Why Germany Is Better at Resisting Fake News
Modern-day elections are increasingly defined by two sides: those who trust traditional media and those who rely on the social networks to provide an alternative, which is far more likely to deliver fake news. While in the U.S., the nature of the conflict is clouded by the social media's prevalence, Germany is an example of a society where the battle lines are clearly drawn.
Multiple studies in the U.S. have shown that Democrats trust traditional media more than Republicans do, which makes sense. But so much of media consumption goes through the social networks that it's almost pointless to ask which party trusts it more. According to a June 2017 IPSOS poll, Democrats outmatched Republicans on social media trust:
(According to the same poll, Facebook is the biggest news source for Democrats and the second biggest for Republicans, after broadcast TV.)
Germany is different. Only 26 percent of Germans -- about half the U.S. level -- follow the news through social media. More than half of news consumers go directly to the websites of their favorite news providers. But a fresh report on fake news in the run-up to last month's parliamentary election from the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, a Berlin think tank that has followed the phenomenon from the early days of the campaign, shows that the voters of the nationalist populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, like U.S. Republicans, are less inclined to trust traditional media than most other Germans, and especially than politically liberal ones. The social media were the most important source of information about the election for just 6 percent of Germans overall -- but for 16 percent of AfD voters. Far-right voters consumed consistently less news than others from traditional sources such as TV, online and traditional newspapers.
Because of this consumption pattern, these voters also got more fake news. Perhaps because they ignored other news sources, they tended to believe it. For example, they were far more likely than any other voters to believe that the German government pays for refugees to get driver's licenses, that a Lutheran bishop said in a speech that "All Germans are Nazis," or that refugees from a certain German state often went on vacation to their home countries.
Germany, far less "infected" by the social-network virus and years behind in the development of conservative media like Breitbart and Fox News (thanks in part to strong hate speech laws), can serve as a kind of control group for the U.S. It's easier to track here how the social networks play an outsize role in providing news-like fare to people who don't trust professional journalists.
The same, of course, is happening in the U.S. -- only it's not as obvious from the data. A recent analysis by PC World showed that Facebook pushes more fake news and partisan spin to Donald Trump supporters than to Democrats. Facebook's newsfeed algorithm is set up to satisfy demand, and that's what it does, delivering alternatives to people who want them.
Because of this, social media platforms are the natural enemies of centrist and liberal political parties, whose agendas overlap with professional journalists. That centrist bias may also be a problem. Correcting it in Germany, for example, could mean giving more space to the problems of integrating Muslim immigrants, which editors don't like to do, fearing a backlash against the newcomers.
On the whole, the social networks' surge into the underserved market for right-wing narratives is probably a bigger problem because of the total lack of editorial control, even the kind exercised by Fox News and other right-leaning U.S. media. When it comes to news, the absence of any responsibility and restraint can be dangerous. Germany is ahead of the U.S. in regulating the social networks (for example, requiring them quickly to remove hate speech or face large fines) because its centrist political establishment doesn't want to suffer the fate of its U.S. counterparts. After the AfD's 13 percent result in last month's election, more government moves to limit the damage from Facebook and its peers should be expected.
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Mike Nizza at firstname.lastname@example.org