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Hate Speech: A Lesson From 1930s Germany: Beware State Control of Social Media


This article at The Atlantic by Heidi Tworek had as a sub-title – Regulators should think carefully about the fallout from well-intentioned new rules and avoid the mistakes of the past.

This is an excellent article and fully repays the time spent reading it.

I will only quote a few points, as this really needs to be read in it’s entirety.

The history of radio, and in particular how it was regulated in interwar Germany, is more relevant than ever: Five years ago, the question was whether we would regulate social media. Now the questions are how and when we will regulate them. As politicians and regulators in places as disparate as Berlin, Singapore, and Washington—even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—consider how best to do so, we should think carefully about the fallout from well-intentioned new rules and avoid the mistakes of the past.

This article is dated 27 May, yet despite NZ Media banging on about the Christchurch Call and Ardern’s global leadership role – it was not mentioned.

Then Tworek, after exploring what happened in Germany under Goebbels, notes:

The Nazi example, though extreme, reminds us that well-intentioned laws can have tragic unintended consequences. Singapore, for example, has passed the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill, allowing the country’s government to require platforms and private chat apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram to remove what the authorities see as false statements “against the public interest.” The law also enables officials to prosecute people who spread those false statements, although the law does not define what it means by a “false statement.” The deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division told the BBC that the law was “a direct threat to freedom of expression and is something the entire world should be alarmed about.”

One can just imagine how such a law might appeal to some in NZ.

She explores in some detail a new German law NetzDG. This comment struck home:

Known colloquially as a “hate speech law,” NetzDG was arguably the first and most wide-ranging effort by a democracy to hold social-media companies responsible for speech on their platforms. One poll showed that 87 percent of Germans agreed with the law, but it drew sharp criticism from journalists, civil-society activists, academics, and the tech industry. Many signed a declaration that the law “jeopardizes the core principles of free expression.”

The law illustrated a deeper disagreement on the role of free speech in a democracy. Some West German politicians across the spectrum had in an earlier era argued for a “militant democracy” (wehrhafte Demokratie), where rights such as free speech could be curbed to guard broader democratic norms. During the creation of NetzDG, then Justice Minister (and current Foreign Minister) Heiko Maas built on the tradition of militant democracy to assert that “freedom of speech has boundaries.”

At the same time, many worried that the law provoked the Streisand effect: the idea that censoring or removing information actually publicizes it

Again, I suspect quite a few in NZ would assert “freedom of speech has boundaries.”, and fail to understand the implications.

Finally she writes, after noting the major concerns over the new German law:

We need to be wary of the long-term consequences of state control over content. The online world of social media has many problems and far more neo-Nazis than we might wish. Action is needed. But the actual history of Weimar and Nazi Germany can help us think more critically about current policy suggestions and move beyond mud-slinging comparisons with the fascist past.

It is time for politicians to take the regulation of social media seriously. In the long run, however, they must be careful not to undermine the freedoms and the political system that they seek to protect.

I agree wholeheartedly. In NZ I am fearful that the Ardern regime will cloak their illiberal leanings in a cloak of concern and Jacindadust and the ‘wellbeing’ mantra, whilst materially eroding our right to free speech. They will be aided by many in the media and to some extent by a National Party which appears disinclined at present to actively champion free speech.

See here as well on concerns over the Christchurch Call which echo Tworek’s piece.


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