Can Facebook’s New Initiative Help Curb Hate Speech in Europe?

The company launched a campaign on Monday with the German government.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, on Jan. 18 in Berlin. (Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
Jan 19, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Four months after Facebook agreed to work with the German government to fight anti-refugee hate speech, the social networking giant is delivering on its pledge. The company's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, met with politicians and advocates in Berlin on Monday to unveil the "Online Civil Courage Initiative," a new campaign aimed at curbing extremist rhetoric online across Europe.

"In the past year, we've seen millions of people come together online to support refugees and stand in solidarity with the victims of terrorist attacks," Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post accompanying the announcement. "But we've also heard voices of hate growing louder. With extremism damaging lives and societies around the world, challenging those voices has never been more important," she stated.

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The initiative plans to support European nongovernmental organizations by developing a set of best practices for fighting extremism. The joint effort of Facebook, the German government, and groups that include the nonprofit London-based think tanks International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue said it was working with experts to develop tools for social media users and the general public to combat hate speech encountered on the Internet.

It comes on the heels of German justice minister Heiko Maas' plea for Facebook to ban posts that violently target refugees entering the country. In the August letter to the California company, Maas said it was incomprehensible that "photos of certain body parts are automatically deleted because of moral concerns, yet racist and xenophobic statements aren't immediately removed," Bloomberg Business reported at the time. "There must be no mistaken tolerance for users that offensively preach xenophobia and racism," he said. Sandberg agreed to a partnership the following month.

Germany last year accepted a record 1.1 million refugees—the highest level since it began keeping track after World War II. But as the number of asylum seekers has surged, so too has anti-refugee sentiment in the country where men described as Arab and North African were alleged to have carried out a series of sexual assaults on New Year's Eve. Thirty-seven percent of Germans surveyed last week by the Berlin-based research firm Forsa Institute said their view of foreigners had worsened since the attacks.

Germany isn't the only country looking to Silicon Valley to help fight extremism online. Last month, the French government met with executives from Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and others to draft plans for preventing the spread of terrorist propaganda and expanding safety tools online in the event of an attack, The Verge reported. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Deputy Minister for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire are expected to convene a follow-up meeting later in January.