EU students launch 'unprecedented' legal action against Twitter

The European Union of Jewish students is claiming Twitter is failing to take responsibility for antisemitic content


Jewish students in Europe have this week helped to launch a legal action against the social media network Twitter over alleged antisemitic content posted on its platform.

The Brussels-based European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) is working with HateAid, a Berlin-based non-profit group that campaigns against digital violence, to fight the landmark legal case.

They claim Twitter is failing to take responsibility for antisemitic content.

After bracing Berlin’s minus temperatures to pose in front of the Reichstag, the building which houses the German parliament, EUJS president Avital Grinberg, 27, told the JC that Twitter’s continued failure to act has made the situation intolerable for young Jews.

“We know that young people are on social media an awful lot,” she said. “And given that the amount of antisemitic tweets are increasing so rapidly, it means young Jews are now being exposed to this more and more often. This is just unacceptable.

“We are talking about not just trivialisation of the Shoah but the outright denying of it, and even explicit threats made against Jewish people.”

In 2021, a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate showed that 84 per cent of posts containing antisemitic content were not even reviewed by social networks. Twitter took action in a mere 11 per cent of the reported cases.

“This has been going on for years,” said Grinberg, “but after seeing such violent tweets all the time, day after day, you just reach your limit, you just realise you have to say ‘stop!’, and this is why we are now using the courts -- the highest tool of democracy – to fight this.”

HateAid CEO Anna-Lena von Hodenberg rejected any suggestion that the campaign could ultimately lead to online laws which curb freedom of expression.

“It is only illegal content which we are challenging here – content which Twitter’s own standards are supposed to oppose,” she said.

“For me it helps to look not just at the online world, but also the off-line world just so you can fully appreciate what is happening here. Because if you were walking around Germany and saw a swastika on the street, this is unacceptable, as these signs are illegal here. But antisemitic content is also illegal, so we want to force Twitter to take action to prevent people being exposed to it. And we have to force Twitter, because it is not currently doing anything like enough to prevent it by itself.”

Also present at the gathering outside the Reichstag was Green MP Dr Till Steffens, who has often lent his support to Jewish causes in Germany.

He said: “Twitter cannot just keep behaving as if it were 1945 when such horrible antisemitic utterings were prevalent. It is essential that people take action, which is why I fully support this move to force Twitter to be held to account.”

The head of Hate Aid’s legal department, Josephine Ballon, said Twitter had already had many chances to take responsibility for its content.

“Twitter assures us it won’t tolerate violence on its platform, but in practice we see the opposite happening. Illegal content is at best removed in arbitrary and non-transparent ways. Sometimes you get an email saying it has happened, sometimes you have to wait a week, sometimes nothing comes at all,” she said.

The case aims to establish legal clarification about whether social networks are obliged to implement their own terms of service in order to protect their users. Without this, the two groups argue, the individual has no real legal means to take action against them.

The only official option at present is to file a complaint with the Federal Office of Justice, but even then a fine can only be imposed if the individual can deliver proof of “systemic failure” to remove such content. 

Düsseldorf-based lawyer Dr Torben Duising told the JC that the legal action focuses on Twitter’s insufficient moderation of content, under Paragraph 130 of the German Criminal Code.

“For this we presented six comments which were both antisemitic and illegal, some of which dealt with, for example, Holocaust denial – comments which were not removed by Twitter.”

Dr Duising said that if the lawsuit is successful, it may provide a platform for many further cases in the future. “Right now we are not focusing on securing compensation for plaintiffs who have suffered from exposure to antisemitic tweets.

“We want to see if it is possible to use this case to establish whether an individual’s right not to be exposed to antisemitic content can be protected.

“We are focusing on Twitter now, but in future, in theory, this type of lawsuit could then also apply to other major social networks.”

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