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Boundless Hate in Germany

Why it’s difficult to stop hate speech across borders

By

By

Olga Konsevych

November 22, 2023

Boundless Hate Series

This is the first story in a CCIJ series that investigates how diaspora communities contribute to the spread of hate speech beyond borders.

On Sept. 3, 2023, a Telegram channel, “Chancellor’s Daddy,” published the announcement of a conference and linked to an article in German called “Ukrainian Fascism. The Bandera Complex: A World Conference on the History, Functions and Networks of Ukrainian Fascism.”

The article was published by Junge Welt, a German daily newspaper, founded in the Soviet sector of Berlin in 1947. The newspaper describes itself as Marxist. German authorities categorize it as a left-wing extremist media outlet with the main goal of “replacing liberal democracy with a socialist/communist social order.”

The article’s language, calling Ukrainians “fascists,” aligns with typical Russian propaganda falsely claiming Ukraine is full of Nazis and using it as a justification for war.

The author of the Telegram channel is named as Polina Mayak and listed as living in Germany. It is unknown whether the blogger’s name is real, but she regularly gives comments to pro-Russia media. She expresses her opinion about life in Germany, and in one of her last major video interviews she stated that “many Germans already hate Ukraine.”

Twelve hours after publication, her Telegram conference post had received 10,000 views. A day later, German Gregor Spitzen, the founder of Telegram channel “Mecklenburg Petersburger” and a regular commentator on the Russian propaganda shows “Solovyov Live” and “60 Minutes,” translated the article into Russian.

Telegram channels in other languages, including German, began to promote it. Even larger groups, with more than 77,000 subscribers, reshared it.

On Sept. 14, the Russian embassy in Germany published the announcement on its official Telegram channel.

One month later, the original post by “Chancellor’s Daddy” had received 16,600 views, 202 shares, 47 comments and 839 likes. It had been shared on public channels and groups eight times. There were more than 40 comments on the original Telegram post about Ukraine, including: “Сountry 404 (Ukraine) should completely cease to exist.”

Timeline

Timeline

The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism identified three accounts spreading hate speech and disinformation online in Russian. All of them appear to be posting from within Germany, and aligning their messaging with Russian propaganda that falsely claims Ukrainians are fascists. The messages spread in different languages, including German and Russian, and to different audiences both within Germany and beyond its borders. 

Hate speech, like the language used in Mayak’s Telegram posts, not only divides communities, but can also lead to an increase in the number of violent physical attacks, particularly against refugees or migrants.

Even in Germany, a country where there are strong laws criminalizing hate speech online and on the streets, it is difficult to stop the spread of hate speech and disinformation and hold those spreading it to account.

Despite efforts by federal initiatives, special prosecutors and activists in Germany, the limited legal definition of hate speech, the reliance on social media platforms for removals and the need for individuals to report cases allow many problematic posts to remain online. In addition, many refugees and migrants are still unaware of their rights or avoid seeking help due to language barriers and doubts about the effectiveness of the police.

Defining hate speech

The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

But legislation against hate speech varies globally, with each country taking a distinct approach influenced by its cultural, historical and political context.

In the United States, the First Amendment protects free speech, though there are limits on incitement and harassment.
The United Kingdom uses the Public Order Act and Malicious Communications Act to criminalize hate speech targeting specific groups.
Canada's Criminal Code addresses hate speech against identifiable groups, sparking debates on free speech.
France bans Holocaust denial (as do many European countries) and punishes hate speech based on race or religion.
Sweden and Australia have laws against inciting hatred based on various factors.

Japan's regulations on hate speech are less comprehensive.

South Africa's laws reflect its history of apartheid.
The enforcement and interpretation of these laws vary within countries, and the balance between free speech and protection from hate speech remains a subject of ongoing debate and legal evolution.

In Germany, there is no single legal definition of hate speech, however it is outlined by various laws, including the Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch) and the recently implemented Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which was passed in 2017. The NetzDG requires social media platforms with a significant user base in Germany (over 2 million users, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube) to promptly remove illegal content, including hate speech and fake news, or face substantial fines. This law places a legal obligation on platforms to monitor and moderate content effectively.

It includes a requirement for social media to identify content that falls under Section 130 of the German Criminal Code, which restricts incitement to hatred “against a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins,” or behavior that “assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning an aforementioned group.” The punishment can include up to three years imprisonment or a fine.

Hate, propaganda and false information online

Reading Russian language channels, searching through diaspora groups on Telegram or watching TikTok videos with the hashtag #ukrainianrefugees, there are countless examples of problematic online posts that could potentially be considered hate speech. Many posts reference language used by Putin when he claims to be fighting against Ukrainian “neo-Nazis.”

