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Fake news is 'press warfare'

December 13, 2016

CDU politician Patrick Sensburg wants to criminalize the creation of fake news. He told DW about what makes misinformation so dangerous and why offenders could be tried for espionage.

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Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Rourke

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Sensburg, what exactly do you want to make a criminal offense when it comes to fake news? Who or what is your target?

Patrick Sensburg: On the one hand, we need to strictly apply the laws we already have to fight propaganda and libel. But we also need new means to fight this organized propaganda: it's not about a single fake news item here or there, but whole websites being created to look like a serious media organization or state agency. All the news on there comes with false content and links to stories that are just as false. Their goal is to weaken the media landscape and the very fabric of our state.

That's completely different from someone who's defending an absurd opinion. The target is this kind of organized propaganda and fake news, created solely for deception and misinformation. We need to think about ratcheting up the statutory offenses in this area.

How could you catch the offenders?

Patrick Sensburg
CDU legal expert Patrick SensburgImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The offenders are usually based in a different country. If the website is hosted and run abroad, it's more difficult for us. But content could be removed from social media in those cases. That's a demand that many parties have issued: Facebook should delete fake news.

There are some sites that are hosted in Germany. We've seen that in the refugee crisis and, to a lesser extent, in the euro crisis as well. Here we have to come up with ways to take action against the people who run these websites, whose sole purpose it is to destabilize the media landscape and the population's trust in the state.

Why do we need a special law for that? Aren't existing laws like the one against libel sufficient?

Partly, yes. But the question is whether an organized effort is behind a single libelous post. The new factor is the attempt to fake press neutrality online. Someone is posing as a regular daily newspaper or a comparable source and creates a whole network worth of content only to weaken trust in the press and in journalists, and thus in the state. That's a new kind of propaganda in the 21st century - it's press warfare.

If you're facing this new state of affairs naively and try to use 19th and 20th century press freedom arguments, you'll find out very quickly that opinions are created very quickly on the internet due to these new possibilities and machinations. We have to work against that. This isn't about curtailing freedom of expression.

What would the sentence be for these 'machinations?'

We'll have to consider whether the person in question is a first-time offender, whether he is a copycat - or whether state organizations are behind it, which we could qualify as espionage. If we see that fake news websites are run from abroad, we have to consider that they're part of an espionage act. Destabilizing a country is a typical course of action that intelligence services use to weaken their opponents. In that case, we could apply a tough espionage sentence. 

Patrick Sensburg is a member of the Bundestag with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU. He sits on the Bundestag Committee for Legal Affairs and Consumer Protection.

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