Germany’s battle against fake news

Emily Schimelpfenig // 26 July 2017

The German elections are just around the corner and a new anti-fake news bill, Netwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG), was passed by the Bundestag on 30 June 2017. The bill, when it comes into force in October, will affect large online platforms with more than 2 million users such as Facebook and Twitter. One of these platforms, Facebook, has already taken initiatives to fight fake news by hiring third party fact checkers to debunk false facts.

Currently, there is a lot of debate about the legality of this new law, which could infringe on free speech in the German constitution or EU laws, but those who support the bill point to its importance in running fair elections.

 

The NetzDG bill strengthens the rights of individuals who are affected by either hate speech or fake news. It calls upon social networks to issue quarterly reports on their handling of user complaints about criminal content. The new law also gives 24 hours for social media networks to respond and delete criminal content through an effective complaint management system.  If companies are not compliant they will be fined up to 50 million.

 

Before the bill, Facebook was already taking action to fight so-called fake news on its German platform. Using a tactic developed in the US, the company hired the third-party fact checker Correctiv to debunk fake news stories. If the story is determined to be fake by Correctiv, it is flagged as “disputed” and deprioritized from news feeds. The company provides an explanation of how the story is fake and users are notified that it has been flagged before they share it. Germany is the first country, after the US, to benefit from these tactics.

 

Nonetheless, the success of these tactics is questionable. The fact-checkers at Correctiv argue that the tool helps, but it is still Facebook determining what sources need to be checked and what do not. It does not explain how or which stories gain traction on the social network. It also does not actually remove these stories from Facebook, it only marks them as “fake”.

 

Facebook went with this tactic instead of the removal of fake news from its site because the censoring of news on its social network platform could be seen as an impediment to free speech. The NetzDG bill comes out of a fear that Facebook is not doing enough to remove fake content. The debate focusing on the limits of free speech is constantly contested, and the growth of fake news on social media makes it even more critical.

So far, Facebook has hired hundreds of people and has devoted considerable financial resources to tracking and deleting fake news, but the number will have to increase 10-fold to meet the demands of the new German resolution. For this reason, Facebook has criticised the new law arguing that it incentivizes companies to delete legal content in order to avoid the threat of fines. They also claim that many legal experts assessed the law and determined it unconstitutional and not compliant with EU law.

 

Many experts and politicians believe that the introduction of this new legislation was needed to hold companies accountable. However, it is also important to remember that Germany already has some of the world’s toughest hate speech laws, and this creates a legal obligation to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to follow the 2015 pledge to deleted hate speech from their websites within 24 hours.

 

Thus, the new German bill has good intentions. However, it may have undesirable consequences for all parties involved. This being said, there is another option for Germany. Instead of targeting social media platforms, which are responsible for spreading news, the law should target the financial sources of those stories. In fact, if one attacks the financing behind fake news stories, the spread of the latter is likely to decline. Through a system similar to Facebook’s news filtering, people can identify reliable and unreliable stories when flagging content. This will slowly weed out fake news sources, and would build credibility on platforms. Once the reduction in the level of fake news has occurred, online platforms can also identify which stories they do not have to advertise. As a consequence, revenues for unreliable sites will decline.

 

This is an option that would allow free-market forces to reduce the problem of fake news and would take the free speech argument out of the debate. It is only one of many possible solutions, but it shows that rather than simply targeting the platforms that spread fake news, governments, networks and citizens should focus on the financial sources

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