One Telegram channel’s posts regularly use variations of the ethnic slur “hohol” to refer to Ukrainians. That channel, labeled 18+ by Telegram, uses sensationalized or sensitive content, such as graphic imagery of dead Ukrainian soldiers, to spread disinformation in Russian about the status of military-age Ukrainian men in Germany.

In one post, it said, “Hohly are going home. Detentions of Ukrainians of military age began in Germany.” That post went online on Sept. 6, 2023. About two weeks later, it had already received more than 20,000 views, 253 likes, 59 comments and 50 shares. The views hit 12,500 after 12 hours.

Russian-speaking guide LidiiaBerlin, whose channel first produced entertainment content, has posted videos that were likely filmed in Berlin, including one filmed from a park in front of the city’s notable TV tower near the central Alexanderplatz plaza.

Since July 2022, LidiiaBerlin not only discusses local news, but also expresses her frustration over Ukrainian refugees complaining about their jobs and the public services that Germany has provided them.

For example, in this video she displays her disgust towards refugees’ “negative” outlooks, calling them ”inadequate” because they will not take lower-paying jobs. That post, online since July 2022, received nearly 20,000 likes and 5,500 comments by September 2023. It was also saved and shared more than 1,000 times.

Most comments on the post are negative. Refugees respond that they came to Germany often with strong qualifications, higher education degrees and a desire to learn German. They say they do not believe the status of a forced refugee under temporary protection obliges them to immediately forget about their skills.

Ukrainian refugee Nadia Kulish, who came to Berlin from Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine that was not occupied, but was badly damaged by shelling, agrees.

“I have a legal education, I also worked on public television in Ukraine and write books. In Germany, it was difficult for me, despite the opportunity to find work in my profession,” she said.

“Life in the capital forces you to mobilize as much as possible. Ukrainian women are often offered to work in nursing or looking after the elderly. This is the first thing that is provided to migrants by locals,” she said, adding that the German government has programs to help refugees find employment.

According to the Bavarian reporting office REspect!, the post calling Ukrainian refugees inadequate could be considered misinformation. But, according to German law, it would not be considered incitement or a criminal offense; false information, even with elements of bullying, could be protected under freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is a very important right, which is covered by the German constitution. But incitement and calling to violence is not an opinion anymore, but rather a criminal offense according to German law.

– Ahmed Gaafar, Director of Meldestelle REspect!

The challenge of laying criminal charges

A key challenge is that much of the problematic online content does not qualify under the legal definition of hate speech, which in Germany is divided among several sections of law, including Section 130. Even when a post or article includes a sense of hatred, it may not qualify as a criminal case.

In the case of Bavaria, police and prosecutors are often still dependent on the cooperation of the social networks and the provision of data stored there. In addition, extensive data analysis, which always follows searches, takes a lot of time.

In the best case, preliminary proceedings can be concluded after about six months. However, it is not uncommon for them to last up to a year or longer, according to the prosecutor’s office in Munich.

The office shared examples of successful cases. In one, a person sent a large number of emails to politicians and party addresses, concealing his identity and using fake accounts.

One example said: “You disgusting piece of shit, how many more of these refugee scum are we supposed to take in? You dirty refugee whore. Who pays for that?”

That man was sentenced to a year and eight months imprisonment with probation. “The special feature is that was a first-time offender who had never had any dealings with the justice system. This clearly shows that hate speech is not a trivial offense, but that we pursue consistent criminal prosecution,” said Teresa Ott, hate speech officer at the Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Another person was sentenced to 50 daily penalty units (a fine based on his income applied for 50 days) for the publication of the “Z” symbol as a sign of approval of the Russian war, according to the Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office. The case fell under Section 140 of the German Penal Code, a law prohibiting people from rewarding or condoning crimes “in a way that is likely to disturb public peace, publicly, in a meeting or by disseminating content.” The crime is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine.

Screenshot of prohibited hate speech

Content used in a criminal case under Section 140, which prohibits people from rewarding or condoning crimes “in a way that is likely to disturb public peace.” Source: Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office

Accountability relies on reporting

Volunteers and activists help Ukrainians learn more about local laws like NetzDG in order to report people they think are committing hate crimes. The Bavarian reporting office, Meldestelle REspect!, even has a worker who can speak Ukrainian and Russian.

“For now, we have 1,905 reports related to the Russia-Ukraine war. On the other hand, sometimes we’re receiving reports about German people who are writing hate(ful) comments about people who can be identified as Russians in Germany,” said Ahmed Gaafar, the organization’s director.

When a user sends a message to REspect!, the team investigates the report to decide whether it could qualify as a criminal offense and should be sent to the police. If it does not, experts may be able to propose another solution, such as a request for removal to the social media platform. To qualify for a removal under NetzDG, content needs to fall under one of the 21 criminal statutes in the German Criminal Code (StGB) to which NetzDG refers. REspect! is working with reports in seven languages: Arabic, Turkish, English, German, Spanish, Ukrainian and Russian.

