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Social bots expert to brief German MPs

November 25, 2016

A software expert is to warn German MPs about the threat of false news ahead of next year's election. Chancellor Angela Merkel is concerned the use of so-called social bots could harm her chances of a fourth term.

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After revelations that social media networks helped spread false and malicious information in the lead-up to the US presidential election, Chancellor Merkel is keen that the use of technology known as social bots is minimized in time for Germany's federal election next year.

The chancellor has invited a data and software expert from the Technical University of Munich to brief the executive committee of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) on Monday about so-called social bots.

The emerging software can mimic human behavior on social media sites by publishing messages or liking posts. It can be used to spread erroneous information and muddy the political debate.

Manipulating the truth

Simon Hegelich, a professor of political data science, is expected to warn MPs that technology could be used against established German parties, similar to how the proliferation of fake news helped sway the US election in President-elect Donald Trump's favor, as many analysts have claimed.

In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF on Thursday, Hegelich said the impact of social bots on the democratic process has yet to be fully researched.

But those with extremist and radical opinions can often outgun more moderate voices, he told the show "Morgenmagazin."

"Suddenly the whole picture is distorted and society appears to be totally polarized," Hegelich said.

AfD may benefit

German ministers are concerned that the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party may benefit from the use of social bots - even if they aren't used by the party directly. The AfD has been noted for its strong engagement with its followers on social media.

Angela Merkel
Merkel will run for a fourth term in office next yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Some analysts believe outside influences could attempt to weaken Merkel and her allies over her open-door refugee policy, immigration and the threat of terrorism.

US and German intelligence agencies have raised concerns about Russian interference in domestic politics. In the US election campaign, false and malicious stories also earned big advertising profits for those shadowy organizations that published them.

All German political parties have vowed not to use social bots to influence the outcome of the election, which is set for next autumn.

Regulate social media?

On Sunday, Merkel announced plans to seek a fourth term as chancellor. Three days later, she used a speech in parliament to call for a debate on how fake news, bots and trolls can manipulate public opinion.

"In order to reach people, to inspire people, we need to deal with this phenomenon and - where necessary - regulate it," Merkel told MPs on Wednesday.

Merkel has raised the idea of a code of conduct for social networks, after Facebook promised to take action to reduce the number of fake news articles being shared on its platform, following the US election.

On ZDF, Hegelich praised Merkel, saying she was "really interested in the topic of bots and fake news and hate speech on the internet and she's very well informed. I was impressed."

mm/jm (Reuters, EPD)