Online Hate Speech Soars in Germany

Angela Merkel in Bundestag

New government figures point to an increase in anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic propaganda, both online and off.

Hate speech is on the rise in Germany, according to a new study published by the Germany Ministry of Justice.

The figures, first published in Germany's Sueddeutsche newspaper on Monday, show a dramatic increase in hate speech, both anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic propaganda.

The Ministry of Justice Ministry said last year it carried out 5,700 criminal investigations into accusations of hate speech, a 130 percent increase on 2014; 2,300 of those cases were based on online hate speech, compared to 500 such cases a year earlier.

Hate speech, defined as incitement to hatred or violence against segments of the population, is illegal under the German constitution.

The Ministry of Justice cautioned that, due to a difference in survey methods, it is not possible to make a direct comparison with earlier years. The overall trend, however, seems clear. 2015, the year in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her controversial open-border policy for refugees fleeing the war in Syria, was also the year in which hate speech bloomed in German online.

The study showed a 20 percent increase in “dissemination of propaganda” banned by the German constitution, including such things as Holocaust denial or the use of the swastika.

Incidents of anti-Semitism more than tripled compared to 2014, with 2,083 cases recorded. But they were dwarfed by cases involving hate speech directed at immigrants, foreigners or Muslims in Germany, which numbered 6,330, a year-on-year increase of 139 percent. The increase in criminal investigations, however, did not translate into a similar spike in prosecutions. The Ministry of Justice said it had to dismiss 9,400 cases because no perpetrator could be found, often because they were an anonymous poster online. There were 2,500 prosecutions for hate-speech crimes in Germany in 2015, a figure on par with previous years. The increase in criminal investigations may in part be due to an increased willingness to report hate speech or for police to pursue cases.

The figures appear to suggest that anti-immigrant hate speech is more common online than anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi propaganda, which tends to be more an offline phenomenon in Germany.

Germany is holding national elections next September and for the first time in decades a far-right party, the newly founded Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) is nearly certain to enter parliament. Though few give the AfD much chance of winning power, the surprise election of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the U.K.'s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, have many mainstream parties fearful of an upset.

Merkel, who is running for a fourth term as chancellor, used a recent speech to parliament to condemn extremists online and fake news sites that she accused of “falsifying opinion.”