Fake news abounds in run-up to German election

Fake news has become firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist of today. And as funny as it is to slam your buddies with Trump-on-social-media-esque putdowns (“You went home with her? Fake news!”) the reality is troubling, not least of all in the midst of an election. Just ask Germany.

Fake news abounds in run-up to German election

Researchers at the Hohenheim University in Germany created a fake news blog which fell on eager ears amongst the far-right community. With more than a nod to Nazi heritage – the blog was called “Der Volksbeobachter”, after Nazi propaganda daily Völkischer Beobachter, and emblazoned with eagle’s wings – the site promulgated a number of negative reports about migrant policy and behaviour.

One fake story, suggesting that a local council was funding sexual relationships between asylum seekers and prostitutes, reached 11,000 people within four days, garnering 150 shares and, de rigueur, a lot of vitriol in the comments section. Other fake stories included Mark Zuckerberg apologising to a Syrian refugee who had been falsely accused of rape, and the usual tiresome trope of a refugee stealing a German’s job.

Given Germany’s imminent general election on 24 September, anxiety surrounding media manipulation is spiking, and rightly so: German’s economy is the biggest in Europe and the fourth largest economy in the world, according to nominal GDP. The capacity for knock-on effects is phenomenal. Politicians’ fears about Russian intervention in the election are valid.

It’s not something that’s confined to Merkel’s Germany, either. Just look at the 2016 US election, where hackers stole private data, and proceeded to push “narrative and themes that reinforced or expanded on some of the topics exposed from stolen data” on fake profiles. Once this nucleus of deception was established, “organic proliferation of the messaging and data through authentic peer groups and networks was inevitable”. And lest we forget that most delicious instance of fake news, when Republican congressman John Fleming unwittingly posted a satirical article by The Onion on his Facebook page, denouncing a fictional Planned Parenthood ‘Abortionplex’. “The Onion is satire,” wrote one user. “How exactly did you get elected?”

As for Germany, Facebook has ostensibly tried to combat the spread of fake news amongst the country’s 29 million users, publishing full-page notices on how to identify the malicious content. Tips included “checking evidence”, “looking for sources” and “checking what other reports say”. But the social media giant remains indignant about a new German law permitting an independent panel to fine social networks up to €50m (£45m; $59m) if they fail to delete fake news or illegal hate speech. Critics condemn the law as it may result in social media firms policing and deleting “content that is not clearly illegal”, according to Business Insider. But Facebook has a patchy record here: the site has previously instructed moderators to ignore Holocaust denial material because it “does not welcome local law that stands as an obstacle to an open and connected world.”

If there’s one thing more ubiquitous than fake news, it’s grey areas…

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