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Politicians can't keep up with all the Facebook death threats in Czech Republic

by David Gilbert
Dec 8 2017, 10:03am

Tomáš Zdechovský knew Facebook was a hostile space in his homeland, but after receiving 3,000 death threats in the span of two weeks, he discovered just how toxic the platform had become.

“They didn’t only threaten me, but also my family and small kids,” Zdechovský told VICE News.

Zdechovský’s situation stands out because of the volume of abuse he’s received and because as a member of the European Parliament, he’s among those charged with holding Facebook accountable. But he’s also just another victim of a larger problem that has overtaken Facebook in the Czech Republic in recent years.

Since 2015, death threats and abuse on social media platforms have spiked dramatically in the Eastern European country, coinciding with an influx of refugees to the greater continent and the rise of tough-talking President Miloš Zeman, who has embraced the country’s far-right fringes. The issue has particularly afflicted Facebook, where despite promises from the social media giant to address the issue, users are regularly overrun by hate speech.

“One guy even met me in the shopping center and was shouting at me that I will hang after the election,” Zdechovský told VICE News. “It was tough.”

Experts claim that part of the problem facing Facebook in smaller countries like the Czech Republic is that they don’t have enough staff fluent in the language to deal with the sheer volume of hate speech being posted. Where the social media giant has swarms of staff committed to policing hate speech in major languages like English and Spanish, places with less-common languages often fall by the wayside.

The company would not say specifically how many people they have dedicated to dealing with the issue in the Eastern European country, but maintained it takes death threats seriously regardless of language or market size.

“We have thousands of people working across the globe, 24/7, ready to support people who need our help in over 40 languages, including native Czech speakers,” Jan Ściegienny, communications head for Facebook’s Central and European operations, told VICE News.

But Facebook’s 24/7 team didn’t help Zdechovský, who says threats against him and his family reached such uncontrollable levels that he didn’t even bother reporting them to the platform. Instead, he started hiding them. When contacted about Zdechovský’s case, Facebook said it had investigated the claims and found the politician did receive “violent threats or messages which were wishing him death and harm” but noted he should have reported the issue. The company has since taken action on some of the accounts involved for violating its community standards, but it would not specify which ones.

The threats reached their peak in August, when Tomio Okamura, the leader of the Freedom and Direct Democracy, erroneously claimed during a televised debate that Zdechovský had voted for sanctions against the Czech Republic because it did not meet quotas set by Brussels for accepting migrants.

That one claim, Zdechovský says, was enough to open the floodgates. Zdechovský said that it was mostly men who’d made these threats, calling themselves patriots, supporters of SPD, and extremists. Two men who made direct death threats against Zdechovský’s family were known violent offenders to the police, and one had even served time in prison for murder.

“Some of them have violent pasts, have pictures of guns on their Facebook profiles. Often they were in prison, too, so it was necessary to take them seriously.”

Zdechovský eventually reported the most serious threats to the police, who have opened an investigation. But there’s still a chance even the police won’t turn to Facebook for its help. A quick glance at Facebook’s data reveals the company dealt with just 61 valid requests relating to criminal cases in the Czech Republic in all of 2016. These numbers are very much on the low side. In Belgium and Greece, which are countries of comparable population, Facebook responded to a total of 399 and 275 valid requests, respectively.

The numbers are particularly low in Czech Republic because its police force simply doesn’t bother requesting information from Facebook anymore. They find the process too cumbersome, said Klára Kalibová, a lawyer focusing on hate crimes in the Republic and who has herself been subject to abuse.

“My Facebook account had become a highway for hatred.”

Zdechovský’s decision not to report his threats to Facebook isn’t all that surprising: The platform’s standard protocol for reporting hate is so cumbersome, he said, it was easier for him to hide the attacks than report them.

Facebook requires the user to fill out a questionnaire for each incident, which takes about a minute. While this may not seem that long, filing individual forms for more than 100 messages, or in the MEP’s case, thousands, becomes its own sort of torture.

As a result, lawyers dealing with the issue say, many death threats go unreported, or users tired of the torrents of hate simply give up and leave the platform altogether.

That’s what Věra Jourová did in September.

“I decided to close it down due to hate speech,” said Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, and one of the region’s loudest critics of Facebook. “I received very violent messages. My Facebook account had become a highway for hatred.”

There are no figures available for how many people have followed Jourová’s lead in closing their Facebook account, but Zdechovský says he won’t be following his compatriot: “That is not a solution, and a politician should be in contact with people.”

The MEP still believes something needs to be done, but he’s not sure exactly what.

Jourová, who has been leading the charge to bring technology giants like Facebook to heel over how they deal with hate speech, says the current arrangement isn’t good enough, and that the platform must be held to the same standards of other industries.

“You would, for instance, never read in a newspaper or hear on the radio death threats, so the situation should be the same on Facebook or any other social media platform,” Jourová said.

Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, signed up to a European Commission Code of Conduct in May 2016, which required them to remove hate speech within 24 hours of it being reported. Yet Jourová said the Commission found that the companies were removing content more effectively in some countries than in others.

Now, she says, the commission is seeking to fix that disparity, and could enforce further legislation on Facebook and others in the coming months.

“We are now assessing whether additional measures are needed in order to ensure the swift and proactive detection and removal of illegal content online,” Jourová said.