“But sometimes there is a lot of content which can be considered racist, discriminatory, but is not per se illegal,” Gaafar said. “Freedom of speech is a very important right, which is covered by the German constitution. But incitement and calling to violence is not an opinion anymore, but rather a criminal offense according to German law.”

There are many challenges ahead. From the legal side, Germany is struggling with implementation of new EU rules on online platforms outlined in the Digital Services Act (DSA).The DSA details rules for digital services such as social networks, search engines and online marketplaces. It requires technology companies to implement new procedures to remove unlawful content such as hate speech, incitement to terrorism and child sexual abuse. However, it poses problems for German authorities as it conflicts with the reporting and removal processes outlined under the national NetzDG law.

No moderation = no responsibility?

Germany’s controversial NetzDG law, requiring social media platforms with a significant user base in Germany to promptly remove illegal content, places a legal obligation on platforms to monitor and moderate content effectively.

The result depends heavily on the cooperation of the social networks with police. If the data is quickly obtained, further investigative measures, such as searches or questioning of the accused, can be initiated in a timely manner. If the social networks do not cooperate, police are forced to switch to other investigation measures, which are time-consuming, delaying any potential accountability or prosecution efforts.

Many social media platforms, including Meta and Google, have official policies and instructions for implementing NetzDG. Platforms required to follow the law must file bi-annual transparency reports that detail complaints received and content removed, including under Section 130 which covers hate speech, and Section 166, which prohibits defamation of religions, and religious and ideological associations.

Between January 2018 and June 2023, nearly 13 million complaints were filed to six social media platforms. About 2.9 million of those were specifically related to Sections 130 and 166 of German law, on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and Facebook. Of those complaints, about 270,000 – less than 10% – resulted in the deletion or blocking of content. Content was also removed from Tiktok and YouTube, but is counted by the post, not the complaint. YouTube removed or blocked more than 220,000 pieces of content under the two laws, while TikTok removed or blocked about 25,000.

Credit: Story 1 - DEURU by Jillian Dudziak's Workspace

NetzDG complaints filed to major social media platforms operating in Germany and delete content from January 2018 to June 2023

Still, even with content moderation reliant on reporting, posts that don’t get reported may remain online, and the time required to process such a large volume of complaints means the content may stay up causing harm for long periods of time before a removal or block. Additionally, one complaint may reference many posts that need to be investigated, or one piece of online content could be identified in many complaints. And with social networks like Telegram that push back against the regulations by refusing to comply, the obstacles to addressing hate speech are all the more difficult to overcome.

“Telegram has no moderation,” said Yuliia Dukach, head of the disinformation monitoring team at Texty.org, a Ukrainian data journalism agency. “The only thing it does is moderate pornography and messages about drugs. And even then, it’s not very successful. But Telegram has become one of the main sources of information about the war and geopolitics in Ukraine and Russia.”

Remi Vaughn, a spokesperson for Telegram, said in a messaged response that NetzDG applies to social media platforms, and Telegram is a messenger platform, not a social media platform.

“Telegram is (a) platform that supports the right to peaceful free speech,” Vaughn said. “However, content that breaches our terms of service is diligently removed by moderators. This includes calls to violence, sharing private information and illegal pornography.”

Telegram: the hating game

When it comes to platforms, both German and Ukrainian experts reference one particularly problematic messaging app: Telegram.

A Ukrainian OSINT agency, Molfar, published a study to determine which messaging app best protects user data. During the research, the company found that Telegram does not encrypt metadata, but collects phone numbers and IDs, and transfers that data to special services at their request.

“As for disinformation and the spread of news, probably the most key fact is that it is quite difficult to delete any post on Telegram. That is, there is no transparent tool to prevent hate speech and propaganda,” said Molfar CEO and founder Artem Starosiek.

Telegram spokesperson Vaughn said in a message that the Molfar report is incorrect. “Everything sent on Telegram is securely encrypted including metadata – this can be independently proven with Telegram’s open source app code and encryption protocols,” the message said. 

“As noted in Telegram’s privacy policy, Telegram may disclose a user’s IP address and phone number if Telegram receives a court order confirming they are a terror suspect. This applies only to court orders from countries that score high enough on the Democracy Index to be considered a democracy.” Vaughn also said that Telegram has no employees, equipment or offices in Russia.

“Both Telegram and its founder Pavel Durov said that they had no employees in Russia. But we found confirmation that they do,” Starosiek said. “Also, some of the company’s servers remain in Russia. This is also a critical point.”

Still, Ukrainians often use Telegram, because when internet services are faulty during shelling or blackouts, updates download faster there in comparison to ordinary websites or other social networks. These positives are overshadowed by the risks of encountering propaganda and hate speech.

New approaches to hate speech and disinformation

Starosek also said that over the year and a half of full-scale war, Russians have transformed their disinformation approach. While they used to write only in Russian, now they do everything to make it seem that the message was created by Ukrainians.

