Fake news When lies become the truth

Fake news can change which news people believe.
Fake news can change which news people believe. | Photo: © M-SUR - Fotolia

Fake news is deliberately spread with a view to manipulating public opinion in Germany, too. It is not only right-wing populists that are involved, but also governments – which will make Germany’s next general election quite a challenge.

According to a fake news report from New Year’s Eve 2016, “a mob of 1,000 Arab men” allegedly gathered in front of St. Reinold’s Church in Dortmund city centre, the “oldest church in Germany”. Calling “Allah is great”, they apparently attacked police officers and ended up setting the church on fire. The only thing is, the story is not true: there was no fire at the church, which in fact is only the oldest church in Dortmund, not in all of Germany. According to a police statement, all that happened was that an errant firework set fire to some netting that was attached to the church for renovation work. The fire was quickly extinguished, and the fire brigade and police describe the evening as a “normal” New Year’s Eve.
 
This is a classic example of fake news, which in this case was reported by the American news portal breitbart.com. Breitbart is the American platform for the New Right in the United States. The story went viral, with German bloggers and conspiracy theorists citing it as a prime example of how news is covered up by German media.

Politicians are alarmed by this and many other such cases, as it is all too obvious that they constitute an attempt to discredit the democratic system of government as a whole. Right-wing populist parties hope to swell their ranks if people lose their trust and confidence in government institutions. Autocrats clearly see fake news as a way of destabilizing western democracies.

Influencing the US election campaign

This was certainly achieved in the USA, where the intelligence services believe that the Russian government systematically influenced the elections in favour of President Donald Trump. During the election campaign, the American arm of Russia’s state propaganda broadcaster “Russia Today” was inundated with false reports about US domestic policy.
 
In the view of US intelligence officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin is also responsible for the fact that e-mails from a hacked account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta were released on WikiLeaks shortly before the election.

Targeting the German elections

Autumn 2017 will see elections to Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. Dieter Sarreither, the federal returning officer and president of the Federal Statistical Office, issued a strong warning in January 2017: “The public and the media must react to news with particular sensitivity during this election campaign. They need to realize that there will be attempts to manipulate them.”
 
Members of the governing coalition are now considering ways to take legal steps against fake news. There is talk for example of a “centre to combat disinformation”. For some people this sounds rather like a Ministry of Truth, and will be difficult to achieve in a country in which freedom of the press is enshrined in the constitution. Others want to prohibit what are known as “social bots” – automated programs that disseminate fake news in social networks. This is also likely to come to nothing, as it is virtually impossible to identify the authors of such programs.

Arbiters of truth

Facebook may not compose fake news itself, but with more than 25 million users in Germany and 1.7 billion users worldwide it certainly is the world’s largest disseminator of it. The German government wants to impose a greater obligation on the company to remove fake news from its website. Yet so far it has little success. As Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg says himself, he prefers to put his trust in informed users and journalists rather than have the people behind Facebook acting as “arbiters of truth” themselves. At least it should be easier to report fake news in future.
 
It might also help if providers of fake news websites had their funding channels shut down. In Germany, Gerald Hensel initiated the Twitter hashtag #keingeldfürrechts (i.e. no money for the right wing) in an attempt to trigger such a debate. Its aim was to ensure that certain websites would not receive additional support in the form of advertising revenue. Unfortunately, the debate spiralled out of control, and Hensel received death threats. The campaign quickly had an impact on the operators of the websites, however: they are already reporting a fall in revenue. This approach may prove more promising than endless new laws.