It is no secret that propaganda and disinformation lurk in many corners of the internet. But many people are not clear about how such campaigns function and how quickly people can be led astray. In one example, timed to coincide with the Islamic month of fasting, leading German-language political website Politically Incorrect has published a story
that draws attention to a clearly false Moroccan article
claiming that last month Chancellor Angela Merkel exempted restaurants from a tax "so that Muslims can be offered cheaper food during Ramadan."
The disinformation campaign attempts to offer confirmation of the wildest theories of readers who suspect that the chancellor and her government are too generous to refugees
and Muslims. And it seems to have worked - at least for Politically Incorrect's limited audience: In the users' comments on the article, a slew of criticisms and insults are directed at Merkel and the refugee policies of her government
Politically Incorrect presents itself as a news portal "outside the mainstream" and is thus likely to attract exactly the kind of people who are dissatisfied with the refugee policies of the German government. A glance at the banners on Politically Incorrect quickly makes it apparent that the website supports the actions of the xenophobic PEGIDA movement and its regional offshoots. The website's backers do a good job of attempting to conceal their identity, but they make no bones about the right-wing
movements that they support.
The target audience for Politically Incorrect appears to be followers of PEGIDA and related factions
Even Politically Correct's anonymous authors appear skeptical of the report that they have published. "It is not specified exactly what taxes are meant here, and further details are also lacking in the report," they write. "It would seem, in fact, barely conceivable that a German chancellor would give special concessions to a particular group on her own authority." And then they continue in the conspiracy theory vein anyway: "It would seem. But seeing how Merkel has high-handedly put herself above the constitution in bringing in the new citizens she desires, one is forced to consider her capable of such a measure as well. For this reason, we present the report here with all due caution and reservations."
Instead of making sure that the report was authentic before publishing it and instead of admitting a mistake after publishing false information, Politically Incorrect links to a report on the English-language website Morocco World News and refers back to the Arabic website of the Russian foreign broadcaster RT
, which does not provide a primary source for the report either, referring instead to the newspaper Al Riyadh
, which has close links to the Saudi royal family.
The notion that a Saudi newspaper knows more about German tax issues than German media should in itself be enough to inspire skepticism. And, indeed, the Arabic website of Al Riyadh features no such report about a Ramadan tax exemption in Germany.
Despite the effort to implicate Al Riyadh, the report appears to primarily have been spread by RT. The disinformation campaign targets both Arab readers and, indirectly, German internet users as well. Arab readers are given the false impression that Germany is extra generous to Muslims - something that might encourage refugees to come to the country. And, at the same time, Germans who are hostile toward Islam are stirred up by the same lies.
One possible calculation for such a disinformation campaign is: If Chancellor Merkel were to be ousted because of the refugee crisis, Germany would be considerably weakened as a force within Europe - and, very concretely, the united front in the European Union that is for sanctions against the Kremlin would begin to show some large cracks.
That's how propaganda and disinformation work. A piece of information that is untrue, as in this case, half-true or greatly distorted is sourced to websites of various kinds and in various languages - until the original "source" of the report disappears.
This disinformation then reaches German end users accompanied by references to "international media." Those who adhere to the idea that leading German broadcasters, websites and newspapers do not tell the truth might see their suspicions confirmed by the fact that the story of the chancellor's autocratic tax exemption was not covered domestically at all.
Ultimately, none of us should be lulled into thinking that we cannot be taken in by such disinformation campaigns. Politically Incorrect's article was among the top search results provided by Google - the engine most used in Germany. Information and its sources must always be scrutinized with a critical eye.