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German, EU politicians talk tough on fake news

December 18, 2016

EU parliament leader Martin Schulz has called for hard, Europe-wide laws to stem the spread of harmful fake news stories. The German government is already looking to draft its own law.

Symbolbild Facebook - Datenschutz & Gewalt & Hass & Fake News
Image: picture-alliance/chromorange/R. Peters

EU Parliament President Martin Schulz and Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas both came out swinging against fake news on Sunday.

 In separate press interviews, the two German politicians discussed concrete plans to create laws banning platforms like Facebook from spreading fabricated stories presented as real news, something both men saw as harmful to democracy.

"We need a systematic legal framework," Maas told the "Bild am Sonntag" newspaper. His ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and coalition partners the Social Democrats (SPD) have already announced their intention to craft new legislation to stop the dissemination of fake news in January.

Schulz: Solution should be European, not just national

Martin Schulz offered a more concrete plan, saying that to combat the subversion of democracy that occurs when foreign interests create fake viral stories, "not only a national, but a European" solution was necessary. To that end, Schulz suggested that laws should target outlets such as Facebook, where much of fake news is spread.

Europäisches Parlament in Straßburg - Abschiedsrede Präsident Martin Schulz
Schulz: Fake news violates personal rights as wellImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Florin

Fake news also violated personal rights, said Schulz in an interview with papers from the Funke news consortium. "I support protecting victims by means of prosecution," said the SPD lawmaker.

Schulz proposed that Facebook set up a 24-hour hotline to report fake news and harmful bots, and face penalties if the problems were not dealt with in a timely manner. He slammed the idea put forward by some tech companies that they were merely conduits.

"The great reach of social networks creates a considerable responsibility on their part," said Schulz.

SPD lawmaker calls for 500,000-euro fine

Thomas Oppermann, who leads the SPD in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, took the matter even further on Friday. Speaking with "Der Spiegel" magazine, Oppermann said that harsh punitive measures were necessary in order to make social networks shoulder their share of the burden. He suggested a fine of 500,000 euros ($522,000) if websites such as Facebook didn't remove harmful material within one day of being notified of it.

Thomas Oppermann SPD
Oppermann said the goverment couldn't be "thought police" but had to stop threats to personal libertyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Jensen

"Facebook has not effectively used the opportunity to handle complaints on its own," Oppermann charged.

Much has been made of fake news after the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Accusations have been circulating from as high up as the CIA that Russian professionals were strategically creating false stories and publishing them on websites that mimic the design of news outlets, allegedly to swing the election for Trump.

With Germany facing a general election in 2017, Berlin has concerns that similar foul play could affect the German vote.

Facebook, for its part, has stepped-up its hunt for the "worst of the worst" offenders of false reports masquerading as real news, hiring outside fact-checkers and allowing users to report suspicious posts. 

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.