Media Initiatives Facts Against Fake News

Four weeks training in the “boot camp” against fake news: the “Verifikation” team of the Bavarian Broadcasting Company.
Four weeks training in the “boot camp” against fake news: the “Verifikation” team of the Bavarian Broadcasting Company. | Photo (detail): © BR / Lisa Hinder

The German media are caught in a crisis of credibility. In order to regain trust and act against manipulated and false information on the internet, they have launched various initiatives.

Ever heard of the Gold Bullion Conspiracy? If you believe this tale, large parts of the German gold reserves no longer exist; they have been surreptitiously purloined by the United States and replaced by false bars. “The story is very present in the social media; videos about it get 10,000 hits”, says Patrick Gensing. “This is always an indicator for us that it’s worth taking action.”

“FACTFINDER”: light in the darkness

Gensing is head of Faktenfinder (Factfinder), a research department of the public broadcasting network ARD. Factfinder is associated with the Tagesschau (Daily News), the TV news programme with the most viewers in Germany. Its aim is to search the internet for stories that seem false and at first glance irrelevant, but possess the potential, reinforced by social media, to influence public discourse. These are then investigated and untruths set right. The case of the gold conspiracy, for instance, turns out on closer look to be an urban legend. Factfinder’s results are published centrally at the website faktenfinder.tagesschau.de.

For Gensing, Factfinder is also an attempt finally to throw light on a phenomenon that increasingly worries the German media because of the Bundestag elections in Septermber 2017: so-called fake news, information hoaxes, or rather misinformation and disinformation. “We don’t know whether such untruths, spread on the internet, will play a similarly prominent role here as they did in the Brexit vote or the elections in the United States and France. But there are reasons to think so”, says Gensing. “With Factfinder, we want to find out how big this phenomenon really is.”

little confidence in the media

That fake news is credited with such a huge manipulative and democracy-damaging potential also has to do with the credibility deficit afflicting the classical media in the eyes of the population. “From several studies, we know that currently between one-fifth to one-fourth of Germans have no trust in quite trustworthy media”, says Carsten Reinemann, Professor of Communication Science at the University of Munich.

One possible cause of this Reinemann sees in problematic developments in the media sector that have conduced to journalistic mistakes: the increasing acceleration of reporting due to economic constraints can lead, for example, to a lack of care. Moreover, there is also a trend to scandal-mongering and there are the influences of politics, advertising, and PR.

On the other hand, according to Reinemann, the credibility crisis is also an effect of a political agenda: the narrative of criticism of the system as it has been propagated above all by the right-wing populist party “Alternative for Germany” (Alternative für Deutschland / AfD), according to which the media play the role of the agents of the powers that be and serve as a manipulator of public opinion. “Suddenly there’s a discussion about whether there can be a consensus about what is true and correct”, says Reinemann. This uncertainty, in turn, can be exploited for purposes of political propaganda. Once this doubt is established, verified information no longer need be trusted and ‘alternative facts’ are suddenly possible.”

“VERIFIkATION”: unmasking FAKE NEWS

Factfinder works closely together with Social Listening and Verifikation, a unit of the Bavarian Broadcasting Company (BR). It too pursues the goal of unmasking and correcting rumors, fake news, and propaganda on the internet. In contrast to Factfinder, here the results are not collected at a central website, but are instead included in the ongoing reporting.

The work of the unit is not primarily about mere verification, but about providing information on false reports, explains its head Stefan Primbs. “We want to tell the story right, without having to repeat lies.” Another focus of the project is teaching media competence. Explanatory contributions show how rumors spread and clarify the various mechanisms of propaganda and fake news in social networks.

“ECHTJETZT“: checking the truth of stories

An initiative of the non-profit research association Correctiv also started in June 2017. Under the name Echtjetzt (Really Now), it has set up a website on which selected stories are checked for their truth content. Information about such sources can be reported directly by users on a form available at the webpage or via Facebook. The most important criterion for a check is the story’s relevance, that is, its dissemination in social media. “Truthful reporting and the fight against deliberate misinformation are among the core tasks of journalists. It’s important to find out how significant the phenomenon of fake news really is now in Germany”, says Jutta Kramm, head of the Echtjetzt team, summarizing the goal of the project, which is very similar to that of her colleagues at the ARD’s Factfinder.

Carsten Reinemann welcomes all these initiatives but warns against interpreting them solely as an attempt to regain public confidence. In his view, the real challenge lies elsewhere: “In its most dangerous form, fake news can be part of a politically motivated attack on free, pluralistic democracy. The challenge for journalists is to recognize and unmask fake news, but at the same time to take legitimate criticism of their own medium seriously and to learn from it.”