University of California, Los Angeles

The Threat Fake News Poses to Democracy and its Impact on the 2017 German Election by Caitlin Buckley @ University of California, Los Angeles

          As the 2017 September election approached, German Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself preparing to takeon a familiar entity on an unfamiliar scale. This entity, one that had already threatened French President Emmanuel Macron and contributed to the take down of American presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was propaganda repackaged into the infamous phrase “fake news”. Propaganda has been around since human beings began to disagree with each other, but the word itself became common as late as 1914 with the start of the First World War. Here, officials used posters, films, newspaper articles, books, and pamphlets to successfully mold the opinions of the masses. Germany is no stranger to the potentially disastrous effects of propaganda. However, this new strain presented as fake news brings forth a different set of challenges to Merkel’s campaign for re-election and more broadly, to democracy.

Merkel’s Fight Against Fake News

    Merkel, in a typical German fashion, took a hard line approach in the fight against “fake news” by issuing Germany’s Network Enforcement Act. This law will impose fines of up to 50 million euros on social media companies that do not remove “illegal content” quickly. Illegal content is the phrase used by Merkel’s team that includes hate speech, malicious propaganda, and fake news.

     A consequence of this new law was the increase in the number of third party fact checking agencies. These agencies sift throughan endless stream of information for Facebook and other major social media presences in order to find the truth among conspiracy theories, rumors, and misinformed posts. 50 million euros, about 62 million US dollars, is a hefty fine and proof Merkel is taking the threat of fake news seriously, but what exactly is she worried about?

The Dangers Fake News Poses to Merkel’s Campaign

     Fake news poses a legitimate threat to Merkel’s re-election campaign. The aim of many fake news stories circulating the internet before an election is to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition, in this case, Merkel. Her controversial decision to welcome refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in 2015 made her especially susceptible to being the center of fake news stories. Some accused the German government of seizing property from citizens in order to house migrants, while others fabricated tales of German women being assaulted by Muslim men. These types of posts gainingtraction before an election could negatively influence the public’s opinion of Merkel and in turn, affect voter turnout.

     Alternative for Germany (AfD) is an populist right party that used fake news centered upon the anti-immigrant sentiment stirred up by the refugee crisis to challenge the legitimacy of Merkel. AfD was the main propagator of fake news before the election. According to Reuters, “Of 1 million tweets tracked by the Oxford group in the first 10 days of September, 30 percent were tied to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), far outweighing support shown for the party in polls: it is running at around 10 percent.” This disproportionate media presence was taken full advantage of by the AfD. For instance, an AfD delegate accused a local German police station of  appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men” because the police station tweeted a Happy New Year message in Arabic. This sort of inflammatory and easily disputable claim was intended to take advantage of the polarizing effect the refugee crisis has had on the German public. Pouncing upon divisions in public opinion, the AfD rallied support and are poised to gain seats in parliament. Fake news profits AfD and threatens Merkel but how overarching is it’s effect?

Does Fake News Threaten Democracy?

     Fake news is contributing to the erosion of democracy. Political scientist Robert Dahl simply defined democracy as for the people, ruled by the people. “For the people” refers to a democracy’s duty to represent and protect citizens and their civil liberties. “Ruled by the people” refers to a democracy’s ability to ensure inclusion of its citizens in the political process while also providing citizens with the opportunity to understand and influence civic issues. Consequently, democracy is eroded when any aspect of its definition is made less democratic. Fake news chips away at both “for the people” and “by the people” by misinforming and polarizing the public.  

     The people of democracies elect representatives, lobby, demonstrate, and run for office themselves. Fake news jeopardizes the process of understanding and later influencing policy through the bombardment of misinformation. Fake news is written for the purpose of misleading in order to make gains or damage a rival entity; it disguises itself as a reputable news source to obscure the truth and cause confusion about current issues. A misinformed public may be inclined to vote for a policy or candidate that uses the confusion around relevant issues to campaign, rather than one that truly represents their beliefs. This confusion can deepen ideological difference between parties, leading to polarization. Some polarization, according to political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is “healthy, even necessary, for a democracy.” Issues arise when extreme polarization occurs and people divide themselves into partisan groups that are so ideologically dissimilar, they develop a hatred toward each other. Parties become dangerous enemies and losing is no longer an option and neither, therefore, is democracy.

