BERLIN (JTA) – Europe’s main Jewish student organization is fed up with the antisemitism, Holocaust denial and other hate speech burgeoning on Twitter — so they are taking the social media company to court.
The Brussels-based European Union of Jewish Students and the Berlin-based HateAid non-profit group on Wednesday announced they have sued Twitter in Berlin District Court for failing to uphold its own pledge to remove hate speech from the platform.
The action — which included the placement of a hashtag prop in front of the German parliament building, in an inversion of a symbol that Twitter itself popularized — was sponsored by the Berlin-based Alfred Landecker Foundation, as part of its Digital Justice Movement, started by HateAid.
The move comes as Germany prepares to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day with ceremonies and events across the country.
But that is not enough, said Avital Grinberg, president of the EUJS, which represents some 160,000 European Jewish students. “Remembrance of the Shoah must not be merely expressed through emotional speeches, but also through clear positions, resolute action and protective laws,” she said.
The announcement of the lawsuit comes a day after Twitter reinstated the American Holocaust denier and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, the latest in a string of people who had posted antisemitic material to the platform to be allowed back since the billionaire Elon Musk bought it last year. Fuentes immediately tweeted antisemitic comments and was suspended again.
But the site does not remove antisemitism, according to the student group’s lawsuit. Armed with six specific cases in which they claim Twitter did not take complaints seriously, the Berlin law firm of Preu Bohlig sued Twitter on Tuesday, demanding the removal of antisemitic content that is illegal under German law, said Torben Duesing, a partner in the firm, at a press conference Wednesday in the German capital.
Their aim is twofold: to move a social media mountain, and to encourage targets of hate speech to speak up. The six cases — all of which were posted in the last three months — were not described, to avoid giving them further publicity, organizers said.
But the groups did say that in one case relating to Holocaust denial, Twitter had explicitly refused to remove the content.
Europe has been a challenging frontier for technology companies, which have had to take steps to ensure digital privacy and change their handling of misinformation because of European laws and regulations. Now, the students’ lawsuit aims to leverage Germany’s particularly vigorous laws barring Holocaust denial and the glorification of Nazi ideology to force the platform to remove it. There are similar laws in other EU countries.
The lawsuit focuses on clarifying whether Twitter has a contractual obligation to its users, under its legal terms of service, to remove antisemitic tweets that contain sedition, including trivialization and denial of the Holocaust.
Just because Twitter doesn’t respond adequately to complaints doesn’t mean one should give up trying, said German Jewish writer and activist Marina Weisband at the press conference. All Twitter users around the world agree to the terms of service, “which is designed to protect users” from hate speech, she said. But if Twitter doesn’t enforce these terms, what are they worth?
Twitter claims to share the view that “Jewish rights are human rights,” said Grinberg. “But the reality appears to be the opposite.”
There has as yet been no response to the suit from Twitter, which has not had a public relations team since shortly after Musk’s acquisition when he slashed the staff. The company is already subject to an advertiser boycott that has sharply curbed its revenue, the result of a push by the Anti-Defamation League and others in response to Musk’s lack of action around hate speech on the platform.
The ADL released an analysis last year finding that Twitter removed only 5% of 225 tweets that it reported as “strongly antisemitic” — comments accusing Jewish people of pedophilia, invoking Holocaust denial, and sharing conspiracy theories — over nine weeks last summer. It also found that antisemitism spiked on the platform following Musk’s acquisition.
In 2021, a report by the British-based Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 84% of reported posts on social media platforms containing antisemitic hate were not reviewed by the platforms. According to the survey, Twitter intervened in only 11% of the cases.
Twitter does promise to police its platform and has lately has suspended the accounts of users whose antisemitic comments made headlines. That was true last year for Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, and again on Wednesday for Fuentes after his reinstatement.
But more is needed, said the students and attorneys behind the European lawsuit.
“We know that one lawsuit is not enough to make Twitter a perfect place,” Josephine Ballon, HateAid’s lead attorney. “We know that it takes more than that, but we are convinced that it is precisely these kinds of lawsuits that will put new tools” in the hands of minority groups and individuals.
“Social media is the most important debate platform of our generation,” said Grinberg. The lawsuit, she said, is “the response of resilient Jews to the failure of Twitter, social media, politicians and the law.”