The fake hype on fake news in Germany
By Florian Lang
The Association for the German language (GfdS) has a little tradition.
Every year around Christmas, it chooses a German “word of the year”. Last year’s winner was “postfaktisch”, the equivalent of the English expression “post-truth”.
The GfdS said postfaktisch describes profound changes in political and social discourse.
Apparently, we’ve entered an era in which emotions instead of facts shape our views on the big issues.
That’s interesting. Somehow, I can’t remember living in the truth era. And I ought to, as it must have been a great time.
The truth era never existed. Political and social debate has always been shaped by emotions and convictions as well as facts.
The GfdS also said that anti-establishment movements were willing to ignore facts and to accept obvious lies, so that “perceived reality” became more relevant than real reality.
It’s a bit arrogant to define truth in such a dogmatic fashion.
It’s also a simplistic generalisation to diagnose a general case of cognitive dissonance among all voters who don’t feel represented by established parties.
Still, the GfdS assessment has been reflected in the political debate in Germany.
Ever since Donald Trump’s mendacious but successful campaign in the US, European leaders fear that deception could influence elections in places such as The Netherlands, France, and Germany.
German chancellor Angela Merkel personally warned that fake news could “threaten the elections”.
The grand coalition of Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU party and the centre-left SPD party is working on legislation to tackle the issue.
The laws would make it possible to impose harsh fines on social media firms if they failed to delete fake news within 24 hours after it was posted.
It is true that fake news, backed by propaganda trolls and bots, have poisoned the public debate by cultivating racism and other forms of hatred.
But the response to these phenomena has been miscalculated and smacks of hypocrisy.
Denigration of immigrants, women, LGBTI people, and other minorities has been a problem on social media for years.
The German government let Facebook lobbyists, time and again, persuade it to do nothing. As a result, the social media giant now has a stronger filter for nudity than it does for criminal incitement to violence.
Fake news, native advertising, click-bait schemes, and other scams never bothered legislators.
The old elite felt that it had an interpretive authority on truth, but now, with fake news said to make or break campaigns, it is taking steps to protect its position.
The laws that are now being discussed could, if implemented beyond criminal hate speech, make matters worse.
What is the definition of fake news, as opposed to opinions, interpretations, or satire, anyway?
Who should have the final say on deleting it? Where does the fight against fake news stop and where does political censorship begin?
It is not the business of the state or of commercial firms such as Facebook to define reality.
One false move, and anti-fake news laws could fuel the popular distrust of the establishment.
Right-wing populism breeds in a society which has lost confidence in its political institutions and internet regulation is not the right prophylactic.
The success of fake news is a symptom of this underlying problem.
One way for the CDU/CSU and SDP to regain trust and to counter disinformation would be to increase transparency and probity in German politics.
Merkel’s government recently showed how to lose trust, however.
In December, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper, reported that the German government had redacted sensitive passages from an economic report.
The original version of its “poverty and wealth” survey said poor Germans were, in practice, less important politically than richer ones.
“Policy change is much more likely if the change is supported by a large number of people with high income”, it said.
It added that “there is an obvious imbalance in political decisions to the disadvantage of poor people” and that “people with lower income tend to abstain from political participation, as they had the experience that political action is less dedicated to them”.
It also said corporate lobbyist and other special interest groups had significant influence.
All this was taken out of the published version.
This is was real news and it was bad news.
It was bad that the German government censored its own research in a way that reminds one of postfaktisch practices.
What was worse though, was that the government didn’t see that the redacted content gave the real explanation for the rise of the far-right - the political disenfranchisement of lower income Germans.
Florian Lang, a freelance writer in Brussels, previously studied European far-right movements at the University of Vienna