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Fake news in Germany

By Thomas Klikauer - posted Friday, 21 September 2018


Many have said that fake news influenced the US presidential elections in 2016. Barely a year later, fake news may also have influenced Germany's federal election. It did not come from Russia but from within; Germany's radical-right used fake news. The populist far right party AFD was most active in creating and distributing the fake news. Together with its Facebook pages, there are also two mainstream media organisations creating and contributing fake news. These are Germany's right-wing tabloid Bild with roughly 1.6 million readers and its even more ideologically driven counterpart, Die Welt pretending to be up-market and publishing for the intellectual bourgeois rather than the petit-bourgeois as Bild does. Both are owned by the infamous Springer Press. Both are xenophobic, if not outright racist.

A recent study has shown that the three main themes of fake news are refugees, migration, and 'law & order'. Eight out of ten fake news items relate to refugees. To counter the impact of fake news, Germany's most reputable state TV news programme, Tagesschau has introduced a "fact checker". But in most cases, such fact checking does not reach into the echo chambers of the radical-right. This assures that right-wing voters receive what fits into their ideological worldview.

In 2017, Germany's Language Society awarded the term "alternative facts" the title "non-word of the year". Predominantly, Facebook and Twitter are used to distribute fake news. Facing the question "what is fake news?" one might say that it is the targeted distribution of false and misleading information capable of doing harm. In contrast, satire, for example, is not fake news. A handful of cases can illustrate this.

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The first fake news –all Germans are Nazis– was supposed to be made by church leader Margot Kässmann. It was distributed by the right-wing epochtimes.de website, then debunked by Germany's newspaper Morgenpost. Despite it's debunking, AFD politician Meuthen distributed it. It was also placed on two AFD Facebook pages. One of the reasons for fake news appearing on such websites is that their income is based on advertising revenue. Advertising revenue, in turn, is defined by viewers. The more clicks, the more viewers, the more advertising revenue, the more profit. Distributing fake news also supports rafts of employees at epochtimes.de.

The second case of fake news came in the wake of the G20 summit held in the north German city of Hamburg. Protesters named it "welcome to hell". Germany's state, the police and the radical-right sought to present demonstrators as violent thugs. In an anti-democratic and anti-protest atmosphere, Bild.de and Welt.de invented the fake news that a demonstrator blinded a policeman. Soon, the Tagesschau debunked the fake news. Despite this, a right-wing ex-policeman and the aforementioned AFD politician Meuthen distributed the fake news item. Even the police union got into the mix. It later deleted the fake news from its Facebook page and eventually took the entire page off Facebook.

Virtually the same occurred in the case of the fake news of "1,000 migrants riot at a local village celebration in Schorndorf". It originated in poor journalism that mutated into fake news. Public TV broadcaster Monitor quickly debunked it. Yet several AFD Facebook pages continued to distribute the fake news together with the AFD's Meuthen and anonymousnews.ru. The AFD called their fake news coverage an "Islamic Grouping Party".

The pattern continues with fake news by reactionary German politician Erika Steinbach who believes Poland initiated WW II. She also likes to invent and distribute fake news. In one of her more infamous fake news items, she claimed that Germany's police was requested to downplay crimes committed by migrants. The interior minister of Germany's largest state along with the Tagesschau debunked her hallucination. Similarly, the fake news that refugees are taking holidays in their home countries was invented by welt.de and richyseinblick.de. It was debunked by Germany's leading news magazine Der Spiegel. But the AFD continued undeterred, even called it "beach holidays". Eventually, Germany's interior minister explained that some refugees were allowed to briefly return, for example, for family reasons such as funerals.

The fake news that 59% of all migrants are school dropouts was invented by bild.de, focus online, and Russia Today. AFD boss Frauke Petry distributed the fake news as it fitted into the AFD's Volksgemeinschaft ideology of only allowing useful migrants into Germany. Bavaria's public broadcaster, Bayerischer Rundfunk debunked it. The fake news item was designed to create a false image of an entire group, namely migrants. The same was sought with the fake news that "rape cases by migrants increased by 90%". It was invented by wize.life and welt.de. The AFD's Petry and Meuthen also distributed it. The Süddeutsche Zeitung – one of Germany's more reputable newspapers, debunked it.

Seeking to defame migrants was also the idea behind the fake news that "a Syrian businessman receives €63,000 from the state". It was invented by AFD's Meuthen and distributed via his own Facebook page as well as various AFD Facebook pages and by a Facebook page called Fuck the EU. It was debunked by the Austrian website minikama.at. Still, right-wing epoch.times, and Halle-Leaks as well as Sputnik hyped up the money to €360,000. The fake news was even taken on by Britain's The Sun tabloid, the Daily Mail and (of course) Breitbart UK. Despite several debunks it also appeared on AFD Facebook pages.

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Fake news is of high value for the AFD whose PR man Christian Lüth explains that "as long as the message fits our goal, we do not care if it is fake news or not". The radical-right gains from twisting the truth whilst debunking only reaches about half of those receiving the fake news in the first place. Over time, this creates a deliberately false image, thus serving as a communication strategy for Germany's radical-right. On the other hand, the danger of social bots has been overstated, the report notes. But such bots were detected as often originating from inside the AFD.

Unfortunately, the frequent debunking does not reach into places where it is most needed and fake news continuous in Germany. Most fake news items came from the AFD whose websites are widely distributed and read. Unlike the USA, Germany's radical-right has not established any form of alternative media network capable of distributing fake news beyond what has been said above.

On the upswing, Germany's public still trusts public broadcasting (77%), especially the Tagesschau (78%). In East-Germany, however, less people trust the public broadcasting system when compared to the Western parts of Germany. As for the whole of Germany, among AFD voters, trust in public broadcasting TV is at 36%. In contrast, 95% of Green voters trust the public broadcasting system. Overwhelmingly, AFD voters and supporters believe what fits into their ideological worldview mirrored by its echo-chambers. As the readership of Germany's quality newspapers (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Neues Deutschland, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, TAZ, etc.) declines, fake news is on the increase. In other words, "the age of fake news" has arrived.

Using lies and deception is as old as propaganda – invented by the Catholic Church in 1622 as Congregation for Propagating the Faith. In short, propaganda is not an invention of the Internet but the Internet helps distributing it. PR and Spinhave existed next to fake news ever since the first spin doctors, the infamous Poison Ivy invented them. They do not operate on the journalistic motto "be first, but first be right". Instead the great George Orwell might have been right when he said, "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations."

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About the Author

Thomas Klikauer is a German academic who teaches in the MBA course at the University of Western Sydney.

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