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Facebook has a problem with death threats in the Czech Republic — and is failing to fix it

by David Gilbert
Nov 30 2017, 1:27pm

Roman Máca has received so many death threats on Facebook that’s he started to categorize them — beheading, hanging, and the relatively prosaic bullet to the brain are among the most popular methods suggested.

“To be threatened on Facebook is my everyday life,” Maca, an investigator at the European Values Think-Tank in Prague, told VICE News.

Propelled in part by the rise of the Czech Republic’s hard-drinking, chain-smoking president Miloš Zeman, known for his proudly xenophobic views, and a Europe-wide refugee crisis that has barely touched the small Eastern European country, hate speech and death threats have grown increasingly common there.

And Facebook has been ground zero, often providing amplification to speech once relegated to the farthest fringes of Czech society.

“This is the common, overwhelming narrative on Facebook in Czech.”

Inciting violence and death threats have become so commonplace on Facebook in the Czech Republic that the social media giant has publicly vowed to make it stop. But more than a year since Facebook promised the European Commission that it would do more to stamp out these problems, the abuse has never been worse, say its victims.

Klára Kalibová, a lawyer focusing on hate crimes in the Czech Republic, has herself experienced Facebook’s failure firsthand. Since her organization, In Iustitia, began reporting online hate speech, she’s been threatened with rape, death, and having her office burned down.

As a lawyer familiar with online torment, Kalibová can tell the difference between a throwaway comment from an anonymous internet troll and an actual real-life threat. She’s experienced both on Facebook.

“I felt in danger: One of [the threats] was sent by a violent offender who was out on bail at the time,” Kalibová said.

After Jan Čulík, an academic and independent journalist, criticized a far-right news site for publishing a story that urged NATO to shoot migrants crossing the Mediterranean, he and a colleague received “a wave of death threats” on Facebook, including “lurid details about how we should be hanged by our balls and castrated,” he said.

Čulík said he knew any mention of politics on Facebook draws criticism, but it wasn’t until he bought Facebook ads to promote his own content outside of the bubble of users who typically viewed it, that he was shown just how pervasive hate speech was on his homeland’s favorite social media site.

“This is the common, overwhelming narrative on Facebook in Czech — the Roma are vermin and Muslims are terrorists. Islam should be banned. Muslims should be banned. This is absolutely normal,” Čulík said.

Facebook’s Community Standards says it does not allow “credible threats of physical harm to individuals,” or hate speech that “attacks people based on their actual or perceived race.” Yet in the Czech Republic, both types of content pervade, and the people on the receiving end of these threats say the company is simply not doing enough to remove them in anything remotely resembling a timely manner.

Máca and others say that when Facebook does respond, it takes one to three days to remove threatening and abusive content. “But that does not mean that all reported content is deleted,” Máca said, claiming Facebook often contends the flagged posts do not breach its community standards.

“I’d say that they remove maybe 20 to 30 percent of the [threatening] comments,” Čulík added.

”Facebook has improved in the sense that it is now pretending it’s dealing with it, but you still get absolutely racist comments.”

Such failures are not true in other European countries. In Germany, for example, where the company faces fines of almost $60 million if it doesn’t remove hate speech within 24 hours, Facebook has taken a very aggressive stance on the issue.

Per the European Commission’s Code of Conduct that Facebook signed, it’s committed to the “removal of illegal hate speech in less than 24 hours.”

The sheer volume of overtly violent and directly threatening hate speech that pervades Czech-language Facebook is all the proof you need to know the company isn’t doing enough, say the people who are targeted by it.

”Facebook has improved in the sense that it is now pretending it’s dealing with it, but you still get absolutely racist comments,” Čulík said.

Facebook did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A language barrier and a small market

Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director for the Human Rights Watch charity, who himself has been the target of abuse from Czech Facebook users, believes that the problem comes down to the fact that Czech is not a mainstream language and therefore simply not a priority for Facebook.

“This is a massive challenge,” Stroehlein told VICE News. “There are a lot of languages out there and you need people who not only speak those languages but go through tons of material, understand the specific legal context that they are working in, and can address these issues not only in the basis of law but on Facebook’s own set of standards.”

