As the 2017 September election approached, German Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself preparing to takeon a familiar entity on an unfamiliar scale. This entity, one that had already threatened French President Emmanuel Macron and contributed to the take down of American presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was propaganda repackaged into the infamous phrase “fake news”. Propaganda has been around since human beings began to disagree with each other, but the word itself became common as late as 1914 with the start of the First World War. Here, officials used posters, films, newspaper articles, books, and pamphlets to successfully mold the opinions of the masses. Germany is no stranger to the potentially disastrous effects of propaganda. However, this new strain presented as fake news brings forth a different set of challenges to Merkel’s campaign for re-election and more broadly, to democracy.
Merkel’s Fight Against Fake News
Merkel, in a typical German fashion, took a hard line approach in the fight against “fake news” by issuing Germany’s Network Enforcement Act. This law will impose fines of up to 50 million euros on social media companies that do not remove “illegal content” quickly. Illegal content is the phrase used by Merkel’s team that includes hate speech, malicious propaganda, and fake news.
A consequence of this new law was the increase in the number of third party fact checking agencies. These agencies sift throughan endless stream of information for Facebook and other major social media presences in order to find the truth among conspiracy theories, rumors, and misinformed posts. 50 million euros, about 62 million US dollars, is a hefty fine and proof Merkel is taking the threat of fake news seriously, but what exactly is she worried about?
The Dangers Fake News Poses to Merkel’s Campaign
Fake news poses a legitimate threat to Merkel’s re-election campaign. The aim of many fake news stories circulating the internet before an election is to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition, in this case, Merkel. Her controversial decision to welcome refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in 2015 made her especially susceptible to being the center of fake news stories. Some accused the German government of seizing property from citizens in order to house migrants, while others fabricated tales of German women being assaulted by Muslim men. These types of posts gainingtraction before an election could negatively influence the public’s opinion of Merkel and in turn, affect voter turnout.
Alternative for Germany (AfD) is an populist right party that used fake news centered upon the anti-immigrant sentiment stirred up by the refugee crisis to challenge the legitimacy of Merkel. AfD was the main propagator of fake news before the election. According to Reuters, “Of 1 million tweets tracked by the Oxford group in the first 10 days of September, 30 percent were tied to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), far outweighing support shown for the party in polls: it is running at around 10 percent.” This disproportionate media presence was taken full advantage of by the AfD. For instance, an AfD delegate accused a local German police station of appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men” because the police station tweeted a Happy New Year message in Arabic. This sort of inflammatory and easily disputable claim was intended to take advantage of the polarizing effect the refugee crisis has had on the German public. Pouncing upon divisions in public opinion, the AfD rallied support and are poised to gain seats in parliament. Fake news profits AfD and threatens Merkel but how overarching is it’s effect?
Does Fake News Threaten Democracy?
Fake news is contributing to the erosion of democracy. Political scientist Robert Dahl simply defined democracy as for the people, ruled by the people. “For the people” refers to a democracy’s duty to represent and protect citizens and their civil liberties. “Ruled by the people” refers to a democracy’s ability to ensure inclusion of its citizens in the political process while also providing citizens with the opportunity to understand and influence civic issues. Consequently, democracy is eroded when any aspect of its definition is made less democratic. Fake news chips away at both “for the people” and “by the people” by misinforming and polarizing the public.
The people of democracies elect representatives, lobby, demonstrate, and run for office themselves. Fake news jeopardizes the process of understanding and later influencing policy through the bombardment of misinformation. Fake news is written for the purpose of misleading in order to make gains or damage a rival entity; it disguises itself as a reputable news source to obscure the truth and cause confusion about current issues. A misinformed public may be inclined to vote for a policy or candidate that uses the confusion around relevant issues to campaign, rather than one that truly represents their beliefs. This confusion can deepen ideological difference between parties, leading to polarization. Some polarization, according to political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is “healthy, even necessary, for a democracy.” Issues arise when extreme polarization occurs and people divide themselves into partisan groups that are so ideologically dissimilar, they develop a hatred toward each other. Parties become dangerous enemies and losing is no longer an option and neither, therefore, is democracy.
Fake news has the potential to create this extreme polarization and should be taken seriously, but fortunately, had no visible effect on the outcome of the 2017 German election. Although Alternative for Germany won 13% of seats, making it the first blatantly nationalist party to have seats in the Bundestag in over 60 years, there was no large scale digital meddling that occurred in the lead up to the election. For now, Merkel’s approach to the fake news media threat has prevailed and she lives to see another day as German Chancellor.
Links and Sources
Levitsky, Steven, & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. “Fateful Alliances.” Chapter 1 in How Democracies Die. NY: Crown Publishing.