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Europe's Populists Fearful of Social Media Restrictions

FILE - Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during an annual march to mark Poland's National Independence Day, in Warsaw, Poland, Nov. 11, 2017.
FILE - Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during an annual march to mark Poland's National Independence Day, in Warsaw, Poland, Nov. 11, 2017.

Europe’s populist leaders are outraged by the decision of U.S. social-media giants to block U.S. President Donald Trump from posting on their sites. They fear Facebook, Twitter and other major social media companies could start banning them, too.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki condemned the internet giants Tuesday. “The censorship of freedom of speech, the domain of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, is returning today in the form of a new, commercial mechanism fighting against those who think differently,” he wrote on Facebook.

Poland’s ruling populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) already has introduced legislation aimed at limiting the power of social media giants to remove content or ban users.

The draft law was proposed after Twitter started flagging as misleading content tweets by Trump and supporters disputing the U.S. election result. PiS lawmakers say there shouldn’t be any censorship by social media companies or curtailment of speech because debate is the essence of democracy.

Opposition critics say the proposed measure sits oddly with the ruling party’s efforts to muzzle the national media and to turn the public broadcaster into a propaganda vehicle. Those moves are currently being investigated by the European Union, which has accused the PiS government of rolling back democratic norms.

The Polish government also has vowed to bring foreign-owned media outlets in the country under Polish control, which critics fear means turning them into government propaganda outlets.

Under the draft law, if content is removed, a social media company would have 24 hours to respond to a complaint from a user and any decision could be appealed to a newly created special court.

Populist leaders aren’t alone in denouncing the moves by social media giants. Across Europe there is unease regardless of political affiliation at censorship by social media giants and their expulsion of Trump, a response to last week’s bid to derail the certification of the U.S. election results by pro-Trump agitators storming the U.S. Capitol. Twitter cited violations of its civic integrity policies to block Trump.

Facebook is blocking and deleting content that uses the phrase “stop the steal,” which refers to false claims by Trump supporters of election fraud. And Twitter says it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts of adherents of the QAnon conspiracy, who believe Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business and the media.

FILE - A figure representing hate speech on Facebook is seen featured during a carnival parade in Duesseldorf, Germany, Feb. 24, 2020.
FILE - A figure representing hate speech on Facebook is seen featured during a carnival parade in Duesseldorf, Germany, Feb. 24, 2020.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her concerns about the actions of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, saying they are a step too far.

“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” her spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters this week. But campaigns are mounting in Germany and in other European countries for social media giants to block hate speech, populist misinformation and fake news from their sites, regardless of authorship.

Additionally, political pressure is mounting for a tightening of regulatory restrictions that some European governments have already introduced aimed at policing social media.

When voicing concern about the social media blocking of Trump, Merkel’s spokesperson cited Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, which was approved in 2018 and requires social media platforms to remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of being told to do so, or face fines of up to $60 million.

Seibert said free speech should only be restricted in line “with the laws and within a framework defined by the legislature, not by the decision of the management of social media platforms.”

But some German lawmakers want the law toughened and are also urging social media companies to be more forward-leaning in efforts to block what they see as dangerous speech. German Social Democrat lawmaker Helge Lindh told broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Germany is “not doing enough,” saying more restrictions are needed.

The German parliament approved legislation last year that would ensure prosecution for those perpetrating hate or for inciting it online. Under the legislation, social media companies would have been obliged to report hate comments to the police and identify the online authors.

Final passage of the legislation was halted, though, because of objections raised by the country’s Constitutional Court, which ruled parts of the new legislation were in conflict with data protection laws. The court called for adjustments that are scheduled to be debated this month by German lawmakers.

Populist politicians stand to lose more from the renewed focus on misinformation on the internet, whether the outcome from the new focus is more stringent state regulations or just social media giants being more restrictive in Europe.

Populists tend to be able to galvanize support using social media more than mainstream politicians and parties have managed, says Ralph Schroeder, an academic at the Oxford Internet Institute, part of Britain’s University of Oxford.

“They stand to lose most along with other politicians, on the left and the right and beyond, that seek a politics that is anti-establishment and exclusionary toward outsiders,” he told VOA. “The reason is that social media gives them a means to express ideas that cannot be expressed in traditional news media or in traditional party affiliations.”