September 14, 2017

Even though Germany is less than two weeks away from its federal election, Jacques Pezet isn't worried. At least, not yet.

"It’s not really like we’ve been having a lot of fake news," said the fact-checker for Correctiv, a German nonprofit media group.

Coming off the heels of contentious presidential elections in France and the United States, it would seem natural for massive online misinformation to afflict Germans as well. But it isn’t (at least, not as much), in part due to the country's current political structure.

Mirijam Trunk, an organizing member of Stimmtdas — an independent German fact-checking platform — said the campaign has been tame compared to the political vitriol of the French and American elections. The outgoing coalition government Chancellor Angela Merkel built with her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Social Democratic Party and the CDU's Bavarian counterpart the Christian Social Union has made it harder for her and opponent Martin Schulz to attack each other. At the first and only televised debate last Sunday, during which Stimmtdas’ traffic notably grew, the duo agreed on most issues — a far cry from the combative spectacles that consumed news cycles in the U.S. and France. 

At the same time, far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose supporters have been spreading most of the fake news about the election, remains relatively low in the polls. Combine coalition politics, the lack of a personality like Donald Trump's and a minority right-wing party, and what do you get?

"They're just Germans, I guess," Trunk said. "It’s just so boring because everyone agrees. Either you’re with them or you’re not.”

That lack of conflict during the campaign has translated into a general indifference among German voters toward both fake news and its debunking, fact-checkers say. Trunk said that while Stimmtdas has received attention from mainstream media organizations such as Der Spiegel, a popular news magazine that republishes their articles, Germans largely remain uninterested in online misinformation.

“When it comes to general public, I don’t see (fact-checking) to the same extent that it was in the U.S. … it just doesn’t excite them very much,” she said. “Fake news is an issue because people spin the facts, but I don’t think there’s actual fake news like the way Trump spun fake news.”

Pezet, who also works for French fact-checking organization Libération Désintox, said that is radically different from what took place in France, too.

“As a French (person) living in Germany, this is so different from what I was living a few months ago. The French election was crazy — the whole thing about fake news,” Pezet said. “The campaign is quite boring in Germany.”

How crazy did fake news get in France? At one point, hyperpartisan Facebook pages took a satirical article about then-presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron feeling dirty after shaking poor people’s hands and mixed it with a video of him cleaning his hands after touching an eel. It prompted a factory worker to challenge Macron to a handshake.

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In Germany, not so much.

The lagging interest from the public also seems to have been translated into a lack of official fact-checking partnerships. Whereas about 17 organizations worked with First Draft’s CrossCheck project during the French election, Correctiv is the organization’s only partner in Germany. Similarly, Correctiv is the only fact-checker working with Facebook during the election.

And where there are incidences of fake news, they’re predictable. Merkel, who was elected chancellor in 2005, has sustained the brunt of attacks from fake news in Germany, such as a viral photo depicting her at a Muslim wedding involving a minor. BuzzFeed reported in July that seven out of 10 viral Facebook stories about Merkel were false, according to BuzzSumo data from the past five years.

Other than Merkel, Trunk said many voters only really care about facts relating to the refugee crisis, and that most misinformation spreads on Facebook (Twitter isn’t as popular in Germany) or — more recently — WhatsApp. Both Correctiv and Stimmtdas are soliciting user-generated tips to debunk viral memes, photos and videos on both platforms, which are intrinsically more private than Twitter.

But Pezet said none of the fake news he’s seen has been very effective in forming public opinion.

“The main target of the fake news is always the one who has a big chance to one. In this case, it’s Angela Merkel,” he said. “We know her and there’s not really fake information that you can make about her.”

The increasing attacks on Merkel come amid a general cooling of the Bundestag toward misinformation and hate speech on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The German legislative body passed a law earlier this summer to fine social media companies up to €50 million for failing to remove “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours. One of the law’s key supporters, Justice Minister Heiko Maas, has also called for more sweeping actions against fake news across Europe.

Another important factor in Germany’s relationship with fake news: trust in media.

“I also think it’s because the Germans trust more their media than the Americans or the French do,” Pezet said. “It’s hard to see really what is the impact of this false information.”

According to an annual study conducted by the University of Würzburg, Germans’ trust in print media rose sharply to 55.7 percent in 2016, with even higher numbers for radio and television sources. Compare that to the U.S., where only 32 percent of respondents in a Gallup survey said they trusted the press in 2016, and France, where between 26 and 52 percent of people trust the media depending on the medium, according to a measurement by La Croix and Kantar.

Aligning with rising media trust in Germany, fact-checking operations have increased over the past few months due to the upcoming election — but they face formidable challenges. Correctiv receives substantial funding from some major German foundations, but for Stimmtdas, finances remain a major concern. While the organization has received some interest from donors, Trunk said most of the support has come from family members, journalists or past professors — which isn’t enough to support the organization’s operating costs. Adding to the pressure is the fact that a German fact-checking organization shut down earlier this year after a legal attack from the AfD.

And because of the lack of interest from the general public, it’s unclear whether or not widespread fact-checking will even continue in Germany long after Sept. 24.

“Fact-checking is a genre that has established itself in the French media landscape, whereas … fact-checking only exists in Germany when there’s an election,” Pezet said. “A lot of projects popped up for this election and the question is: Are they going to survive after this election?”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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