Facebook Criticised After Running Ad Paid for by German Neo-Nazis

The company admitted that the advert breached its own hate-speech policies.
NPD supporters on a demonstration in Berlin. Photo: Ulli Winkler/ullstein bild via Getty Images​
NPD supporters on a demonstration in Berlin. Photo: Ulli Winkler/ullstein bild via Getty Images

An anti-extremist group says Facebook is still profiting from hate speech, after a German neo-Nazi party was allowed to place racist political advertising on the platform, in breach of the site’s own policies.

The ad – which Facebook has since found to have violated its own hate speech policy, following inquiries from VICE World News – was paid for by a branch of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD) in March. British anti-extremist group Hope Not Hate revealed the existence of the ad in a new report looking at the use of paid-for advertising by German radical-right parties.

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The ad was posted by an NPD branch in Lahn-Dill-Kreis, in the central German state of Hesse, ahead of local elections on the 14th of March. It depicted a silhouette of a man in Middle Eastern headdress, with the slogan: "We wish you a safe journey home!"

A Facebook advert paid for by the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), revealed by the Hope Not Hate report, "The radical right and paid-for Facebook advertising in Germany"

Hope Not Hate said the ad – which ran for two days, reaching between 2,000-3,000 people, at a cost of less than 100 euros – clearly implied that immigrants who hailed from that region should be deported, in a blatant breach of Facebook’s guidelines.

On Wednesday, a Facebook company spokesperson said the ad had been found to violate its own hate speech rules, which include a prohibition on calls for the exclusion or expulsion of certain groups.

“Our enforcement is not perfect, but we’re always working to strengthen and improve our processes,” said the spokesperson in a statement. Facebook says all ads are run through its ad review system before going live, but acknowledges that both the machine and human elements of the process can make mistakes.

Despite its pledge to crack down on hate speech, Facebook has faced plenty of criticism for its efforts. It previously had to remove paid-for ads by the far-right party Britain First which it had ran despite having banned the group from the platform months earlier.

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Gregory Davis, a researcher at Hope Not Hate, said the findings of the new report were concerning.

“Our report highlights that Facebook’s moderation practices are insufficient and do not live up to their own policies,” he told VICE World News. “It is deeply troubling that Facebook is profiting from racist advertising on its platform.

He said that although the cost involved meant they weren’t their primary form of messaging, far-right groups like the NPD used paid-for Facebook advertising to extend their reach to a wider audience than their existing online followers. 

“There are at least two forms of harm here – firstly, the normalisation of far-right and racist talking points, and secondly, the harm done to the affected communities themselves if they are shown these adverts,” he said.

The NPD is a fringe ultra-nationalist political party typically described as a neo-Nazi group. In 2017, Germany’s Supreme Court rejected a bid to outlaw the party, finding that, while it sought to eliminate Germany’s free democratic order, it lacked the ability to pose any real threat.

Hope Not Hate’s report found another example of questionable paid-for advertising, posted by an NPD branch in a neighbouring district of Hesse in March, that appeared to be in breach of Facebook’s guidelines. The ad showed a cityscape dominated by mosques, with the text: "No more mosques and prayer houses." But Facebook said it had reviewed the ad and found no breach of its policies.

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The Hope Not Hate report found that Facebook was a vital tool for far-right parties, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) – Germany’s largest opposition party – far outperforming other parties in the German parliament in terms of its reach on the platform. It had more than half a million followers on its official page – more than twice the number of followers of the ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union – and its posts were shared five times more than the Greens, whose posts were the second-most shared.

Research had found that the AfD’s success was due to producing a lot of posts that latched onto recent news stories, and pushed emotive messaging playing off fears around crime, immigration and identity. This reflected a global trend. The report found that, “the emotive and provocative themes beloved of populist right-wing movements and ideologues are well-suited to achieve viral success on Facebook.”

Nicholas Potter, a researcher at German anti-racist group Amadeu Antonio Foundation told VICE World News that the fact that the racist ad had made its way on to the platform was “completely unacceptable.”

“Facebook has to ask itself why a far-right party like the NPD is still able to spread its propaganda and racist ideology when hate is officially supposed to have no place on the platform,” he said.