After closely following the course of the US-Election, a couple of new terms entered my vocabulary – terms such as “Filter-Bubble” or “Fake-News”. And as Americans are always a little faster than most Germans in all things social media, I was not surprised when Fake-News and Filter Bubbles made the, well, news in Germany as well. But I wondered: Is that a thing in Germany too?
Fake-News in Germany?
The short answer: Absolutely. “News” proclaiming outright falsehoods or simply changing or falsifying actual facts in order to support certain sentiments are meandering through networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat and even made it to messenger apps such as Whatsapp, by sparking police investigations into the authors of specific items.
While the Fake-News-Discussion in the USA blew up to enormous proportions, including justifiable suspicions of clandestine operations by foreign secret service agencies, I asked myself: What kind of Fake-News do pop up in German social media? Who profits and who might launch them or at least push them ahead?
How to identify Fake-News in Germany
In case you are unclear about how to identify a news report as a purposeful falsehood, let me give you a few hints: It might be a cliché, but in Germany, truthful news tends not to be narrated in an (overly) exaggerated fashion. Furthermore, it is always a good idea to check the author and the respective website’s imprint for information.
When it doesn’t really become clear who runs the site, it’s wise to be critical about its contents. Apropos contents: usually real news can be found on more than one news site. Are there different versions of the news (and not only copies of the exact same statement) on the web, it makes the report more plausible. In the case of images, it can help to reverse search an image using Google or other search engines in order to clarify whether a picture or film is actually showing the reported news or whether it has other origins.
Who uses this Tool in Germany?
Following inquiries of politicians from all major parties of the spectrum, it seems that only the right-wing AfD is deliberately pushing and using Fake-News to further their agenda and to mobilize possible supporters and voters. Research revealed that some of the high-ranking party officials even have strong (even proprietary) ties to multiple websites that are either hotbeds or active sources for such false information.
What are the main Topics?
Consequently, the most frequent topics of these deliberate falsehoods revolve around the refugee crisis, the fear of Islamic terror, and general Anti-Muslim as well as xenophobic sentiments – often including attacks on the established political parties and the government. In detail, this means reports of masses of refugees being secretly brought into the country by the government, false terror threats, and stories of (white German) women and children being raped by barbaric gangs of refugees.
Actual incidents, such as the Berlin-Attack or the mass assaults on women in Cologne and Hamburg on New Years Eve 2015, do, of course, not make the situation any less difficult. But it’s not only the AfD and its supporters that spread Fake-News in Germany. There is a whole haystack of unrelated Fake-News providers out there. Often, respective site owners don’t actually care about the truthfulness of their site’s contents, as their sites are a mere business to generate income through ads.
The good news is that numerous media outlets, federal and state officials and municipalities, as well as actors from the civil society, are engaging in defusing the explosive that is Fake-News. Whether their efforts will succeed in assuring a more rationally and truthfully fought election campaign in 2017 remains to be seen. Website-owners such as companies like Facebook and Twitter have yet to prove that they will make good on their promises to fight the distribution of Fake-News in their networks.