Can fake news truly sway an election? In America, the possibility presents an ongoing argument, even as sites pushing stories like Pizzagate are more focused on their bottom line than the potential consequences of their actions. Just this week the New York Times documented precisely how a recent graduate of Davidson College made $22,000 off a single fake news story about ballots for Hillary Clinton being discovered in an Ohio warehouse. But that’s not stopping the sellers of fake news from deploying the dubious tool elsewhere in the world to influence other elections and for, potentially, darker purposes than one would ever imagine.
The most notable current fake news target in the developed world happens to be Germany. Presently, Chancellor Angela Merkel is fending off swarms of fake news stories that would hope to compromise her chances in Germany’s federal elections later this year, as Buzzfeed explains:
Echoing what was seen during the US election, many of these sites mix legitimate partisan political content with false and conspiratorial information, especially about refugees and Islam, in order to inspire passion and increase social engagement. Large right-wing pages in the US are also increasingly sharing anti-Merkel content, helping it gain wider distribution on Facebook.
This situation is particularly dangerous for one telling reason — Merkel is brokering an uneasy peace between the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Socialist Union of Bavaria (CSU). The latter is more socially conservative and religious than the former. Further, the current government is run by a coalition between these two parties and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP). Any split between the CSU and the CDU could put Merkel’s prime minister role on the block and potentially open the door to a small but growing anti-immigration, far-right contingent.
While experts view it as unlikely that Merkel will be forced out of her role in the next election, she, and the rest of Europe, are facing down not just fake news, but attempts to use fears of immigrants and the shifting culture of Germany against her. And nowhere is this clearer than in the attempts of fake newsmakers to make Germany’s Muslims seem like a threat.
Immigrants Are Targets
Germany has a growing Muslim minority, and in fact is the center of the EU’s sudden debates about immigration. 5.8% of Germany’s population is Muslim, third in the European Union after France and Bulgaria. This is thanks in part to Germany’s openness with outsiders: Germany is second only to the US in the world in welcoming immigrants.
However, the Syrian refugee crisis is beginning to aggravate social tensions already present with Germany’s Turkish minority. Amnesty International condemned a sharp rise in hate crimes against Muslims and Syrian refugees in particular, as well as what it sees as a failure to react on the part of the government. Job discrimination is an ongoing problem. And in this context, that attitude can leap to, or off of, the internet with unfortunate ease.
The terrorist attack on Berlin’s Christmas market in particular was seen by fake news sites as a way to damage Merkel’s reputation. Facebook is currently facing a lawsuit from a Syrian man who wants his face removed from fake news posts using a selfie he took with Merkel claiming he was a terrorist responsible for the attack.
Even that pales, though, to the minor public safety concern that fake news exaggerated into a full-blown riot. This occurred when the city of Dortmund celebrated New Year’s Eve, and as expected, the festivities got slightly out of hand. Some people threw fireworks, which caused a small fire on some netting at a local church’s scaffold. Still, this wasn’t the rowdiest New Year’s Eve for Dortmund, and local newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten treated it accordingly. Meanwhile, the Washington Post notes trouble not too far away:
In a separate incident, a group of migrants, reportedly celebrating the cease-fire in Syria, did rally together and chant “Allahu akbar,” a phrase sometimes associated with terrorist attacks but also common in Muslim prayers and celebrations. In the video, they indeed hoisted a flag — of the mainstream Syrian opposition, which is supported by the U.S. government.
By the time Breitbart, the notorious right-wing brainchild of incoming White House strategist Steven Bannon, covered this story, however, an enormous mob chanting “allahu akbar” had set fire to Germany’s oldest church while claiming support of ISIS. The city of Dortmund, Ruhr Nachrichten, and the Dortmund civil authorities have all derided Breitbart’s coverage, but of course the damage has already been done. There are uncomfortable echoes here of Donald Trump’s claims that Muslims celebrated 9/11 from rooftops, echoes the German government has tried to dampen by forcing Facebook to implement fake news filters.
Fake News Is Becoming Dangerously Real
The situation may be more urgent than even Facebook realizes. Signs are beginning to emerge that fake news is very much spreading from the online world to the real world, and having deadly consequences. The South Sudan has struggled with civil war divided along ethnic lines for three years, and according to a recent Buzzfeed article, fake news is leaping from Facebook to the real world and being inadvertently communicated by refugees:
The online networks spreading fake news and hate speech in South Sudan are surprisingly similar to those that have spread like wildfire in the United States. The groups are based abroad, are believed to be for-profit, prey on a general lack of media literacy, and specialize in setting up confusingly named websites to share false news and unverified images.
The Facebook “community pages” populated by members of a single tribe or political group create echo chambers of hate. There are also pages featuring multiple tribes or groups, which turn toxic as different sides clash, mirroring the real-life fighting among the tribes.
The chain is simple enough to understand. Imagine a group with a stake in the civil war begins a propaganda campaign online. That propaganda campaign could be accessed by refugees from South Sudan, who deliver it to their relatives still in the country. From there, it becomes a word-of-mouth rumor in a country with a 30% adult literacy rate and limited access to the internet … which leaves precious few ways to fact-check the claims.
How much of this is intentional, and how much human nature? That’s a fair question. Horrible rumors have spread throughout human history, without the help of the internet. But, as internet access spreads — and the fact that its reach can easily be abused becomes clear — it’s worth asking whether it can compensate for the willingness of humans to believe the worst in each other, and the willingness of some to use that for their own ends.