“That is, they translate posts into Ukrainian and try not to write as harshly as they used to, but rather promote the desired narrative with ‘soft propaganda.’ We often notice when posts and comments are simply translated via Google Translate with mistakes,” he said.

The fact-checking project “NotaEnota” wrote about one example: fake infographics in Ukrainian. The images were created to look as if they came from the organization Save the Children, which has been operating in Ukraine since 2014. The social media campaign tried to spread the message that in Ukraine children are kidnapped to have their organs removed and sold to medical professionals, but the infographic was distributed through advertising from newly created Facebook pages without any content.

The fact-checking project’s report said those creating the propaganda intentionally play on emotions The official Save the Children organization has repeatedly denied any link to the infographic or the Facebook pages that share it.

As far as Ukrainians abroad are concerned, some studies give hope that it is becoming increasingly difficult to influence them. For example, Texty.org monitored 180 Telegram communities and 13 Viber chats of Ukrainians in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. When Russians join the groups trying to sow disinformation, the members notice and ban them, said Texty.org’s Yuliia Dukach. “The community itself reacts very reactively to any pro-Russian narratives,” she said.

Online crime can become real violence

In 2022, German law enforcement issued alerts regarding a surge in incidents involving intimidation, threats, acts of vandalism and, at times, physical violence directed toward both Russians and Ukrainians within Germany, a distressing consequence of the ongoing war. In many cases, these crimes include references to language that parallels the same words or slurs used online, including “Nazi” or “fascist.”

An increase in hate speech on social media leads to more crimes against minorities in the physical world, a study from Cardiff University’s HateLab project shows. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance also said that “hate speech can lead to acts of violence and conflict on a wider scale.”

The crimes facing the Ukrainian community in Germany include invasive late night doorbell ringing, apartment break-ins and assaults during rallies or protests and on the streets of Berlin.

Two Ukrainian women were insulted and beaten on the Berlin subway by three Russian-speaking men. Two Russian-speaking attackers beat a young Kherson refugee. The refugee heard the strangers calling him a “faggot from Ukraine.” In another example, Russians calling themselves Germans attacked a Ukrainian woman and her child for saying a national salute, “Glory to Ukraine.” The men said that the woman’s son said “Nazi words.”

There were around 1.1 million refugees from Ukraine in Germany as of September 2023. Before Feb. 24, 2022, there were about 150,000 Ukrainians in Germany, of which approximately 36,800 people were seeking protection, according to data from the Central Register of Foreigners. In comparison, the number of people with Russian passports in Germany has remained relatively steady around 300,000 people. That number does not include people with other ties to Russia, such as ancestry or language.

Credit: Story 1 - DEURU by Jillian Dudziak's Workspace

Number of Russians and Ukrainians In Germany chart

However, there are also Russian-German (die Russlanddeutschen) late repatriates, who migrated from the former Soviet Union after 1950 and were granted German citizenship. They are one of the largest migrant groups in Germany. It is hard to calculate exact numbers of this group, and difficult to track their engagement in pro-Russia propaganda or support for Ukrainians.

The German police received reports of politically motivated attacks both on Russian and Ukrainian communities in Germany since February 2022.

“Numerous hate speech cases related to the war in Ukraine were conducted in the Bavarian special departments for hate speech,” according to Teresa Ott, the prosecutor in the Bavarian judiciary where the first hate speech prosecution officer was appointed. “These were mainly cases of incitement of the people and approval of the Russian war of aggression.”

The oldest political foundation in Germany, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, associated with, but independent from, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, released a report on right-wing extremist and democracy-threatening attitudes in Germany. It found that a third of those surveyed (34%) agree or strongly agree that “refugees only come to Germany to take advantage of the social system.”

Between February 2022 and February 2023, the police in Berlin registered 3,250 crimes in which at least one person from Ukraine was harmed. There are 1,237 reported cases with at least one suspect identified. The proportion of physical injuries against Ukrainians is more than two and a half times higher than the proportion in the general population, according to Vasili Franco, a politician with the Green Party, who requested the data.

Credit: Story 1 - DEURU by Jillian Dudziak's Workspace

Criminal cases in Berlin with a Ukrainian victim since February 2022

In the second year of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, activists also need to protect themselves. For example, Vitsche, one of the most prominent Ukrainian NGOs in Germany, is forced to keep the address of its office in Berlin a secret.

“We had threats that people wanted to find out our address. So it is quite scary,” said Krista-Marija Läbe, a spokeswoman of the organization.

But Läbe believes that a lot of Ukrainians do not know how and where to get help.

“They are often scared to go to the police because they fear that they will get into trouble,” she said. “Not knowing about the legal situation leads to more insults and hate online.”

END
The production of this investigation is supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.

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