In the wake of Donald Trump's shock Nov. 8 electoral victory, attention fell on the extent to which voter opinions could have been shaped by an epidemic of “fake news” websites that masqueraded as legitimate media outlets. Their articles — invented fluff with sensationalist headlines — found the eyeballs of a huge number of (mostly right-wing) readers. Many fake stories proved more viral on social media than important articles from real sources.
Now, it seems the threat of fake news is stalking the democratic process elsewhere. Germany will hold national elections at some point next year, with a far-right party poised to make considerable gains on the back of populist fears about immigration and Islam.
The charged atmosphere of the moment prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who represents a center-right political party, to caution against alarmist hysteria generated via social media.
“Something has changed — as globalization has marched on, [political] debate is taking place in a completely new media environment. Opinions aren't formed the way they were 25 years ago,” she said Wednesday while addressing Germany's Bundestag, or parliament. “Today we have fake sites, bots, trolls — things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with certain algorithms, and we have to learn to deal with them.”
Merkel indicated that she supported tougher measures to crack down on hate speech in its various forms and figure out new ways to regulate the complicated ecosystem of online information (and misinformation).
“I believe we should not underestimate what is happening in the context of the Internet and with digitalization; this is part of our reality,” Merkel said. “We have regulations that allow for our press freedom, including the requirement for due diligence from journalists. Today we have many that experience a media that is based on very different foundations and is much less regulated.”
The expansion of far-right Breitbart News, connected to Trump adviser Steve Bannon, into Germany ahead of the elections has raised concerns about the polarization of the political discourse in the country.
“Populism and political extremes are growing in Western democracies,” Merkel warned.
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