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Facebook vows to help Germany combat racist, xenophobic content

The partnership comes after the country's chancellor urged the social network to do more to police hate posted directed at segments of the population.

Facebook is stepping up efforts to remove racist content posted on its German website as the country grapples with an overwhelming influx of refugees.

Germany's Justice minister, Heiko Maas, said after meeting with Facebook executives Monday that the social-networking giant had agreed to work with an Internet watchdog to identify and remove content deemed hateful or xenophobic, according to a Reuters report. The partnership comes just days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Facebook to do more to combat racist comments and hate posts on the social network's German version.

"This is a joint task for the whole of society, and I am very grateful to Facebook that they are taking their responsibly in this joint task," Maas told a news conference in Berlin, according to Reuters.

Facebook pledges to help Germany identify and remove racist and hateful posts. Kim Kulish/Corbis

Facebook, which relies on user reports to deal with offensive or prohibited content, has also formed a partnership with Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers, a German watchdog group that monitors online hate speech.

The social network also plans to create a task force to examine the issue of hate speech, inviting community groups, companies and politicians to share their expertise on the topic. The company also plans to launch a broad campaign to promote a counter campaign that will debate and challenge the views of xenophobia.

"The conversations that happen on Facebook reflect the diversity of a community of more than 1 billion people," Eva-Maria Kirschsieper, Facebook policy manager in Germany, said in a statement. "It is a constant challenge to balance the interests of this diverse population and we are always looking for ways to make our policies and processes more effective and sensitive to the concerns of local communities."

The announcement underscores the challenge of policing social networks across international borders where there are different standards for what is considered free speech. In Germany, for example, criminal law bans public incitement of hatred against a segment of the population based on its national, racial, ethnic or religious background. Violation of the law is punishable by up to three years imprisonment.

Maas accused the social network in August of not doing enough to thwart racist comments and hateful posts, saying in a letter to Facebook Public Policy Director Richard Allan that he had received many complaints from users that their protests over racists posts had been ignored.

German officials made the request for stepped up policing in the face of a surge of asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq. Germany is now taking in 50,000 refugees each week and expects to have more than 800,000 by the end of the year.

The Menlo Park, California-based company updated its community standards in March to clarify the content that people are and aren't allowed to share. Facebook has also said that it may geographically target areas in accordance with laws of specific countries, even if the content doesn't violate the Facebook's standards.

That revision followed efforts by social networks across the Internet to respond to a rising tide of high-profile posts, tweets and photos that have upset and offended many users. The actor Robin Williams' death in last summer led some Twitter users to send vicious messages to his daughter Zelda, prompting her to delete the app from her phone. That same month, Anita Sarkeesian, an academic highlighting how women are portrayed in video games, was so disturbed by the tweets she received that she fled her home for fear of safety.

In February, Dick Costolo, Twitter's then-CEO, took personal responsibility for what he called an inadequate response to the chronic abuse and harassment that occurs daily on the social network, saying that he believed the bullying behavior is driving away users.

Over the last several months, the community-curated news site Reddit has been caught in a maelstrom of controversy over its policies regarding the freewheeling commentary that has made it a sometime symbol of the Internet's darker side and led to the departure of a number of prominent employees.

Updated at 10:45 p.m. PT with Facebook statement.