protest

This Artist Sprayed Racist Tweets in Front of Twitter's German HQ

Over the last six months, Shahak Shapira reported 300 racist, anti-Semitic and otherwise abusive messages to Twitter, but only 9 tweets were deleted.
08 August 2017, 12:06pm
All images courtesy of Shahak Shapira

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

When Shahak Shapira, 29, is angry about something happening online, he doesn't just tweet about it – he takes action. Back in January 2017, the artist and author started the #Yolocaust campaign. For that project, he took lighthearted snaps made by tourists in Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, and photoshopped archival images of concentration camps into those pictures – to show exactly how inappropriate it is to take a pic of yourself doing a handstand in a place like that. Last week, he decided to target the way Twitter deals with abusive messages.

On the morning of Friday the 4th of August, employees of Germany's Twitter headquarters in Hamburg had to walk past a series of abusive and hateful tweets sprayed onto the pavement in front of the building. One of the messages read, "Hitler did nothing wrong, the Holocaust is a lie". Another asked followers to "retweet if you hate Muslims". Next to the tweets, Shahak had sprayed his own message, "Hey Twitter, delete this shit".

According to Twitter's guidelines, tweets should not "promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease." In a video Shahak posted on YouTube explaining this project, called #HeyTwitter, he says he thinks the company doesn't take its own policy very seriously – over the last six months, he's reported hundreds of messages, to very little effect.

Shahak is not alone. In a Buzzfeed survey of 2,700 Twitter users last year, 90 percent of respondents who had reported an abusive tweet once, said Twitter had done nothing about it. In December 2016, an investigation by the European Commission found that the company is slower to delete hate speech than Facebook or YouTube. Around a month ago, the German parliament passed a law that requires social media platforms to delete or block criminal content within 24 hours. To make the point that this is still not happening, Shahak says, "I got my spray cans out". We spoke to the artist to find out what inspired his project and what he hopes it will achieve.

VICE: Where did the idea to do this come from?
Shahak Shapira: A while ago, I received an offensive tweet from this random woman, which I reported to Twitter. I don't remember what the message was exactly but for someone like me to report it, it had to be quite awful. The tweet wasn't deleted, so I took a screenshot of it and tweeted that image, to show Twitter hadn't taken any action. It was retweeted a thousand times.

A few days later, Twitter finally sent me a message saying that they'd deleted the tweet. I guess all the retweets of that screenshot had embarrassed them enough. I found it a little worrying they hadn't deleted it outright, but had to be socially shamed into doing that. That's when I decided to regularly start reporting hateful, racist, anti-Semitic tweets for six months and keep track of them, to see what would happen. In the end, I reported 500 posts to both Twitter and Facebook.

A racist tweet, reading, "Yet another bunch of wogs have arrived. Did they miss the exit to Auschwitz?"

Were all these messages sent to you?
No, most of them were sent to other people. It was important that the project wasn't just about myself – there's so much hatred on the internet.

Some of the tweets you reported were deleted, weren't they?
Yes, but it's hard to know which ones the company deals with. Twitter promises to notify you as soon as the message has been deleted, but in my case, that only happened in nine out of the 300 tweets I reported. Sometimes I didn't get a message, but entire accounts were blocked, because other people had reported tweets from the same user.

In blue, Shahak has written, "Hey Twitter, delete this shit."

Have you thought about reporting the users to police?
It's in Twitter's interest to make sure that their platform isn't used to share such hateful messages – whether the content of the tweets is actually illegal or not. I don't know if these users ever get prosecuted, or that their tweets and accounts are simply deleted. I just believe that you can't ignore hate speech.

Has Twitter contacted you directly about your project?
No. When we sprayed the pavement in front of their headquarters, a cleaner came to scrub the tweets off the pavement, but that's all. I don't know if he was sent by people from Twitter or someone else told him to do it.