Hunting down fake news
In the worst case, targeted disinformation can become a real and present threat to our democracy. A number of initiatives in Germany have responded by taking on the mission of fact checking information on the net.
By Petra Schönhöfer
Are black squirrels truly killing off all the red squirrels? This is what one widely spread false report, which has been making the rounds on social media for years together with xenophobic theories, would have us believe. Fake news, alternative facts and targeted disinformation often have enormous reach on these channels and draw a lot of attention from the public. A fake story might look relatively harmless at first glance, like in the supposed murderous tendencies of black, immigrant squirrels. But false reports can have very serious consequences. They can be weaponised as part of a politically motivated fight against democracy, influence elections, kick of right-wing hate campaigns and divide society. Cute or threatening? The (false) claim that invading black squirrels might eliminate the native, red ones has been making the rounds on the internet for years. | Photo (detail): © Picture alliance/Karin Schwan
Fact-checking to rebuild trust
Internet users are growing increasingly uneasy and hardly know who to trust anymore. A European Commission study found that more than half of all Germans feel confronted with misleading or false information at least once a week. Established, conventional media are having to stand their ground against disinformation again and again. And while checking facts and verifying data have always been a part of their daily work, many media outlets have begun making factchecks accessible to the public in an effort to combat the often targeted disinformation campaigns fanned into flames on social media.
Many German broadcasters now have a separate fact-checking department. In spring 2017, public broadcaster ARD founded the ARD Faktenfinder research department under the aegis of the Tagesschau, the most watched nightly news programme on German television. The Faktenfinder team combs the internet for stories that seem false and could potentially influence public discourse. Working on the same principle, Bavarian broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk’s BR24 Faktenfuchs team springs into action around elections and major public debates, but also regularly factchecks everyday, repeated false information.
Targeting change through investigative journalism
According to the Correctiv editorial team, “Targeted disinformation is being used to divide our society, spread hate or make money. […] This sows doubt and can sometimes even be dangerous.” Based in Essen, the initiative has won a number of awards and is considered the primary research centre for investigative journalism in Germany. Team reporters dig down on systemic problems, corruption, and unethical behaviour. Every day, CORRECTIV.Faktencheck uncovers false information, rumours and half-truths. “We use our work to stand up for an open and democratic society. We don’t just do research and reporting; we also want to drive change,” the team says. Their research has impacted cases like the Cum-ex tax fraud affair, skyrocketing rents and the AfD donation scandal.
In Austria, Mimikama is hot on the trail of misinformation: the non-profit “dedicated to uncovering misuse of the internet” was founded by Thomas Wannenmacher in 2011. Wannenmacher calls himself a “fake hunter” and made a name for himself through his “Zuerst denken, dann klicken” (Think first, then click, ZDDK) Facebook page. He uses his popular blog to draw attention to scams, subscription traps, spam, fraudulent lotteries, fake news and dangerous internet links.
Other organisations disprove false reports on just one topic, like the Hoaxmap website. Every individual flag on this interactive map of Germany stands for a false report about refugees. The European External Action Service’s EU vs. Disinfo website works to expose and disprove Russian disinformation campaigns.
Identifying fake news, improving media literacy
A 2019 Forsa poll still found that 40 percent of all Germans feel they lack the skills to identify fake news and wonder how to recognise disinformation. The internet provides some tips and tutorials, such as the German police’s Tu Was (Do Something) campaign.
False reports do not stand a chance when users are wise to the methods and mechanisms employed by targeted fake news. So there are many initiatives that focus on raising media literacy, especially among younger internet users. A January 2021 Forsa poll about Safer Internet Day found that 71 percent of respondents between 14 and 24 years of age reported getting their news via social media channels with Instagram (42 percent) and YouTube (41 percent) in the lead. This is another reason Correctiv offers an online academy with more than 1,100 tutorials including instructional videos and practice exercises to teach media literacy and the art of journalism. The Digitale Helden.de team goes into schools to talk to kids about how to protect their personal data on social networks. And awareness raising campaigns like the European Commission’s Klicksafe campaign and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s Klickwinkel video contest are working to help people understand how to approach and assess information on the internet. An autumn 2019 Querdenker (lateral thinkers) demonstration: many participants say they trust Facebook and YouTube more than the established media. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Markus Scholz