throughout Germany, as the country prepares to receive more than one million asylum seekers by the end of the year.

Prosecutors in Hamburg are now focusing an investigation on Facebook's Managing Director for Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, Martin Ott, who is based in the city.

Lawyer Chan-jo Jun, who filed the complaint last month, says he has reported 200 posts that he claims violate German law, some of which are extremely graphic. Jun himself has also been the victim of racist tweets from right-wing extremists since he began his crusade against Facebook.

One post on the site, seen by Newsweek, shows the body of a small girl allegedly beheaded by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Another shows the body of a decapitated man surrounded by severed heads. Accompanying comments on the posts angrily accuse the German chancellor Angela Merkel of inviting murderers to enter the country, conflating asylum seekers with ISIS militants. Other posts contain Nazi symbols and comments calling on refugees to be sent to the gas chambers or be shot.

Prosecutors say Ott may be held responsible for not removing the posts in question, according to Reuters. It is the first time that Facebook, rather than the individuals posting the offensive comments, has been targeted, according to the German newspaper Der Spiegel. Yet the investigation is at a very early stage, and prosecutors still need to establish whether the online content is criminal and whether Ott is responsible before any charges can be brought. If they find that Ott is not responsible, they will have to say who is.

While some of the posts Jun has reported have been taken down in the past few weeks, it is unclear whether this was by Facebook or individual users, and no reasons have been given by Facebook as to why they have been removed, according to Jun.

"There is no system behind it," he says. "Posts have been taken down that could be defended due to the right to freedom of speech—posts that read that all refugees are arseholes, for example—whereas others, calling for mass murder of refugees with machine guns, have not been taken down. It makes no sense."

The image of the beheaded girl remains on Facebook, almost a month after Jun first reported it. Jun says Facebook told him that the distressing picture is in line with community standards.

Facebook has rejected the allegations that it is violating German law. In a statement, a representative said that while it would not comment on a "possible investigation," hate speech, incitement or glorification of violence violates Facebook's community standards.

"The allegations lack merit and there has been no violation of German law by Facebook or its employees," the statement reads. "It is important to note that there are several ways to report content on Facebook. We urge people to use our reporting tools if they find content that they believe violates our standards so we can investigate and take swift action."

Facebook did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment on the picture of the dead girl.

Jun says he is determined to carry on reporting posts he claims are criminal, in order to improve attitudes in Germany.

"It's very meaningful to spend my time and resources on this," he says. " It's hard work but if I can succeed here and make a point and convince Facebook to abide by German law, it could change society."