Germany mulls crackdown on social media bots | News | DW | 16.12.2018
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Germany mulls crackdown on social media bots

Social media bots are attacking the core elements of democracy and it's "high time" for Germany to fight them, senior CDU lawmaker Ralph Brinkhaus has said. Other politicians also want a crackdown on bots.

Many German lawmakers were flooded with messages during the recent debate on the UN migration pact, in what appeared to be the work of social media bots, said Ralph Brinkhaus, the head of the parliamentary group of the ruling conservative CDU party.

The emails "often had same blocs of texts" Brinkhaus told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in an interview published on Sunday.

"But most of all, this wave of untruths and defamation was unleashed online and on social media," he added, urging a series of measures to fight disinformation.

Bots behind over one-quarter migration tweets

On social media, a "bot" is a label used for automated programs that mimic real users. The software elements can be programmed to like, share, and even post comments on specific posts, creating the illusion that the content is popular or hotly debated.

Read more: Worried about fake news? Then it's time we talked about social bots

Bots are often used commercially, to make ads or brands more visible or simply to inflate the number of followers — a thousand fake followers can reportedly be bought for under €10 ($11.3) in Germany.

However, many political parties and organizations also use bots to push their agenda.

For example, bots can interact with each other to simulate a discussion and influence opinions of human users. They can also be programmed to downvote certain comments or send hateful private messages to their authors. Additionally, political organizations use paid human "trolls" for the same purpose.

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Trolls and flamers: Hate on the web

Following the UN migration debate in Germany, a Berlin start-up Botswatch found 28 percent of all tweets on this topic were sent by bots.

'Monstrous power'

These campaigns can now wield "monstrous power," according to Brinkhaus. They interfere with key elements of democracy, such as free forming of opinions, and can shift crucial votes to one side of the argument, says the lawmaker.

"Election results are often close," Brinkhaus told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. "It was like that with the (2016) American election, and also with Brexit."

Read more: The rise of political bots on social media

With the EU parliament election coming up 2019, and four German states holding votes of their own in the same year, "it is high time to wake up" to bots' influence, Brinkhaus added.

German conservatives have long been mulling the possibility of forcing social media platforms to clearly mark bot accounts and individual messages sent by automated software routines, according to the politician.

EU invests money to fight disinformation

The CDU's ruling coalition partner, the left-leaning SPD, has expressed support for the idea of labeling bot accounts. Offenders should be sanctioned and possibly forced to pay fines, the SPD's senior lawmaker Jens Zimmerman told the paper.

The opposition Green party said that the government needed to take responsibility for solving the issue. "Everyone has a right to know if they are communicating with a fellow human or a machine," the Greens' lawmaker in charge of internet policy, Tabea Rössner, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Read more: EU Commission warns of 'fake news' and meddling in 2019 election

Earlier this month, the European Commission published an action plan against disinformation, which includes a "Rapid Alert System" to flag malicious messages. The EU also boosted the funding for an anti-disinformation group, raising it from €1.9 million to €5 million.

dj/rc (AFP, dpa)

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