German fact-checkers: Fake news didn't affect this election, but we're not safe yet
This article was originally published on CORRECTIV and is being republished in English with permission.
The video clip is shaky. It shows several dozen dark-skinned people at a bus station wearing long white clothing. Behind this post on Facebook stands a group, hiding behind the account name “Ich will mein Land zurück” (“I want my country back”).
They wrote: “Heute morgen in Leipzig. Nein man kann wirklich nicht von #Islamisierung, #Umvolkung oder #Verfremdung sprechen. Bitte teilen und Seite liken.” (“This morning in Leipzig. Do you still think that we should not be allowed to talk about #islamization, #repopulation or #alienation. Please share and like the page.”) It is Sept. 9. The clip will be shared on Facebook several thousand times.
We checked this video right away and found out that the people in this video were African Christians wearing their holiday clothing. They had just come from a baptism ceremony.
This is one of the examples of so-called “fake news” that we have tracked down and debunked in these past few weeks. This video of a group returning from a baptism is a good example of the things WahlCheck17 has uncovered so far.
This fake news story about the supposed “Islamization” wasn't noticed by much of the general public. Nevertheless, it still achieved its goal — the spreading of indignation within right-wing circles.
Since the end of August, our team of 18 journalists, made up of the two non-profit media organizations CORRECTIV and First Draft, has not just searched for lies or disinformation but has also published a constantly growing number of fact-checking articles. In our daily updated newsletter “#WahlCheck17,” we informed journalists and other interested people about fake news and disinformation campaigns.
We have come to learn a lot about this country. We have especially learned how the spreading of emotional posts and campaigns is also affecting Germans online. We have learned how this method of campaigning is used to persuade masses and suggest a majority, as well as to try to influence these masses.
Here are six things we've learned:
1. No fake news is good news
The German election has not been decided by any one fake story; one big and deliberately shared political lie did not emerge during the past weeks. This is a good thing. Most reputable surveys indicate that a majority of the German population trusts traditional media — meaning big and small regional German newspapers and their traditional news broadcasts “Tagesschau,” “heute-Journal” and the likes. Notably, most of the sampled Germans don't trust information they come across on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Both platforms, known to be used for the spreading of misinformation in countries like the U.S. or the UK, do not play a significant role in Germany. Political discourse predominantly does not take place online. There simply aren’t as many active users.
We have observed that most of the distortions and the stories quoted out of context have been shared only a few thousand times. Most of the fake news we have tracked down have been shared only by a few hundred users. For this reason, the general public has for the most part not been exposed to them.
A big and absurd story like “Pizzagate” during the 2016 election campaign in the U.S. would not have been successful in Germany. The German public appears to be very aware of fake news.
2. The poison of small lies
The general awareness of the population could have been taken into account for the development of another misinformation strategy. We observed many small fake news items — memes, montages, half-true assertions, distortions or falsely chosen figures and dates. For most of the time, these items of misinformation were about migration policy, refugees, asylum policy or crimes supposedly committed by migrants.
The propagators of these fake news items have apparently been taking aim at xenophobes and their fear of losing their “cultural identity.” Many of these small stories have been circulating on a regional level, as well as (most likely) within closed groups on Facebook. We assume that they are taking full effect regionally and within closed circles. These are the places where fake news are hardly refutable, because they are difficult to be tracked down by fact-checkers. The sheer number of these groups is making it tedious to detect them. Also, because rumors spread in such small circles, they don't attract the attention of the media.
3. Fakes are spread by the right
Almost all of the noteworthy misinformation has been spread within the right-wing environment. There, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has fought a provocative and polarizing campaign. The party’s supporters, as well as recently its top staff members, have proven to be the main propagators of fake news. This is attested by our fact-checking articles as well as by research and papers by experts.
4. Russian bots are asleep — almost
Until last Saturday, right before the election, all of the bot researchers we have been in contact with couldn’t affirm an increased Russian bot activity. The bots that have been in use have been working predominantly in favor for AfD. They accounted for between 7 and 12 percent of the traffic on Twitter.
According to social bot expert Ben Nimmo, it was only last Saturday when a botnet was activated to work toward the topic of election fraud — in case of a weak result for the AfD.
4. Anger and indignation — analog and digital
The wave of anger that has been following Angela Merkel’s election appearances since August has also been dominating discourse online. This wave has already been clearly observed in the weeks before street campaigning. Street protests have been organized online as well. Social media has been an indicator for the growth of anger. One who cries out loud, one who tweets misinformation is suggesting an angry morale but is not displaying an angry majority. These users have been working on distorting political discourse, making it nearly impossible for constructive discussions and rational dispute to root.
5. They came to stay
Fake news, distortions and consciously shared half-truths have always existed, especially during election campaigns. Nowadays, digitally, they can be shared and amplified quicker.
This election revealed that the German public is open to a well-informed political debate. Still, a large part of society is susceptible to misinformation campaigns. It became apparent that this method of misinformation isn’t yet exhausted. It is concerning that the propagators of negative campaigning have only just begun. They might just have used this summer to practice their strategies.
6. Think first, then share
Fake news caused neither the rise of the extreme right-wing AfD nor its recent electoral success. Fake news isn't the problem, as much as an expression of an underlying problem. Nevertheless, fake news is a slow poison for democracy. This is why it is necessary to counter it and to insist on an enlightened, fact-based political discussion. In order to be able to guarantee free opinion-making and to guarantee our cohabitation as a tolerant society, it is necessary to unmask disinformation campaigns through fact-checking.
Fact-checking has taken an important role in digital media education. It practices one principle: “Think first, then share.” We have learned about the immensely important role of media education, because we are all senders and receivers of information. And we have come to learn that the role of journalists as gatekeepers of information has weakened.
It stays relevant to discover why fake news can take effect. Why are so many people ready to believe in rumors and willing to spread them?
If we work successfully on regaining the thread of conversation with the angry and the frightened, fake news won’t stand a chance anymore.