Conspiracy theories are as old as humankind, but the internet provides them with almost infinite reach. Today, seemingly absurd assertions – Angela Merkel is the daughter of Adolf Hitler and a member of the Jewish Rothschild banking dynasty; or Jews are plotting Germany's destruction – can be spread far and wide, reaching an audience more vast than ever before.
While much has been said about the accountability of social media, there are other platforms that significantly contribute to the spread of alternative facts and “fake news.” In particular, self-publishing platforms have become a wealth of disinformation unchecked by editors or publishers. These platforms don’t receive much attention, but in Germany over the past decade, they have been transformed into an increasingly relevant niche.
The industry is attractive to many who have been rejected by publishers or want to save themselves the long and difficult editing process. Gaining access to the competitive German book market is also difficult for newcomers. Around 90,000 new titles make it every year, and according to the German Publishers & Booksellers Association, the industry generated revenues of €9.2 billion ($9.9 billion) in 2015 – 17 percent of which was online.
The shift in publishing from print to screen has been inspiring for many writers, with success stories such as that of the global bestseller "Fifty Shades of Grey" first appearing as a self-published work. This has shown an enormous potential. According to a study by the consulting group PwC, 30 percent of all e-book readers have read titles by self-published authors. Of that group, one in four are unable tell the difference between "conventional" and self-published e-books.
Platforms like Amazon feign neutrality and pocket a share of the money. Leonard Novy, director of the Institute for Media and Communication Policy
Books-on-Demand, Germany's largest self-publishing provider, estimates that 100,000 authors across Germany publish their own works – and not only online. Today, one in three printed books are self-published. While PwC expects the industry to grow in the coming years, larger self-publishing platforms such as Amazon’s Create Space are popular precisely because of their reach.
Established in 2005, Create Space doesn’t just play host to erotic novels, fantasy or cookbooks. Titles such as "Hellstorm: The Destruction of Germany", the anti-Semitic novel "Raubland" (“Stolen Country”) or lengthy screeds on Angela Merkel's refugee policy show the company to be profiting by providing a platform for right-wing conspiracy theories.
Leonard Novy, director of the Institute for Media and Communication Policy and co-editor of digital publishing blog "Carta," has been observing the problem for some time: "Platforms like Amazon feign neutrality and pocket a share of the money." There is a serious need for Amazon to take a closer look at the content it hosts, argues Novy. The accusation is not a new one. Amazon has been criticized as far back as 2009 for distributing books from "Deutsche Stimme" (“German Voice”) – the publishing house of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD. Only after mounting public pressure did the company remove the books from its offering.
Still, the online retailer remains decidedly unselective. Among Amazon Germany’s current assortment are books belonging to the publisher "Kopp," which has made headlines time and again with right-wing titles. One of Kopp’s most well-known authors is the late journalist Udo Ulfkotte, who penned such anti-Islamic screeds as "Mekka Deutschland" (“Mecca Germany”) or the conspiracy-laden "Gekaufte Journalisten" (“Bought Journalists”). Other smaller publishers also continue to use Amazon to sell content promoting conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.
Ironically, Amazon does claim to have clear rules when it comes to self-publishing. Pornography, violence and “extremely disturbing” content, for example, violate those rules. However, titles like "Hellstorm" and "Raubland" do not. And while self-publishing and distribution platforms like Amazon reject the label of publisher, Mr. Novy questions that claim: "These aren’t copy shops." While Amazon and others assume the functions typical of a publisher, they are reluctant to take responsibility for what they host.
Questionable titles can also be found amidst German self-publishing providers. One example is the e-book platform BookRix, of which publishing giant Bastei Lübbe is a majority shareholder. BookRix plays host to a variety of the successful, self-publishing authors, including romance novelist Poppy J. Anderson. However, they also put out the English-language manifestos of conspiracy theorist Rev. Dr. Karen Adrien Osbey Atkins. Rev. Atkins claims that Angela Merkel's mother was implanted with Adolf Hitler's sperm, making the chancellor Hitler’s daughter. "There is some absolute nonsense circulating out there" says Leonard Novy.
As Cologne-based media lawyer Christian Solmecke points out, one of the few ways to combat these lies is to sue for libel or slander: "When unlawful claims are made, the party concerned can demand damages and an injunction."
A spokesperson of BookRix conceded that books which are published but not sold on their platform are not subject to advance checks. “However, we will take action if we are referred by users to content which breaks the law.”
As Mr. Solmecke explains: “There is no obligation on the part of the service provider to examine if there is an infringement of the law. Subjecting each individual contribution to legal examination would not be reasonable.”
And as long as the titles remain unchecked, they can be offered for sale. For that reason, authors of the questionable works, including right-wing extremists, can continue to earn money from book sales. One such example is Thomas Goodrich, a controversial author from the United States whose book “Höllensturm” has gained a following in Germany. In the book, Mr. Goodrich argues that the boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany during the 1930s was an understandable reaction to an alleged Jewish conspiracy against the German “Reich.” For every copy sold, Mr. Goodrich receives €25.29, or $27.16. “Amazon gets 40 percent of that,” Mr Novy points out. Despite several enquiries made by Handelsblatt, Amazon has refused to comment.
Petra Pfannes, a spokesperson for Germany’s Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media (KJM), is aware of the problem e-books pose: “We frequently receive complaints about e-books, usually because of pornographic or extremist right-wing content. In the case of prohibited content or denials of the Holocaust, for example, we pass these complaints on to the public prosecutor’s office.”
For Mr. Novy, the rise of such content confirms that right-wing extremists are in the process of forming a new kind of communication infrastructure. And self-publishing is an important part of it: “There is a trend developing here – one which has hardly been noticed by the political and media elite.”
Before publication, every single book goes through a multi-stage examination process. Thorsten Simons, Spokesman, Books-on-Demand
Books-on-Demand (BoD), which belongs to media giant Bertelsmann, is also familiar with the problem, and has taken measures to counter it. “Before publication, every single book goes through a multi-stage examination process. If the content of a book is questionable, either because it infringes on current law or is libelous, it will never make it to publication,” said Thorsten Simons of Books-on-Demand. He added that it clearly states in each contract that the authors themselves are responsible for any legal violations.
Both of the independent self-publishing service providers Grin and Tredition also have screening mechanisms. According to Nadine Otto, head of book marketing at Tredition, titles in violation of their content guidelines are immediately rejected. “For example, we refused a book by a former leading member of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany. He took us to court to try to force publication, but lost,” Ms. Otto said.
Media attorney Christian Solmecke advises self-publishing platforms to conduct content checks and include a corresponding clause in authors’ contracts. While this won’t entirely prevent the spread of questionable content, it is a start.
Julian Mertens is an editor at Handelsblatt Live. To contact the author: [email protected]
Johannes Steger is a trainee at the Georg von Holtzbrinck School. To contact the author: [email protected]