Friday

17th Sep 2021

Column

What are the online risks to Germany's autumn election?

The amount of online disinformation as we approach the 26 September German federal elections is increasing. In addition to actual disinformation, here is also increasing talk about disinformation in these elections.

What are the risks?

Read and decide

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  • In order to reduce its exposure to regulation, some problematic actors like the AfD party have called on their followers to rejoin on other platforms and messenger apps that are less regulated

In one respect, German elections are less risky than US presidential elections or those to the British parliament: parties in the Bundestag are effectively represented proportionally to the votes received. There are no swing constituencies where one could try to change the vote of a few people in a few places to change the outcome of the elections.

In addition, Germany's multi-party parliament - with its numerous options for coalitions - does not create the dramatic either-or situations which we know from US presidential and most UK parliamentary elections.

Germany is different in another way.

It has regulated the online sphere more intensively than other countries, in particular through the much-discussed NetzDG, which obliges platforms to remove content that is obviously illegal within 24 hours after receiving a complaint.

Another law has strengthened the oversight over any editorialised online content that systematically presents political information. Germany is one of the few countries where a political YouTuber or blogger may receive a letter from the independent media authorities asking him or her to respect journalistic standards.

Despite this, we see significant risks with the vote. A lot is at stake in these elections. After 16-years of Angela Merkel's chancellorship, there is a sense that a new era may begin.

The role of the former Volksparteien [people's parties] – the two dominant parties CDU/CSU and SPD – keeps being diminished.

The election will also be a verdict on the handling of the pandemic, in which the federal government played a far more prominent role since April than it did before, when the 16 federal states were in the lead.

Only 45 percent of Germans express trust in the government in Eurobaromter polls, which is no more than the EU average.

As elsewhere, the pandemic raised many basic questions about government policies and people´s fundamental freedoms and it has also been abused for a lot of online misinformation.

While Germany has more regulation of online content, the laws are weak on the transparency of campaign and political party financing, a problem that bodies like the Council of Europe have pointed out for many years already.

The result is that there are few datapoints that would help observers understand what kind of campaigns are paid for in the online sphere. The bigger platforms, like Facebook, offer archives with paid ads, but they could be better designed - and there are many other ways to spend money for political content online that will not show up in any archive.

Messenger apps

Furthermore, in order to reduce its exposure to regulation, some problematic actors like the AfD party, have called on their followers to rejoin on other platforms and messenger apps that are less regulated.

Serious risks also result from hacking attacks on accounts of the German parliament and its members. Most analysts expect that at some point during this campaign confidential material will be leaked to try to influence the campaign.

Can something still be done to reduce the risks? Some political parties have accepted codes of conduct for the campaign. All should do so and abide by them.

The judicial authorities should give close attention to growing channels of disinformation and hate-speech, like Telegram.

Politicians and the media should prepare crisis protocols for sudden campaigns that may be based on hacked information or disinformation. They should also work against severe polarisation.

Extremist actors will try to bend any subject beyond the realm of reasonable discussion, turning it into a challenge between one extreme point of view and all the others. For example, instead of a vigorous and very necessary debate on whether government's Covid measures went too far or not, they steered the debate to a supposed conspiracy by government to take control over our lives.

Democratic parties and the media should avoid these framing traps, ignore absurd theories and instead focus on real, fact-based debates that help inform voters´ choices.

In order not to make disinformation actors like the Russian government look bigger than they are, it is important to be precise about identified disinformation and to contextualise it.

Any inauthentic or hateful Facebook post or false YouTube video is a problem. But to gauge their impact on the vote, the number of posts needs to be taken into account. In the last three weeks alone we have registered 210,000 comments responding to posts of politicians on Facebook and 170,000 comments responding to relevant videos on YouTube. These numbers will go up steeply in the months to come.

A small number of problematic content in such big samples does not amount to a stolen election in the sense of a sudden and significant reversal of parties´ fortunes. However, even a drip-drop of disinformation and hate speech is likely to undermine trust in democracy and its parties.

It silences voices, often women. The platforms, media, government bodies and the political parties could do more to protect these elections against the erosion of trust.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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