Germany grapples with fake news ahead of elections

Facebook faced withering criticism in the US for allowing fake news to spread during the 2016 presidential election. Now, the social network has come under similar scrutiny in Germany, amid concerns that widespread disinformation campaigns could impact upcoming elections.

False and misleading news articles have spread rapidly across Europe in recent months, prompting calls for new legislation and tougher regulations on social media companies. The reaction has been particularly aggressive in Germany, where authorities recently opened an investigation into the matter. The German government, which has traditionally taken a firmer hand than the US in regulating tech companies, is also considering measures that would impose fines on Facebook for publishing fake news. Yet some fear that government intervention could backfire in Germany, where memories of totalitarian rule and propaganda are still fresh, while others have downplayed the effect that fake news could have on the political landscape.

Under mounting pressure from lawmakers, Facebook announced this week that it will begin filtering fake news for users in Germany, marking the first expansion of an initiative that launched in the US in December. In a German-language post announcing the expansion, Facebook said it will wok with Correctiv, a Berlin-based nonprofit media organization, to fact-check articles reported as dubious, and that it aims to bring other media groups onboard.

“Fighting fake news is essential for our society.”

“We think fighting fake news is essential for our society,” David Schraven, Correctiv’s publisher, said in an email. “People should make their decision on the basis of true information.”

But details on the partnership remain unclear. Schraven said that the Facebook project is still “in a planning phase,” and that Correctiv is unsure of how many people will be needed to work on it. He added that Facebook is not paying Correctiv during this phase, and that the organization will determine how to pay for it “after we know what needs to be done.” Facebook will not be paying fact-checkers, according to a person familiar with the matter. (It was previously reported that the company would not pay fact-checking organizations in the US, either.)

The scope of Germany’s fake news problem was detailed in a report from BuzzFeed News this week, which found that many fabricated and misleading news articles have targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel and her open-door policy toward refugees. Sites such as anonymousnews.ru, rapefugees.net, and noch.info regularly publish incendiary stories about refugees and Islam, as well as pro-Russia propaganda.

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Pegida Marches In Munich Many fake news articles in Germany aim to stir anti-Muslim sentiment. Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

There is some evidence that such articles are gaining traction. An article falsely claiming that Merkel took a selfie with one of the terrorists involved in an attack on Brussels garnered more than 32,000 engagements on Facebook, according to BuzzFeed’s analysis. A factual account of the photograph, which was taken with a refugee, generated less than 13,000 engagements, the website reported. (The Syrian refugee who took the photo has also filed a lawsuit against Facebook for allowing the rumor to spread.)

Merkel has warned of the effect that fake news could have on upcoming elections, suggesting that Russia may be seeking to interfere with elections in Germany as it is believed to have done in the US. (Merkel is seeking re-election later this year.) Justice Minister Heiko Maas has also suggested that Facebook should be treated as a media company, which would make it liable for fake news or hate speech published to its site, while German lawmakers are considering a law that would fine social networks that publish fake news. Reuters reported this week that Facebook executives have been working to dissuade German politicians from adopting stricter regulations.

“The issue of fake news is, to most of us, very troublesome and worrisome,” says Christian Schemer, professor of communications at the University of Mainz. “It has reached a quality that keeps officials busy.”

False and exaggerated news stories in Germany have so far not led to violence, in the way the “Pizzagate” conspiracy did in the US. But there have been real-world consequences. Police in the city of Dortmund were recently forced to debunk a false report, published by Breitbart, which claimed that a “1,000-man mob” chanting “Allahu Akbar” set fire to a church on New Year’s Eve. Last year, reports of a Russian-German girl being kidnapped and raped by migrants led to far-right protests in Germany, prompting Russia’s foreign minister to criticize German authorities. The girl later admitted to making up the story, but not before it had been widely circulated in Russian media and right-leaning websites.

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“I fear that this will only increase the distrust in media.”

German far-right leaders haven’t appropriated the term “fake news” in the way that Donald Trump uses it to belittle mainstream media in the US — something that has fueled calls to retire the term. But the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) regularly describes mainstream newspapers as the “Pinocchio press,” while the anti-immigrant Pegida movement has revived the term “lying press,” which was used by the Nazis.

Some activists in Germany have taken it upon themselves to debunk false reports. A site called Hoaxmap, which launched in February of last year, maps instances of false reporting on alleged crimes committed by refugees across Germany, and includes police statements or other news reports that disprove them. To date, the site has documented 450 false reports on asylum-seekers, many of which contained allegations of rape and violence. Another watchdog organization, called Schmalbart, was created to keep tabs on Breitbart, which plans to launch in both Germany and France this year.

Karolin Schwarz, one of Hoaxmap’s co-founders, says she’s seen a steady stream of online hoaxes since the summer of 2015, when Germany saw an influx of asylum seekers. From March through December 2016, Hoaxmap actually saw a decrease in refugee-related hoaxes, but Schwarz says they’ve increased since the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin late last year. She also casts doubt on Facebook’s filtering initiative, saying that it may prompt allegations of censorship and further undermine confidence in the mainstream media.

“Trust in media is weak in Germany, so I fear that this will only increase the distrust in media, since people are framing this as an attempt of censorship,” Schwarz said in an email, adding that Facebook has not been in touch with Hoaxmap about a partnership. “Maybe this could work, but we sure need other ways to deal with this.”

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“I take this as a sign of a healthy system that can correct itself.”

Some doubt that fake news will have much of an impact on upcoming elections in Germany, where propaganda and disinformation campaigns were widespread throughout the 20th century. According to Wolfgang Mühl-Benninghaus, professor of media studies at Humboldt University, recent history has made Germans more wary of misleading news reports. “We had a lot of fake news during the Weimar Republic, we had fake news in the Third Reich,” Mühl-Benninghaus says. “We have an understanding of our history.”

There are also concerns over government interference in the media in the run-up to German elections, which will be held in September. The government has reportedly considered setting up a press bureau to track and combat fake news, but there is reluctance among those who fear the institution being seen as a ministry of truth. Leaders in the Czech Republic created their own “anti-fake news unit” this year to counteract propaganda campaigns allegedly carried out by Russia.

Schemer acknowledges that Germany’s recent history may make media consumers more alert to propaganda and disinformation, though he says there is still a “small subculture” that continues to spread radical ideas. Social media has also made it easier for them to reach large audiences, he says, while making it more difficult for fact-checkers and law enforcement to identify them. Still, Schemer says he’s reassured by the speed with which many hoaxes have been debunked by the media and law enforcement.

“I take this as a sign of a healthy system that can correct itself,” he says, adding: “So to this extent I’m optimistic. But maybe we can talk after September this year. Maybe this impression will have changed.”

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