In December, a news story made the rounds on Facebook reporting the response by Renate Künast, a prominent Green Party politician, to the notorious murder of a female student, allegedly killed by an Afghan refugee. She was quoted as saying “The traumatized young refugee may have killed someone, but we still must help him.” The story was sourced to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the most important German news outlets.
But the story was entirely false: Ms. Künast simply never said it. She demanded that Facebook delete the story, which it did, but only after a delay of some days. Ms. Künast also launched a lawsuit against the story’s originator. But by then the lie was out in the world, impossible to fully eliminate.
The deliberate spreading of lies as an election tactic is nothing new. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis deployed the trick on a massive scale, in order to influence the public mood. The difference today is that the internet allows stories to spread at lightning speed. Anyone can create a false news story, and the true originators often remain anonymous.
False reports and fake news, created to manipulate debates, could be a huge problem in the upcoming federal elections. Katarina Barley, general secretary, Social Democratic Party
As well as politically-motivated false news reports, there are also many designed simply to make money for their creators. Whole businesses now exist—particularly in the United States and Eastern Europe—whose business model is to create and propagate the most grotesque news stories imaginable. All in order to get as many clicks as possible.
The parties of Germany’s coalition government — the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats — are currently discussing ways to get on top of the problem. “False reports and fake news, created to manipulate debates, could be a huge problem in the upcoming federal elections,” said Katarina Barley, the SPD general secretary. “We have to confront it.”
“We all agree that the increasing number of false news reports can pose a real threat to the process of democratic opinion formation,” warned Stephan Harbarth, deputy parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union, or CSU. In the last two or three years, levels of hate emails and hate calls, have “significantly increased,” reported the socialist Left Party. Robert Heinrich, the Green Party election manager, agreed. He said that Facebook was increasingly used to plant messages meant to damage his party. Often, he added, seemingly innocuous profiles were set up, which were later used to seed fake news reports.
Facebook has since set up a specific mechanism to eliminate fake news stories in the run-up to this fall’s federal election Germany. Starting this spring, the social media network will partner with a non-profit investigative journalism bureau, Correctiv, to expose and correct fake news stories.
But parties are also taking their own counter-measures. As a first step, the CDU, CSU, SPD, Left Party, and Green Party, along with the business-friendly Free Democrats, or FDP, and the right-wing populists Alternative for Germany, or AfD, have all agreed to refrain from using “social bots.” These are programs which, in the guise of genuine human users of social media, post thousands of online comments, with a view to influencing public opinion. The FDP already has some experience with fake social media profiles: in 2013, the party’s Twitter account increased its follower count by almost 100,000 overnight. Many suspected the followers were fake, bought from an unscrupulous internet publicity agency, and the FDP was widely mocked. The party denied having itself bought the followers, but some damage to its reputation had already occurred.
The Green Party has established its own rapid reaction team, their so-called Internet firefighters.
This can also happen the other way around. Speaking to Handelsblatt, Arne Schönbohm, head of the Federal Office for Information Security Technology, or BSI, warned that fake profiles can be put in place which then unfollow an account after a public statement by a politician. This can give a false impression of falling public popularity. There must be a collective effort to find ways to combat fake news, as well as online hate and defamation, said Martin Schulz, the new SPD leader, on Sunday.
Going on the offensive against fake news, the Green Party has established its own rapid reaction team, their so-called “internet firefighters.” Mr. Heinrich, the party’s election manager, said: “By doing this, we are trying to increase the number of eyes and ears online. The volunteers are meant to assist the efforts of the team in the national party headquarters. The group already has 300 active members; it is hoped this figure will rise to 1,000 before the election campaign gets under way.
The SPD currently has a 10-strong internet presence team. Once the election campaign begins, that number will “significantly increase,” according to party sources. Among their tasks is to keep an eye on postings and news concerning the party and its leading figures. Like the Greens, the SPD and the Left Party have appealed to their members for help. The Social Democrats have established a hotline, where false reports can be reported. “In the case of illegal attacks, we will take legal action,” said Ms. Barley, the party general secretary. The Greens are also committed to a “clear and hard-hitting response,” said Mr. Heinrich.
Handelsblatt reporters Heike Anger, Daniel Delhaes, Dana Heide, Dietmar Neuerer, and Silke Kersting contributed to this story. To contact them: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]