Fake news is a big threat to democracy - Fake news has German election in crosshairs
By USA Today
February 1, 2017

BERLIN — On New Year's Eve, an angry mob of Muslim men in the German city Dortmund set fire to the country's oldest church while chanting "Allahu Akbar." In a strongly worded letter, Germany's ambassador to Ukraine urged President Petro Poroshenko to give the separatist enclave Donbass to Russia. In Berlin, a young Syrian froze to death while waiting in a line to file his asylum claim.

What do these incidents have in common? All provoked public outrage And none ever happened. They are among an increasing number of cases of fake news, propaganda and distorted information — often created by untraceable fringe elements — that have German officials worried ahead of a crucial national election in September.

"We are concerned. It's pretty difficult to identify and build the technology and software to counter it," said Tobias Plate, a spokesman for Germany's federal interior ministry. "Fighting fake news is a complicated problem ... also in terms of sensitive freedom of speech issues. We are not going to solve this straight away."

Fake news sprang up during the U.S. presidential campaign with politically charged headlines such as "JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money to Clinton Campaign!" or "BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal To Leave White House, He Will Stay In Power!"

In addition to pure fantasy reports, some fake stories are exaggerated claims based on real news.

For example, a report published in the Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid newspaper, claimed that Germany and France wanted to introduce special visas for Ukrainian and Georgian citizens at a time when the European Union is looking to eliminate the requirement. The story was based on comments made by Germany’s Interior Minster Thomas de Maizière to the German daily Die Welt. De Maizière said Georgian criminal gangs were increasingly active in Germany. There was no mention of special visas.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term, is a major target of conspiracy theories and other partisan falsehoods because of her liberal refugee policies that have admitted 1 million migrants in the past two years to the dismay of right-wing, nationalist groups.

She also is a staunch backer of economic sanctions against Russia for annexing Ukraine's Crimea Province, as well as a champion of NATO and the EU — alliances that frustrate Russia, which is often accused by other governments of planting fake news and hacking sensitive emails that interfere with elections, such as helping elect Donald Trump president, as the FBI alleges. Russia denies the charges.

In December, Hans-Georg Maaßen, Germany's domestic security agency chief, said his office had intelligence on attempts to influence the German election through cyber-espionage and "disinformation activities" aimed at discrediting politicians and swaying public opinion.

Andre Wolf, who coordinates social media for Mimikama, an Austrian fact-checking website, said it has debunked more than 10,000 false German-language news stories since it was set-up in 2011. He said the content is getting more aggressive and politically heated ahead of the election.

"It's related to refugees or Muslims and political leaders, and it's often what we call 'hybrid news,'" he said. "The facts about time and place might be true but they are built around a false story or doctored photograph. Right-wing fake news tends to be very ideological; the left-wing stuff tries to make jokes or point out right-wing hypocrisy."

The Disinformation Review, an online newsletter run by an EU task force recently established to counter pro-Kremlin propaganda, said a Russian state news agency RIA Novosti story last year claiming that 700,000 Germans were forced to flee the country because of Merkel's refugee policies had no source to corroborate the claim.

On Tuesday, a jury of academics at Berlin's Free University decided that "fake news" was Germany's "Anglicism of the year," meaning it was now a phrase so ubiquitous that Germans were opting to use the original English version rather than a German translation. A year ago, it was "refugees welcome."

"It doesn't matter whether Trump's election was inspired or instigated or encouraged or facilitated by Russia," said Keir Giles, an expert on Russian security policy at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. Russia "will be emboldened to attempt the same thing in (Germany)."

David Schraven, the publisher of Correct!V, a German non-profit group that conducts public-interest investigations, said fake news is a big threat to German democracy in an election year when religious and cultural differences are being exploited. "It is an attempt to spread hate in our society. We need to do something about it," he said.

Earlier this month, Correct!V did do something about it. It signed a partnership with Facebook to identify fabricated stories and flag them as disputed news. A similar program, which uses third-party fact checkers to uncover hoaxes and falsehoods, was rolled out for Facebook users in the U.S. in December. Google has banned nearly 200 publishers from its advertising network for misrepresenting content and similar offenses. The EU task force that counters political propaganda has quashed several thousand untruths.

Schraven said the story about the Muslim mob in Dortmund, published by the right-wing website Breitbart, illustrates how fact and fiction can be blended to pernicious effect.

Police said a stray firework started a small blaze on scaffolding that covered the church. It was not Germany's oldest. There was no angry mob. Yet the story spread rapidly around the world. Breitbart has stood by the article while also announcing further expansions into Germany and France, which holds its presidential election in April.

Steve Bannon, Breitbart's former editor, is now President Trump's chief White House strategist and senior counselor.

"Obviously fake news happens," said Marcus Pretzell, a member of the European Parliament for Germany's Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), an anti-immigration party accused of seeking close ties with Moscow to further its anti-establishment, populist agenda. "But I see no evidence that (Russia) or anybody else is supporting political parties in Germany in this way."

"Think about what happened in Cologne on New Year's Eve (in 2015) and how long it was covered-up that there were more than 1,000 cases of sexual assault against women on that night — and that's only in that one place," Pretzell, who is married to AfD leader Frauke Petry, said. "That is also fake news."
Several German media outlets did not, at first, cover the assaults in Cologne, leading to claims they were trying to avoid stirring up resentment against the wave of asylum-seekers let in by Merkel. Most of the perpetrators were described by witnesses as men of North African descent. A lack of evidence has led to relatively few convictions.

Still, the potential for fake news to actually shift the outcome of an election may be less than might be expected, according to a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The average American saw and remembered less than one pro-Trump or pro-Hillary Clinton fake news story, and a slight majority believed them, Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University estimated.

"For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads," they researchers concluded.

In Germany, however, one admitted hoax had a huge impact.

A year ago, a 13-year-old German girl of Russian heritage confessed to making up a story about how she was kidnapped at a train station in central Berlin on her way to school. The girl had claimed she was driven to an apartment where for 30 hours she was beaten and gang-raped by a group of Muslim asylum seekers.
Even after German prosecutors disproved the girl's allegations, a popular Russian TV channel broadcast an interview with her family claiming there was a police cover-up. That, in turn, led a few thousand Russian speakers, spurred on by anti-immigration groups, to take to the streets across Germany to protest, including outside Merkel's office.

As demonstrators carried signs that read "Our children are in danger" and "We want security," their outrage was shared millions of times on social-media platforms. `


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