“Facebook destabilizes all these countries.”

Facebook has major teams in place to deal with hate speech in mainstream languages like English and Spanish, and it has been investing heavily in these areas in recent years following major backlash from users and authorities. But the company hasn’t poured the same sort of resources into its smaller foreign-language editions. Czech Republic, with only 5 million users, falls in the latter category.

This essentially creates a balkanized version of Facebook where users in countries that don’t speak English have weaker safety measures and less support from the company when they are legitimately threatened or victimized by hate speech.

“While [Facebook] may not be terribly efficient in removing hate speech content in English, I think they are really, absolutely inefficient in non-English languages, especially those that are under the radar,” Čulík said, adding that the result of not dealing with the problem is that “Facebook destabilizes all these countries.”

A wave of normalizing hatred

Of course, the Czech Republic’s problem with violent hate speech is not limited to Facebook.

In recent years, the small Eastern European country has experienced a notable uptick in hate speech that’s touched all elements of society, and analysts say one need look no further than the country’s 71-year-old president.

Presidential candidate Milos Zeman smokes a cigarette prior the Television debate in Prague, Czech Republic, Friday, Jan. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Miloš Zeman, who strode into power in March 2013 on a wave of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment, has been at the forefront of Czech Republic’s increasingly xenophobic politics.

To give you an idea, in 2015 he warned against a possible “super-Holocaust,” which he claimed would be conducted by Muslim extremists.

An analysis by People in Need, a Czech human rights charity that tracks online hate speech, found that the spike in online hate speech began rising significantly in the Czech Republic along with the increased influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa to Europe in 2015, despite the fact that there are estimated to be less than 20,000 Muslims living in the country.

The Czech Republic has accepted just 12 refugees since 2015, in violation of an EU-wide plan to relocate migrants pouring into Italy and Greece.

Zeman has also surrounded himself with many sympathizers.

His government has aligned itself with the extreme right-wing Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, inviting SPD member Radek Koten to a high-profile chairmanship of the parliamentary security committee. Another SPD official, Jaroslav Staník, recently said that “Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies should be gassed.” Meanwhile, Martin Konvička, who runs the Islamophobic “We don’t want Islam in the Czech Republic” Facebook page and called for concentrations camps and gas chambers for Muslims, was invited by Zeman to organize a conference in the Czech senate.

This very public embrace of the farthest reaches of the country’s right-wing fringe has had a normalizing effect on hate speech, said analysts, so much so that hate speech is used even by non-extremists.

“Ever more Czechs think that they can express themselves in this way. These are not extremists but quite normal citizens,” Miroslavl Mareš, a specialist in extremism at Masaryk University, Brno, said in a recent article in Der Spiegel.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Facebook is struggling with the same issues bearing out in Czech’s public square, say analysts, but the platform’s ability to disseminate and amplify these views portends greater problems.

Čulík says Facebook deliberately creates bubbles within which people mutually encourage their extremist views and therefore become normalized.” Anonymity and the psychological impact of the internet also amplifies the impact,” Čulík said. “People will write on Facebook what they would not normally say to a person standing in front of them.”

No easy answers

Further complicating any attempts by Facebook to address the issue of death threats and incitements is a police force overwhelmed or uninterested in enforcing the law.

“I think it would be a big job, but I think they could do that.”

Kalibová says Czech police have to jump through so many hoops to get the information on those posting hate speech from Facebook that they don’t even bother going to the trouble anymore. “What you really need is quicker, easier cooperation between the police and Facebook,” she said.

The solution to the problem is not as simple as Facebook throwing more money at it, and human rights activists are worried that if government does step in, it will open the doors to possible overregulation or a crackdown on freedom of speech.

Still, Stroehlein isn’t accepting Facebook’s apparent fence-sitting. He says the problem of abuse on Facebook is “mind-boggling” and “overwhelming,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t at least tackle some of the obvious death threats and hate speech terrorizing its Czech users.

“I think it would be a big job, but I think they could do that,” Stroehlein said.

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Jaroslav Staník, a member of the extreme right-wing Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, as receiving a high-profile chairmanship of the parliamentary security committee. It was Radek Koten, of the same SPD party.