Fake news is on the rise in Germany, just in time for an election year.
Facebook is to begin rolling out new anti-fake news features over the next few weeks. These new tools will be made available to Facebook users in Germany first, and will enable them to flag and report news stories which they believe to come from disreputable or unverified sources.
Facebook’s treatment of fake news came under intense scrutiny following the proliferation of unverified, often fabricated news stories on the platform during last year’s US presidential election. At the time, Mark Zuckerberg denied that Facebook could have had any direct impact on voting behaviour — but it’s no coincidence that Germany is the first territory to trial fake news flagging tools.
The German media have warned the public that they can expect a spike in fake news stories in the lead-up to the parliamentary election, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term.
Earlier this month, the German government was forced to respond to a Breitbart story which claimed New Year’s Eve celebrations in Dortmund had been interrupted by jihadists, when no such thing took place. In reality, a small church fire caused by a stray firework was taken drastically out of context by the right-wing website, and used to paint a picture of discord and terror.
“We are dealing with a phenomenon of a dimension that we have not seen before,” says government spokesperson Steffen Seibert. It is crucial that public officials tread lightly when handling fake news, as any steps taken to manage this pandemic may be perceived as an attempt on the part of the government to control the news cycle and even influence the outcome of the election.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas, a longtime campaigner against online misinformation and hate speech, stated last month that the laws protecting freedom of expression in Germany do not extend to so-called news organisations who insist on publishing “slander and defamation.”
In both Germany and the United States, Facebook is also exploring the option of penalising publishers who trick users into believing that their content comes from a trusted or well-known media outlet. But when the President of the United States himself tweets links to Lifezette, and appoints a former Breitbart editor as Chief Strategist, there’s only so much damage control that Facebook can do.