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Faked out by fears of fake news

October 27, 2017

Although fake news stories did not make an impact on Germany's election the hype — and fear — of them left an impression. One that many Germans are having a hard time getting out of their heads.

The word Fake on an article at a news website
Image: Copyright: ©Autentic Distribution

Nearly one in three Germans is of the opinion that so-called fake news played a major role in the outcome of Germany's 2017 general election on September 24.

That number was put forth by the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV), or Foundation for New Responsibility, based on a poll conducted the week after the election by Kantar Public, an independent institute for political and social research.

The poll's findings were surprising since in the weeks preceding the election security authorities and media experts had essentially given the all-clear to reassure voters the German election was not under attack by hackers or rampant propaganda.

That voters' fear of fake news far outpaced the actual effect of such stories appears contradictory, but Alexander Sängerlaub, head of SNV's "Measuring Fake News" project, said that is not the whole story.

He said he sees a strong correlation between the fear of possible disinformation during the election and the media attention that accompanied it. Impressions of the 2016 US elections played a major role, he added.

CNN screen grab shows fake news writer Paul Horner under the banner fake news, real impact
The role of fake news in the US election is still being examined by a number of groupsImage: youtube/CNN

The long shadow of Donald Trump

The lack of a concerted effort to differentiate among the various meanings of the term fake news in the United States and in Germany also left German voters concerned after seeing the rampant spread of such content in the US. Many groups in the US are still taking stock of the overall effect of fake news on the 2016 presidential election.

US President Donald Trump and other populists have used the term to attack critical media outlets. For the US president, that covers everything from CNN and virtually all of network and cable television and newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Read more: Facebook, Russia and the US elections - what you need to know

The word "Fake News" highlighted in a German dictionary
It would have helped to have a clear definition of fake news, Sängerlaub saidImage: Picture alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

In the German debate, on the other hand, the term has often been applied to online hate speech. That confusion in terminology is also reflected in how different groups of voters define fake news.

Sängerlaub suggested that people who do not trust the media and also vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are likely to regard fake news in a manner similar to Trump – namely any unfavorable "reporting by mainstream media."

Therefore, Sängerlaub said he is not surprised AfD voters were most convinced "there is a lot of fake news in the world." On average, 61 percent of Germans polled agreed with that statement, among the AfD's supporters that number climbed to 71 percent.

A different echo in the AfD information silo

Asked what that reveals about the influence of fake news, Sängerlaub replied: "Fake news functions especially well where it is designed to. Where it can push a skewed version of reality in a way that is politically useful."

A graph shows some of the Fake News study's results

He added that in such a "replacement reality" it's easy to read about "uneducated refugees flooding across the border in masses, committing crimes and then being housed and fed by the government."

That is the logic used by the AfD more than any other party, and such stories land in the echo chambers and filter bubbles created by social media sites, right-wing blogs and the news sites that their voters frequent, Sängerlaub said.

Just how different AfD voters are from all others when it comes to views about fake news can be seen in a direct comparison with Green party voters. The massive discrepancy can be explained in part, but not entirely, by the two groups' very different approaches to using media.

AfD voters prefer social media as a source to a far greater degree than voters from any other party. It is also striking to note that 17 percent of all AfD voters polled said they received their news exclusively via social media.

Read more: So why did the #MacronLeaks hack fall flat in France?

The power of a constant drip

The SNV analysis was unable to discover exactly where the belief that fake news influenced the German election originated. But Sängerlaub's team said the media's generally overstated reports about the importance of fake news could not be discounted.

During the German elections, Google Trends searches for the term "fake news" had much higher rankings than searches for the campaign issues of "social equality" or "rent control" even though it had less of an effect on voters' lives.

How to reach the disenchanted

Sängerlaub said it will be up to politicians to figure out how to reach voters who do not believe and who reject traditional media outlets.

"That will be one of the key challenges in the age of 'alternative media' and 'alternative facts,'" he added.

Beyond that, Sängerlaub offered what might seem like banal advice to voters: pay attention to where the news is coming from.

"Is this story from a reputable source? Can I trust the source?" But he added that one thing was missing in this fast-paced age: the time to look closely at what you watch and read.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.