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In A Crucial Election Year, Worries Grow In Germany About Fake News

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In A Crucial Election Year, Worries Grow In Germany About Fake News

In A Crucial Election Year, Worries Grow In Germany About Fake News

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a lot of talk right now about so-called fake news, which, to be clear, is when fabricated stories are packaged as legitimate journalism. It's a problem other democracies are dealing with as well - in Germany, for example, where national elections are coming up this fall. And just as in the U.S., trust in the traditional news media there is waning. Esme Nicholson reports that Germany's fourth estate is fighting back.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Sixty-five-year-old Angelika Siegner used to know who to trust and who not to. Growing up in communist East Germany, she would ignore party propaganda and get her news by surreptitiously tuning in to West German television. But faced with social media newsfeeds in today's globalized world, she feels confused.

ANGELIKA SIEGNER: (Through interpreter) We don't know what's true anymore or what's a lie. It's so difficult to keep up. So we try and feel it out, we ask our friends what they think, and often we all draw the same conclusions.

NICHOLSON: As people rely more on what their friends think, journalists in Germany have to accept that they are no longer as influential as they once were.

DAVID SCHRAVEN: It used to be the trust in a brand. You know, you trusted your newspaper. Now you've got friends and friends of friends and Facebook and you trust your friend.

NICHOLSON: David Schraven is the co-founder of correctiv.org, a nonprofit investigative newsroom that's about to partner with Facebook to fact-check German-language stories flagged as suspicious by users. But Schraven says simply identifying this information is not enough. Like it or not, he says, the fake news industry represents serious competition. And traditional media must emulate the techniques used so successfully by these purveyors of falsehoods.

SCHRAVEN: We need to acknowledge that our audience is not there where we want it. So we need to follow the audience. We need to work on social media.

NICHOLSON: Schraven says the best strategy for traditional media is to assume the role of a quotable trusted online friend. Even Germany's biggest-selling newspaper, Bild, is concerned about losing readers to the wilds of social media. Julian Reichelt is head of Bild's editorial board.

JULIAN REICHELT: We don't believe that you win those people back by insulting them or alienating them. We believe that you have to engage them. You have to talk to them.

NICHOLSON: Losing readers' trust is a serious issue for Bild. Just last month, Reichelt had to retract and apologize for a story they published that turned out to be entirely fictitious. Many sniggered at his apology since the paper has a reputation for not being overly concerned about accuracy. But Reichelt said he's now more dedicated to transparency than ever and is offering up one of his journalists every day to take questions via live online video link.

REICHELT: Throughout the 30 minutes of such a chat, the number of people yelling at you and putting out wild conspiracy theories decreases while the number of people making reasonable arguments increases.

NICHOLSON: And it's not just the media taking a stand against disruptive disinformation. Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is drawing up legislation to impose hefty fines on social media sites that don't speedily remove false stories. SPD lawmaker Jens Zimmermann says this is a tricky task.

JENS ZIMMERMANN: (Through interpreter) Freedom of speech is paramount to our democracy. And we, by no means, want an Orwellian ministry of truth. But we have to make it quite clear that the same libel laws and laws against incitement of hatred apply online as they do offline.

NICHOLSON: But with an election fast approaching, critics say it's already too late for legislation. The media, they argue, must act now to ensure a well-informed electorate goes to the polls in September.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF B. FLEISCHMANN'S "COMPOSURE")

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