This morning’s Observer column:
Most people I know who use Facebook seem normal. And the uses to which they put the service also seem normal – harmless to the point of banality. So when they see reports of how social media is being used to fuel extremism, violence, racism, intolerance, hatred – even ethnic cleansing – they are puzzled. Who are the people who do things like that? And why doesn’t Facebook stop them?
To answer the first question, let us visit Altena, a town of about 18,000 souls in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. After Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to refugees, Altena took its quota, like any good German town. When refugees first arrived, so many locals volunteered to help that Anette Wesemann, who runs Altena’s refugee integration centre, couldn’t keep up. She’d find Syrian or Afghan families attended by groups of volunteer German tutors. “It was really moving,” she told a New York Times reporter.
But when Wesemann set up a Facebook page to organise food banks and volunteer activities, things changed…