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Culture

Fake news highlights - or lowlights - of the year

Nourished by citizens' distrust of mainstream media, fake news went mainstream in 2016. Here's a - certainly incomplete - list of some of the strangest and most consequential false news reports of the year.

Incorrect news items are nothing new. For decades they've been distributed by nations and individuals and gobbled up by those given to conspiracy theories.

But in 2016, "fake news" moved from the outer fringes to the mainstream. It influenced the US presidential election in November and nearly provoked a nuclear crisis between Israel and Pakistan. The term is even widely used now by extremists on one end of the political spectrum to describe news items favorable to their opponents on the other. It's a new war of information, and the goal is owning the truth.

In the social media age, construed news stories spread much faster than before and appear authentic. It's a development that can even call cherished values of the Enlightenment into question and endanger democratic structures. We've selected a few of the most apparent examples in the year 2016.

Bob Dylan (picture alliance/AP Images/V.Bucci)

Bob Dylan's Twitter account was apparently also hacked

At Christmas came this shocker: "Britney Spears is dead!" The source was Sony Music Entertainment's official Twitter account. Bob Dylan's Twitter account was apparently also hacked at the same time in order to spread a similar message. Sony quickly erased the tweet and apologized for any misunderstanding.

Megyn Kelly was also said to have met an untimely demise. The news about the popular 45-year-old TV host on Fox News in the US popped up on an advertisement that found its way to the venerable New York Times. Nowadays, advertising spots are often set up in such ways that they can appear on the websites of entities that don't approve of their content - and perhaps gain credibility in the process.

Dangerous sensationalism 

Both stories seem innocuous compared to a crisis with literally nuclear implications that erupted in December 2016 between Israel and Pakistan. Should the latter send troops to Syria, Israel would respond with a nuclear strike, went the message. Pakistan's Defense Minister Khawaja Asif took it seriously and threatened Israel with retaliation, tweeting "Israel forgets that Pakistan is a nuclear state too."

After a chill went down the spines of observers, the crisis was averted and remained without consequence.

The precise effects of fake news are sometimes difficult to assess however. Last summer in Columbia, government and rebels agreed to a peace agreement, but in a subsequent referendum, that agreement was rejected by a majority. International observers attributed the referendum result to false news about the activities of the rebels and the effects of the peace agreement.

In Germany, days after the terror attack on the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, hoax news spread via the messenger service WhatsApp maintaining that a terror cell was planning attacks on shopping centers in the capital city. Police said the rumors spread "like wildfire" before Christmas Eve. Users' tips led to the source of the lies, who was arrested and is being investigated for violating the peace. He could face a prison sentence of five years.

State-promoted disinformation?

 Deutschland Breitscheidplatz nach dem Anschlag in Berlin (DW/F. Hofmann)

The terror at Breitscheidplatz was only the beginning, said the perpetrator of false messages on WhatsApp

Then there was the case of "Lisa F." last summer, which rose to attention around the world. The 13-year-old girl of Russian heritage claimed she had been raped in Berlin by refugees from the Middle East; the news spread on the social media and on Russian news channels. Hundreds angrily demonstrated in Russia and Germany, joined by anti-Islamic groups. When Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused the German government of "sweeping the case under the carpet," German officials began to wonder whether Russia had actually intentionally spread the story in order to discredit the Merkel Administration. According to police investigations, incidentally, the girl had not been harmed in any way.

A different instance of the spread of fake news involved a murdered female student from Freiburg and the subsequent arrest of the suspect, a refugee. In November, Renate Künast, a long-standing member of parliament, was quoted on Facebook with critical words on the case. But the statement was completely fictive, said Künast - and she waited for days for it to be finally deleted.

The land of endless fake news

The most striking fake news stories in 2016 were to be found in social media in the run-up to the presidential election in the United States. Perhaps the most consequential one maintained that Pope Francis had pledged his support to Donald Trump. The news provoked skepticism among those who remembered the pope's harsh words of criticism of the candidate earlier in the year - but according to the number of times it was shared, many others apparently believed it.

Pro-Trump or anti-Clinton-tweets and posts were clearly in the majority of election-related social media activity, such as the report alleging that Clinton had paid Jay Z and Beyonce $62 million (59 million euros) to appear at a pre-election rally in Cleveland. According to a similar report, the Clinton camp had paid a demonstrator $3,500 (3,300 euros) to interfere at a Trump rally. The story was even re-tweeted by Donald Trump's son Eric and by his two campaign managers, Corey Lewandowski and later, Kellyanne Conway - whether this was done out of ignorance, gullibility or cynicism, remains unknown.

"FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide," read a dreamed-up report that appeared just days before the election - one, for which character assassination seems too gentle a term. Other inaccurate reports seemed innocuous or even amusing by comparison, such as those of Hillary Clinton having purchased $137 million (130 million euros) worth of illegal arms, or that she and Bill Clinton had purchased a home in the Maldives for $200 million (190 million euros).

USA Presidentschaftsdebatte - Donald Trump und Hilary Clinton (Getty Images/AFP/T. A. Clary)

In the US election, it wasn't so much about what they said as it was about what was said about them

After the election, Trump supporters clung to the report that the majority of Americans (and not just the electors) had voted for their candidate and not Clinton - who after the final count, was almost three million ahead in the popular vote.

Meanwhile, one false report had concrete - and hair-raising - consequences. After it was maintained that Mrs. Clinton was at the head of a ring of criminals engaging in the sexual exploitation of children at a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., an armed man turned up there days after the election and fired his weapon into the restaurant - only five miles from the White House - saying that he wanted to personally get to the bottom of the issue.

Fake news affects policy

According to one fake news piece, customers in shops in the state of Colorado, where marijuana is legal, were using food stamps to pay for the drug. That this is impossible is clear to anyone who is acquainted with the federal program, but that did not keep a state congressman from proposing a law to ban exactly that. How was it possible for such serious or ridiculous fake news to spread so widely in the US?

Americans' trust in the established media lies at an all-time low, reports the broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR). Only 32 percent of those polled indicated having "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the media. Among Republicans, the level of trust has even declined to 14 percent, down from 32 percent in 2015. In the 1990s, roughly half of Americans trusted the media, but the level has remained below 50 percent since 2007.

Symbolic of that brand of distrust is the German term "Lügenpresse" (Lying Press). The word was once used by Nazi propagandists and has been taken up today by anti-Islamic and nationalistic groups in Germany to designate the mainstream media they disagree with. The term is now also being used - in the original German - on alt-right sites like Breitbart News, whose former chief editor, Steve Bannon, has been named a senior advisor in the future Trump Administration.

After the US elections, concerns were also expressed in Germany that fake news could impact the elections there in 2017, with Russia often mentioned as a potential direct or indirect source of spreading such news.

Deutschland BdT Renate Künast trinkt Tee (picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld)

No time for a tea break, says Renate Künast: social media should act immediately to remove false information

After Renate Künast was misquoted on the Web, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière proposed establishing a "Defense Center Against Disinformation."

But there was immediate criticism from the German Journalists Association (DJV) and by Volker Beck, a member of the Greens Party and former member of parliament. 

"A democracy has no room for a Ministry of Truth," said Beck. 

As far as state influence on the internet is concerned, there is always the dystopia of China, where censors keep entire subject areas out of public reach. On another extreme, there is Myanmar, a country that opened itself to the internet relatively recently and where, in lieu of established media sources, users consider Facebook synonymous with the internet. The negative results of such attitudes in terms of establishing a well-informed populace can be imagined.

Something to laugh or to cry about?

If telling the truth should somehow become mandatory and if there were somehow a way to enforce it, satire would become impossible, says Christian Brandes, who is better known by his artist's name, Schlecky Silberstein.

In an interview with German broadcaster Southwest German Radio (SWR), he said that all you need to spread fake news is a program like WordPress and a bit of imagination. He added that on his website moselkurier.de, he could even earn up to 500 euros ($525) per article that way - but before it comes to that, Brandes says he is taking the site off-line at the end of the year.

The war on fake news cannot be fought by taking aim with precision at any particular target, but can be conducted by distributing contradictory - and therefore correct - information, says the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg. At a meeting this week, the club announced a "Hoaxmap" depicting the geographical sources of reports incorrectly alleging criminal activities on the part of refugees.

Sreenshot der Website hoaxmap.org ( hoaxmap)

This map points to locations where false reports about refugees are coming from in Germany - geographically, at least

Facebook has meanwhile announced that it will identify fake news as such - even though this could damage the media platform's business model: Journalists at BuzzFeed found that the 20 most successful false reports in the US elections had provoked 8,711,000 reactions on Facebook, whereas the 20 most successful election reports from 19 serious news sites had been shared, liked, or commented on only 7,637,000 times. With advertising revenue at stake, fake news is clearly big business for platforms like Facebook.

Whether the new Facebook tags will reduce the impact of reports maintaining that Michelle Obama was born as a man, Barack Obama is gay and a radical Muslim or "Cannabis Kills Cancer" remains to be seen.

Google, for its part, has announced that it will also take action against fake news. The search engine giant is already tweaking its algorithms to remove objectionable websites from its search results. At present, those efforts appear incomplete, however. Typing in the question, "Did the Holocaust happen?" results in responses like "The Holocaust Hoax; IT NEVER HAPPENED" | E.T.P. and "Holocaust Against Jews is a Total Lie - Proof" – NODISINFO.

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