DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, today, Facebook, Google and Twitter will all be in Washington, talking to Congress about Russia's use of their social platforms during the 2016 presidential campaign. NPR is going to be exploring the growing social media landscape, the spread of false information and the tech companies who build the platforms in our series Tech Titans, Bots and the Information Complex.
This morning, we're looking at Germany, where the government is also grappling with fake news and hate speech on the Internet. The German parliament recently passed a controversial law imposing hefty fines on social media companies that fail to remove offending posts. It is the toughest legislation of its kind in Western Europe. But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, it also has a lot of critics.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Hate speech, incitement and defamation are banned under German law. But a Syrian refugee who snapped a selfie with Angela Merkel learned that things get murky when the violations occur online. Anas Modamani's photo with the German chancellor, which he posted on Facebook, was used in fake news stories on the platform that falsely linked him to the deadly Christmas market attack here 11 months ago as well as the attempted murder of a homeless man.
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ANAS MODAMANI: (Speaking German).
NELSON: The Syrian refugee told reporters his life became unbearable. "I can't go alone onto the street. I'm always scared," he said. But a German court struck down Modamani's attempt to stop Facebook from letting users repost the photo, ruling the company not liable for its distribution or removal. Some of the offending posts remain visible on Facebook. The Syrian man's lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, says the court ruling was a huge disappointment to his client.
CHAN-JO JUN: He said he even had tears in his eyes because he was really expecting that he would get justice in front of German courts. However, he got something else instead.
NELSON: Jun is referring to a new law called the Network Enforcement Act that quietly went into effect in Germany this month. It threatens social media companies that have more than 2 million users here with fines of up to $58 million if the platforms fail to quickly delete illegal, racist or slanderous posts.
Whether the new law will help Modamani in his legal battles remains to be seen. The law's proponents say their goal is to make it easier and quicker to address defamation and hate speech online at a time when such offenses are on the rise.
GERD BILLEN: (Speaking German).
NELSON: Gerd Billen, who is state secretary with the German justice ministry, says they are anticipating 25,000 to 30,000 complaints a year. Facebook said it shares the German government's goal to fight hate speech and has made, quote, "substantial progress in removing illegal content." It also describes implementing the law as, quote, "complex." Billen says that's why the German government is giving social media companies a grace period until early next year to get their plans and teams in place.
BILLEN: (Speaking German).
NELSON: He adds that it's important to make social media companies more responsible, given their growing role as crucial influencers of public and private opinion. But the many critics of the German law dismiss it as an attack on free speech and warn it could lead to more censorship. Lawyer Volker Tripp of the Berlin-based Digital Society group predicts it won't be long before the law is challenged in court. He believes the law won't solve the reasons hate speech and fake news are growing in the first place.
VOLKER TRIPP: They are just symptoms of a much deeper-running problem, I guess. And this is why I think it's wrong to try and just delete or block posts one doesn't like or one considers illegal.
NELSON: Tripp says what would help is if German officials address what he believes is the cause of hate speech - the growing frustration of many Germans with their government. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.
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GREENE: And if you want to find more stories from our series Tech Titans, Bots and the Information Complex, you can go to npr.org.
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