In the aftermath of Trump’s win, Germans have been worried about the viral spread of fake news – and how it could play out in September’s Bundestag elections. The government wants to fine social media sites up to €50 million for aiding and abetting the fake news machine, but giants like Facebook are not taking this proposal lying down.
In September 2015, at the beginning of the “refugee crisis”, Angela Merkel visited a shelter in Berlin. There, Anas Modamani, a newly arrived Syrian refugee, took a selfie with a pleased-looking chancellor and uploaded it to Facebook. Since then, the innocuous photo has been used and abused thousands of times, reposted by right-wing bloggers and Facebook users implicating Modamani in the Brussels and Berlin terrorist attacks. When a group of young men from Syria and Libya were suspected of setting a homeless man on fire in the Schönleinstraße U-Bahn station in December, the image circulated anew with the caption: “Homeless man set on fire. In 2015 Merkel took a selfie with the perpetrator!” Modamani had had enough: the so-called “selfie-refugee” took Facebook to court for spreading “fake news”. The trial is still ongoing.
Also on the receiving end of Facebook slander is Green politician Renate Künast. After the murder of a student in Freiburg last autumn, allegedly by a refugee, the page Widerstand deutscher Patrioten (“German patriotic resistance”) falsely quoted Künast as saying, “The traumatised young refugee killed, but we have to help him nonetheless.” She requested that Facebook delete it, which happened only three days later. She’s now pressing charges against the page’s account holders.
“Misinformation isn’t a new phenomenon,” says Stefan Gelbhaar, a Green Party candidate for this year’s Bundestag election and the party’s Berlin spokesman on media policy. “What is new is that such misinformation can reach a very broad audience without being checked. If you have enough followers, you can just go online and spread something extremely fast. And once it’s out there, it’s hard to get back.”
Ronald Gläser, press spokesman for the Berlin chapter of the AfD, sees the outreach of social media as a huge plus. “Social media, especially Facebook, is extremely important for a young party like ours.” Especially considering that – at least in the AfD’s eyes – the “establishment” media are biased against the party and deny them a platform.
A look at the AfD’s various regional Facebook feeds shows a certain discipline: they seem careful not to spread fabricated stories or statements that are illegal under Germany’s hate speech laws. More typical are text-photo montages which serve the AfD agenda. A JPEG posted on March 21 shows a dark-skinned man’s hand clasped over the mouth of a fair-skinned woman, accompanied by the text “Daily in Germany: 43 victims of sexual violence by ‘refugees’”. It links to an article on the right-wing blog “Tichys Einblick”. The blog cites a police report stating that 2789 refugees were charged with sexually related crimes (abuse, harassment, rape, pimping) in the first nine months of 2016, or about 10 per day. Using a complicated, dubious method of estimating non-reported crimes, Tichys inflates this to 43 per day, which the AfD in turn presents as fact. The post was shared 4000 times and received hundreds of comments.
The German government has long been concerned that social networks, especially Facebook, allow too much hate speech, libel and slanderous misinformation. In autumn 2015, after coming under criticism for failing to comply with Germany’s hate speech laws, Facebook hired Bertelsmann media group’s subsidiary Arvato to monitor and delete content deemed offensive. In an undisclosed location in Berlin, a team of 600 German, Arabic, Turkish, Italian and French speakers monitor 2000 user-flagged posts per day, including child porn, ISIS decapitation videos and slander against migrants. This approach is contentious: According to a recent investigation by Süddeutsche Zeitung, Facebook’s deletion rules are arbitrary (calling a migrant a “dirty thief” is left online; slurs calling a migrant a “rapist” are deleted), while the Arvato workers themselves are poorly paid and psychologically burdened by the job.
In a further effort, the Berlin-based non-profit investigative journalism centre Correctiv recently partnered with Facebook to fact-check dodgy stories posted on the network. Posts found to contain false information will be labelled as “Contested by an independent fact checker” in German. In the spirit of independence, Correctiv receives no money from the deal. The centre is funded primarily by donations.
Meanwhile, the government is tackling the issue on the legal front. On top of the strict libel laws that the German press and blogs already have to contend with, German justice minister Heiko Maas proposed a new “Law for Improved Enforcement in Social Networks” in March. Under it, networks with more than 2,000,000 members will be required to delete “clearly prosecutable content” within 24 hours. Those that fail to comply could face fines up to €50,000,000. States the justice ministry, “The rules we’re proposing are also a means against ‘fake news’, which becomes prosecutable if it contains slurs, libel or slander.”
All of these measures have naturally been condemned by Germany’s version of the alt-right media. The popular right-wing blog Politically Incorrect wrote, “Maas is beginning to create the conditions for a dictatorship. Soon the censorship authority of the Ministry of Truth will decide who can say what.”
Facebook, predictably, is also unhappy about the propspect of having to police its content at risk of a €50 million fine. In a statement, Facebook said it was the state’s job to prevent hate speech not theirs: “The prevention of and fight against hate speech and fake news is an official task that the state cannot evade.”
Will all these efforts help quell the spread of fake news on the German-language internet? Says Heidi Tworek, a specialist on political communication at the German Marshall Fund: “The question is whether Facebook will adhere to German law. There is a case to make that it hasn’t done so up till now. It’s a long-standing complaint that goes back to the Obama era, amplified by fake news and fears about Trump. But I don’t think it will be that important in this election.” A key point, Tworek says, is that far fewer Germans use Facebook. The AfD has the strongest social media following of any German party, but that still amounts to only 320,000 Facebook likes. Party leader Frauke Petry has 200,000 compared to Trump’s 22,000,000. “The media landscape is not as atomised here as in the US,” Tworek maintains. “Germans still buy more newspapers per person.”
Johanna Niesyto, a media policy expert with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, suggests a polarisation of news consumption is happening here nonetheless: “A study by Mainz University on trust in the media shows the public is drifting apart. While you have a large number of people who have a high degree of trust in media, especially the public broadcasters, there is also a growing portion that questions the credibility of the media, seeing it as part of the ‘establishment’”.
In response to the current “post-truth” atmosphere, German media institutions are beefing up their fact-checking operations. Public TV channel ZDF has announced its #ZDFcheck17 project, by which journalists look into the veracity of dubious politicians’ statements and social media posts in this year’s election campaign. But such efforts by “mainstream” media might not be enough to win back the trust of Germans who subscribe to the “Lügenpresse” narrative pushed by Pegida and the AfD. As Niesyto explains: “Even these platforms require an informed, responsible citizen who is emotionally and intellectually prepared to evaluate information for him- or herself.”
While German democracy doesn’t seem to be evaporating in a fog of fake news any time soon, there are threats on the horizon. One of them, most seem to agree, is social bots. These easy-to-create algorithms can be set up as fake profiles on Facebook and Twitter in order to automatically befriend, post, share, tweet, or troll their way through the political internet. They’re said to have played a significant role in Trump’s social media campaign. All of the main political parties in Germany have rejected the use of bots, including the AfD, but an investigation by faz.net in February (“Frauke Petry und die Bots”) concluded that AfD supporters were using bot profiles to vastly increase the reach of populistfriendly content on Facebook and Twitter.
Stefan Gelbhaar and the Greens say that non-human profiles must be marked as such, so that users know that they’re dealing with machines. Perhaps this will be the next battle waged by the German state to stop the online spread of political misinformation.