Fake News as Propaganda

3 Questions to Martin Hoffmann

– Fake-news! It’s a defamation against journalists, extolled President of the European Federation of Journalists, Mogens Blicher Bjerregård at the recent ECPMF conference in Leipzig, Germany.

The idea that fake news is not only pernicious by nature but also misleading and damaging to the role of journalists was underlined by several speakers. Fake news defame the impartiality of journalists and peddles rhetoric deemed anti-democratic on account of its non-existent veracity.
Martin Hoffmann is the author of a new report titled Concept of the Enemy II – ‘lying press’ and journalistic self-assertion which looks into the trend of violence against journalists in an environment of fake-news and unsubstantiated stories being spread in German. Netopia had the opportunity to ask Martin Hoffman three questions.

What are the findings of your report and how do you see fake news leading to claims of Lügenpresse?

We researched the connection between lying press allegations and the increased number of attacks of attacks on journalists from 2015 on. At the end of 2014 some populist movements had arisen, in Saxony, called Pegida, and from 2015 we observed an increasing number of attacks on journalists in Germany.

Firstly, we tried to verify how many attacks happened before Pegida and then 2015, -16 and -17 compared. What we observed a huge increase from 2014 to 2015, where we went from four attacks (defined as physically attacked via beating including spitting) on journalists and then in 2015 43 reports of violence often at the Pegida rallies or other populist movement like Alternative for Germany (AFD) and other gatherings throughout Germany.

 …leaders of these populist movements have from the outset claimed that journalists are “Lügenpresse”, and flagged this point via speeches, posts on social media and raised overall distrust of the media.

We observed that there is a connection because the leaders of these populist movements have from the outset claimed that journalists are “Lügenpresse”, and flagged this point via speeches, posts on social media and raised overall distrust of the media.

Many populist movements take social media posts that amplify their narrative, for instance something negative relating to refugees are presented with spurious examples like “Refugees Receive an Iphone” which are designed to bolster their agenda. They frame the conditions of what they term “Lügenpresse” and then they share the content and claim it to be mainstream media and in cohort with the government. The frame is such that they claim journalists have lost impartiality from government and are acting as a propaganda machine.

Which platforms are the worst for amplifying this phenomenon? 

The platforms weren’t part of our main research, but the main channels for them were Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and some alternative media such as magazines, or info-sheets that then take on the form of authoritative and authentic media. The reach of this kind of social media facilitated the rise of the fake news, which were self-perpetuating creating an echo-chamber or filter-bubble effect. What we know is that the fake news often lacked sources, but used statements to confirm their position.

Who should do something about this, and how?

In the first place, everyone, by challenging the posts, or tweets with an objective answer. The other side, where there is responsibility are the big strong enterprises such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and alike that have a responsibility and currently admonish themselves of responsibilities that old-media have. Thirdly, I am not convinced by the German proposal to have publishers remove posts within a week because it pushes the big enterprises to delete posts that might not actually be fake or hate speech. I think it needs further thought because the German proposition could become a chilling effect in countries where well researched media is suppressed. I think some legislation can be useful, but the German approach needs more thought. The problem we have is that commercial enterprise is risk averse, and they would rather not spend their earnings on moderation, so in the end perhaps a form of self-regulation with some strong penalties for non-compliance on a case by case basis set against the rule of law. I am a fan of self-regulation, because hate speech and fake news is not erased well enough and with a law at European level could provide an incentive for this to happen.