French Tweet Sweep Shows Twitter's Local Struggles

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Friday, Twitter agreed to pull racist tweets after a French organization threatened to sue. The company has resisted efforts to police its content. But hate speech is illegal in many European countries, and anti-hate groups there are grappling with how to deal with the challenge of social media.

At the Paris office of the French Union of Jewish Students, Vice President Elie Petit takes calls while he works on his computer. He shows how it all began on Oct. 10. The Twitter hashtag #unbonjuif, or "a good Jew," prompted a flood of anti-Semitic tweets. The tweets poured in for days.

"In France, we don't call this, as Twitter said ... abuse content," Petit says. "This is not abuse content. It's the call for murder of Jews, and this is a crime in France."

Many European countries have strict laws against hate speech targeted at specific groups. The policies evolved in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which came about after years of Nazi hate propaganda.

Petit and his colleagues held a conference call Thursday night with Twitter executives in California and tried to explain the French point of view. But he says Twitter refused to delete the tweets, claiming the demand must come from national authorities or police.

The Jewish students prepared to file a lawsuit. But on Friday, Twitter backed down, saying it would erase the offensive tweets.

"What happened now with the Jewish community in France, it's a real issue for Twitter," says Manuel Diaz, whose company, Emakina, advises corporations on how to adapt to the digital era.

Diaz says he's ardently against controls on free speech. But he says that because Twitter now bills itself as a global media player — and not just a social network — it must take responsibility for its content.

"The content spread around through Twitter has to respect the different local laws of the different countries where they are accessible," he says.

That's not an easy task as a global company. Almost immediately after the French group announced its agreement with Twitter, the tweetosphere railed against what some users saw as an attack on freedom of expression.

Twitter's decision in France came a day after the company bowed to German law and blocked an account of a banned neo-Nazi group there. But digital expert Diaz says Twitter has to react even faster if it wants to prosper in the international media market.

"Waiting for the French state or the French police department to do something, well the buzz is already out and it's too late," he says. "If they are not able to monitor a buzz and to take some decisions very quickly, I would be very disappointed."

Very disappointed, Diaz says, in what he considers the best real-time media tool in the world. Twitter shouldn't censor, he says, but it should build global monitoring teams to take decisions quickly in cases like the French one. If Twitter can detect and quickly suspend fake accounts, as it has done in the past, then it can easily suspend tweets that don't respect local laws.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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