Think first, then share.
Picture credits: / Jacob Ufkes

What we might have come to understand after this german election

By Jutta Kramm, for Correctiv

For four weeks a group of “fact checkers”, put together by CORRECTIV and First Draft, have been tracking down fake news. Six chapters stating what we have learnt so far.

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 commented and said the following: “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 September 9, 2017. 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 last 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” has not been 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 disinformative campaigns.

We have come to learn a lot about this country – we have especially learnt how the spreading of emotional posts and campaigns is also affecting Germans online. We have learnt how this method of campaigning is used to persuade masses and suggest a majority, as well as to trying to steer these masses.

In the following six chapters, we are stating what we have learnt so far.

1. No fake news is good news

The German election has not been decided by one fake story, the one big and deliberately shared political lie did not emerge during the last weeks. This is a good thing. All of the reputable surveys are stating that a majority of the German population is openly trusting traditional media – meaning big and small regional German newspapers, Germans trust their traditional news broadcasts “Tagesschau”, “heute-Journal” and the likes. Notably, most of the sampled Germans are mistrusting information they come across on Social Media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Both platforms, known to be used for the spreading of misinformation in countries like the US 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 people active.

We have observed that most of the distortions and the stories having been quoted out of context have only been shared a few thousand times. Most of the fake news we have tracked down have even been only shared by a few hundred users. This is the reason why most of the general public has not taken a hold of them.

This fact has probably been known by the political campaigners, whose mission is was to spread fake news. A big and absurd story like “pizzagate” during the 2016 election campaign in the US would not have come to a success 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 – Memes, montages, half-true assertions, distortions or falsely chosen figures and dates. For most of the time, these misinformation pieces were about migration policy, refugees, asylum policy or crimes supposedly committed by migrants.

The propagators of these fake news have apparently been aiming at the xenophobia of many people and at their fear for losing their “cultural identity”. The propagators played with the occurrence of racism within the German society. Also, they consciously tried to stir up sorrows. 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 circles aren’t sought to emerge in 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 as well, have shown 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 between seven and twelve percent of the traffic on Twitter.

According to social bot expert Ben Nimmo, it was only last Saturday when a botnet has been activated to work towards the topic of election fraud – in case of a week turnout of votes for AfD.

4. Anger and indignation – analog and digitally

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. The street protests have been organized online as well. The Internet – Social Media – has been an indicator for the growth of anger. One who cries out load, 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 German election revealed that the German public is ripe and able to an enlightened political debate. Still, a large part of this society is prone to misinformation campaigns, mainly due to its isolation from public dispute. By the well-accepting resonance to many of the small and big lies and half-truths it became apparent that this method of misinformation isn’t yet exhausted. It is to be feared that the propagators of negative campaigning have only just begun. They might just have used this summer for practicing their strategies.

6. Think first, then share

Fake news are neither the cause nor reason for the success of the extreme right-winged AfD. Fake news aren’t the problem, they are the expression of an underlying problem. Nevertheless, fake news are a slow poison for democracy. This is why it is necessary to counterpose them 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. They are practicing one principle: “Think first, then share”. We have learnt 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? Only if we work successfully on regaining the thread of conversation with the angry and the frightened, fake news won’t stand a chance anymore.

By Jutta Kramm, for Correctiv