German Facebook use linked to refugee violence as AfD boost online presence

Facebook Demonstration in front of the European Commission in Brussels. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Recently published research has uncovered parallels between hate-fuelled Facebook posts and an increase in racially-motivated attacks on refugees in Germany, with material from the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party page under the spotlight.

Academics studied 3,335 incidents over a two-year span and found that “right-wing anti-refugee sentiment on Facebook” may have led to a spate of violent attacks against refugees in the country.

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The paper, entitled ‘Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate’ was penned by researchers from the University of Warwick Carlo Schwarz and Karsten Müller and shows that “social media has not only become a fertile soil for the spread of hateful ideas but also motivates real-life action”.

The most common incidents include damage to refugee housing, assaults, anti-refugee demonstrations and arson attacks.

Speaking to EURACTIV, researcher Carlo Schwartz said: “Social media is distinguishable from other types of technologies because it encourages active rather than passive engagements. It fosters an environment in which users are trapped amongst those who share the same profiles and perspectives as each other.

“The Facebook model allows for echo chambers of radical opinions to form, where comments and likes offer the user the opportunity of receiving positive reinforcement for posts,” he said.

The social media giant responded to the claims: “Our approach on what is allowed on Facebook has evolved over time and continues to change as we learn from experts in the field,” a spokesperson from Facebook told EURACTIV.

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The findings come amid rising racial tensions across Germany, where social media engagements have become more and more relevant in chasing votes.

In March, Bloomberg reported that the anti-immigrant AfD party hired a team of political social media consultants in the weeks leading up to the German election. The American group, Harris Media, had previously worked with President Trump, Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After drawing the support of Harris Media, the AfD went on to become the third strongest force in the German Parliament, capturing 12.6% of the votes in the 2017 election.

The party had previously faced harsh criticism in 2016 for leading calls to destigmatise the Nazi-era term, “völkisch.” During the Third Reich, the term was used to distinguish German people from Jews and other minorities.

Schwarz and Müller’s research zoned in on the social media activities of the AfD. They highlighted the facts that the AfD has more followers on Facebook than any other German political group and that the party does not explicitly outline any codes of conduct for users to post material on their page.

In terms of the ways in which future online hate crimes could be stemmed, Schwarz is wary of directly advocating for policy reform or a tighter regulatory framework.

“The burden of responsibility lies with the end user,” he said. “We should all actively seek out opinions and perspectives that differ from our own, across a broad spectrum of internet platforms.”

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