Fakes brought to book: Austrian Greens take on Facebook

Case by Green Party leader may force social media company to take action on hate posts

Eva Glawischnig, leader of the Austrian Green Party:  her legal team took an injunction against Facebook’s Dublin-based international operation. Photograph: Michael Debets/Getty Images

Eva Glawischnig, leader of the Austrian Green Party: her legal team took an injunction against Facebook’s Dublin-based international operation. Photograph: Michael Debets/Getty Images

 

What do you do as a public figure, a business owner or private citizen if you are attacked, defamed or ridiculed on Facebook? What is your comeback as a politician when you, posted on a fake Facebook profile, make a claim you never made that is attributed to you and superimposed over your face?

You can complain to Facebook, wait and hope for something to happen. Perhaps something will happen. Perhaps nothing will happen. And with every passing minute, the lie, the libel or the invented quote is being liked and forwarded on and on.

Austria’s Green Party leader Eva Glawischnig has decided that enough is enough. For years she has been denounced online as a “rotten traitor” and “corrupt tramp” on Facebook. Users, mostly using fake profiles, have suggested she belonged in a gas chamber or attributed to her false claims that she supported sex with minors. Instead of tilting at the trolls, however, Ms Glawischnig has taken on their enabler: Facebook.

After filing a complaint with Vienna’s commercial court, her legal team hit Facebook’s Dublin-based international operation with an injunction, ordering it to remove fake and hate posts immediately. The legal battle is not over yet but could have far-reaching consequences for the company and the rules of engagement on its social network.

Witch hunts

Maria Windhager

“What annoyed us most is that Facebook often did nothing because they said what we complained about didn’t breach their own community standards,” said Dr Windhager. “Now we know that Facebook’s own rules cannot supersede the laws of whatever country in which they are operating.”

Until now, talk of regulating Facebook posts often vanishes down one of two rabbit holes. The first is a legal one, over whether the network should be classified as a publisher – as critics claim – or whether it is merely a technical platform, as Facebook sees itself. The definition is important because a publisher of news is held to a higher legal standard – particularly in libel cases – than a company providing a technical distribution service.

The other rabbit hole involving Facebook is cultural, in particular the gap between US understandings of freedom of speech and limitations many European countries impose, such as on Holocaust denial.

Distractions

Greens

“We are of the view that Facebook is a technical provider not a publisher, but even a provider has responsibilities and liability, and until now this applicable law was simply being ignored,” said Dr Windhager. “What amazed us most is that, until now, no one challenged them on this front.”

After more than a year of collecting evidence, which it presented in court, Austria’s Green Party is delighted with the ruling. It is prepared to challenge what it calls Facebook’s “delaying and obfuscation” tactics on hate speech and fake news – if necessary, all the way to a final ruling in Austria’s highest federal court.

“We will be able to manage this, including financially,” said Green Party spokesman Dieter Brosz. “It cannot be in Facebook’s interest to be the operator of the largest hate platform.”

Facebook declined to respond to requests for comment on what it said were “ongoing legal procedures”. When faced with similar complaints in the past, the company has said it takes complaints seriously and points to an increase in staffing to police – and block – problematic posts.

Regulation

Angela MerkelGermany

Her chancellery has been hit by fake news posts, such as a fictious claim that federal integration minister Aydan Özoguz, born in Germany to Turkish parents, had called for a 5.2 per cent income levy to finance asylum seekers. The post, with the fake quote superimposed on an image of the minister from a television appearance, was shared thousands of times and sparked a vicious online response.

A senior member of Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) revealed this week that he had received a death threat via a fake Facebook account, and that police were investigating.

Since the Austrian injunction, Facebook has blocked access to the content there. But Dr Windhager says the problematic content is still accessible beyond Austria’s borders, including in Germany.

“Until now people knew this was a problem but felt it is very hard for individuals to take on Facebook,” said Dr Windhager. “My hope now is that people in every country see that it is possible to defend yourself, and take on Facebook.”