German fact-checkers are alert for conspiracy theories and dark humor surrounding Merkel’s tremors

In December, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari took the microphone in a press conference and denied that he had died and been replaced by a clone

“The ignorant rumors are not surprising. When I was away on medical vacation last year, a lot of people hoped I was dead,” he said. 

Now it is German chancellor Angela Merkel’s turn in the spotlight of conspiracy theories — and for fact-checkers to be ready to fight them.

On Wednesday, Merkel captured the world’s attention when she appeared next to Finnish prime minister Antti Rinne in Berlin. The public witnessed, for the third time in less than a month, Merkel noticeably shaking. Merkel, 64, has been in power since 2005, and it’s not unusual for a powerful figure with a medical condition questions to become a target for concern and speculation online. 

As of publication, Merkel’s office hasn’t given an explanation for her shaking episodes. On Thursday, in the last public event Merkel participated in, she sat down during the German national anthem and didn’t talk specifically about it when asked.

“I am aware of the responsibility of my office,” Merkel said in the press conference. “I behave appropriately as far as my health is concerned … I look after my health.”

But conspiracy theories and dark humor are out there, and German fact-checkers are on top of the situation.  

Tania Roettger, head of the fact-checking platform Correctiv in Germany, is closely observing this topic and thinks things are still quiet around Merkel.

“There could be much more disinformation going on, given the fact that Angela Merkel is a target of a lot of criticism and accusations in certain social media circles,” Roettger told the IFCN. “The few posts that we have seen have limited reach, at least publicly. However, there are some pretty strange theories out there.”

In times like this, fact-checkers consider it important not to give voice to speculation. But it is also important to make a clear point that there is no official or reliable information on, for example, Merkel being addicted to certain medications, as some conspiracies claim.

Some German websites are suggesting her tremor is a consequence of a dependency on a drug used to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia and alcohol withdrawal, among other conditions. That headline has been viewed by over 9,000 readers so far. But the article quotes no official sources and offers no documents related to the chancellor. From the fact-checking point of view, it doesn’t deserve attention.

Another claim circulated in a Facebook post utilized political hate speech and dark humor to attack Merkel, suggesting that she trembles every time she hears the national anthem. (Two of the three times Merkel was seen shaking in public, the German national anthem was playing.) The satirical post was shared 1,800 times in less than 24 hours. 

“The first time Merkel was seen shaking in public, she said there was too much heat and she hadn’t had enough water,” said Laurens Lauer, a researcher at the University Duisburg-Essen in Germany, in a phone call with the IFCN. “After that, she would give reserved answers to questions about her condition. She would just say she was fine and fully efficient, but needed some time to process the shaking incidents.” 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister of Finland Antti Rinne listen to the national anthems at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Merkel's body shook visibly as she stood alongside the Finnish prime minister and listen to the national anthems during the welcoming ceremony at the chancellery. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

“Now, after the third time, traditional media is starting to put a little bit of pressure on her. Journalists started to ask if the public has the right to know her medical condition in more detail. So this is the environment where these posts and articles, with a very gloating tone, are popping up and, in some cases, speculating about supposed reasons like a drug addiction.” 

Fact-checkers are used to people wanting to believe stories that aren’t based on facts. 

In 2018, for example, when the then-candidate to the Brazilian presidency Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed in the stomach and had to undergo emergency surgery, social media users offered dozens of theories about his condition. A few months later, now-president Bolsonaro went on video during an interview and showed his huge scar. It was pretty clear he had a massive stomach surgery. However, there are still some people who would rather believe the 2018 stabbing was just part of a well-planned play for get him more votes.

“Even though this happens (people keep believing conspiracy theories), we must keep fact-checking. This is the only way out,” said Natalia Leal, director of content at Agencia Lupa. “We have to check the information and make sure we are aware of what society is talking about. In these (health situation) cases, actions taken by fact-checkers should be a mixture of ethical, objective and serious journalism with education. 

“Fact-checkers should stimulate people to look for facts; to doubt whatever they see, read or hear; and to search for information that is anchored in reality. On the other hand, we should also demand more from our politicians. Acting this way, we help re-establish the cycle of trust between journalism, authorities and society.”

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