In September 2017 Germans will be voting in the general election for the new Bundestag. But parties and experts are concerned. They are bracing themselves for influences from cyber attacks, fake news and social bots. What is behind it, and which countermeasures are available.
Fake news – and counter-strategies
A church allegedly set on fire by Arabs, a girl allegedly raped by refugees at a swimming pool, a female politician who allegedly protects a murderer: these are some of the reports that went viral in recent months in the social media in Germany. The one thing they had in common: they were all fabricated.
Fake news is fabricated, untrue news. It is not a question of a shortened quote, or one taken out of context. It is a case of deliberately invented news created to stir up feelings against certain sections of the population or individuals.
In view of the upcoming federal election, Federal Election Commissioner Dieter Sarreither warned: ‘Citizens and the media must be particularly alert to news during this election campaign. They need to know that attempts are being made to manipulate them.’ The governing coalition is currently considering how fake news can be prevented through laws. Discussions include the possibility of heavy fines and a ‘defence centre against disinformation’.
EU initiative against fake news
Just how difficult it is to expose false information is illustrated by a European Union initiative: eleven officials in the European External Action Service are responsible for uncovering fake news. Together with the support of 400 journalists, university employees, public officials, members of NGOs and individuals from 30 countries, they are combatting lies in the Internet. They publish their results on the website euvsdisinfo.eu.
The Federal Government would like to see Facebook doing more about deleting fake news. The company with more than 25 million users in Germany and 1.7 billion users worldwide, is the largest distributor of fake news. It is also under discussion whether Facebook should be required to establish a legal rights unit in Germany – too many notifications about fake news are currently proving ineffective. Possible fines are also being considered. But Facebook is unimpressed and is counting on awareness among users and journalists instead.
What can users do?
Users can do quite a bit to protect themselves against fake news.
- The first step is: check the source. Does the website have a masthead? Does the medium exist that is given as the source? Are the other communications on the website, posts, or tweets, valid or do they sound invented?
- The second step is: does the text contain the information that the introduction promises? An introduction is often exaggerated to attract as many users as possible to the page. It makes sense to read the whole article – the content is often not as spectacular as you may at first think.
- The third step is: you can report fake news to the website www.mimikama.at There you can check whether a news item is solid or not by entering details in the website’s Hoax Search box.
The contributions look as if they have been written by genuine users in the social media, but in reality they have been generated by social bots: public opinion robots that automatically intervene in political debates on Facebook or Twitter to influence the discussions. These social bots are disguised as authentic users.
The far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) announced in autumn 2016 that ‘naturally’ it would make use of social bots in the campaign for the Federal Election of 2017. It was only when all of the other parties protested, and opposed the use of social bots to influence public opinion, that the AfD backed away from the scheme.
Some parties, such as the Alliance 90/The Green Party, are calling for a law to make social bots recognizable. ‘Then citizens can see immediately if a tweet or a post was generated by a robot,’ said the chairwoman of the Greens, Katrin Göring-Eckardt.
The German blogger, journalist and social media expert Sascha Lobo takes a differentiated view of the Federal Government’s ideas. In the news portal Spiegel online he writes, the phenomenon can only be counteracted indirectly: ‘Through raising awareness and truthfulness, through transparency and constructive error correction, through open discussion and active engagement in the plurality of opinion, and maybe through technological support for these values and methods. But not through laws.’
Safer Internet Day on 7 February 2017