     Fake news has the potential to create this extreme polarization and should be taken seriously, but fortunately, had no visible effect on the outcome of the 2017 German election. Although Alternative for Germany won 13% of seats, making it the first blatantly nationalist party to have seats in the Bundestag in over 60 years, there was no large scale digital meddling that occurred in the lead up to the election. For now, Merkel’s approach to the fake news media threat has prevailed and she lives to see another day as German Chancellor.

Links and Sources

Levitsky, Steven, & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. “Fateful Alliances.” Chapter 1 in How Democracies Die. NY: Crown Publishing.

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  1. Carolyn Stephens

    March 15, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    This is interesting in the ways that fake news and the media have an adverse effect on democracy. Issuing polarizing views which misconstrue facts for a particular effect certainly takes advantage of the public. The way Donald Trump was able to capture the media with outrageous and unsubstantiated claims certainly lead to his success. However, the left and the right are both equally guilty of creating biased news. Further, to what extent are Merkel’s fines an imposition on free speech. Free speech and press is an essential aspect of democracy, and by imposing hefty fines this could threaten press from publishing something that is controversial but true. If Merkel imposed these threats, and effectively kept herself and her party in power then this could be seen as a small action toward democratic erosion from the left. However, the German philosophy on freedom of speech is distinct from the US conception in that speech that causes emotional or physical harm is illegal. For example, it is illegal in Germany to say that the Holocaust never existed, while in the United States that is viewed as preposterous but not illegal.


    March 15, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    I agree that fake news and the many implications that follow have a variety of affects on the public outlook and may influence voting outcomes. However, if freedom of speech and press is a right commonly associated with democracy, wouldn’t the fact that a freedom is being excercises and utilized further drive the strength of a democracy? In your opinion, how can the public decipher between fake and real news, fighting the erosion of democracy, and do we have a responsibility as an audience to make the effort to determine what’s true and false.


    March 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    Hello, I totally agree with what you have to say about fake news, especially when it is contributing to the erosion of democracy. It is no surprise that fake news is so persistent since it has been an issue for so long. It can be a detrimental factor for may candidates, especially those that are already being portrayed an unqualified for the position they hold now. There is another factor to consider as well and it has to do with single perspectives. Many news outlets are very biased and only get one side of each story, leaving a blank space in many people’s mind. There are a few news outlets that actually cover both side of the story, which gives the best perspective for an individual who does not really follow the media. Democracy is important in the aspect of letting an individual create the person they want to be. If fake news is so prevalent, it puts a barrier for each individual to learn and grow because they do not know what is safe and what is against them. Democracy is the only way, I believe, to ensure the freedom of speech and all other important amendments for each individual. Unfortunately, there is no direct control of the press in the aspect of what is real and what is fake, so as a solution, it is best to inform people about different news outlets so they get both sides of the story and let them formulate their own opinions. This is the best way for them to get the most important and to actually let them choose their future.


    March 15, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    I think its very important to regulate “fake news,” although in some cases it may conflict with freedom or speech and the freedom of the press. However where do we draw the line between hate and propaganda and freedom of the press? Also what constitutes right from wrong as some instances may be be up for interpretation. The challenges that will be faced is what distingues right from wrong and vice versa it is as if they want to control peoples thoughts and ideas which walks a very thin line. The fine also seems to be very high and seems to only benefit Merkel’s re-election campaigns interests. I do believe that it is important to maintain journalistic integrity at the expense of fake news. Democracy allows people to vote for the ideas that they think are right and fake news could alter peoples perception resulting in inadequate voting.


    March 15, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    Hello! I completely agree with your argument. The era of fake news is polarizing our Political Parties and with your piece placing the example in Germany we can also see this across the globe. Fake news is providing false stories that then go on to run rampant in the media and regardless of the stories authenticity, the headline was already made and so too was the impact. The point that you made about elections being impacted directly by fake news due to perception in the media I think cannot be stressed enough. Fake news allows a fabricated story about a candidate intercept their actual persona in the media and sometimes can completely derail their campaigns. So in this sense the fake news is not letting the voters make informed decisions. I think that it will be interesting to see how the next decade plays out in this time run by social media. Although fake news may have had no affect on the elections of 2017 that does not mean that fake news will not play a role in the future. The development of fake news is interesting as well because of its capability to reach such a massive population without having to assign accountability to a specific news source. The rules and the games of politics must adapt and change as we progress in a social age. New institutions and protections and checks will have to be placed. As to the role that fake news will play in democratic erosion across the board, only time will tell but somebody must be held accountable. Especially for falsities.


    March 15, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    I think the effectiveness of the fake news problem need no other proof than how it has spread like wildfire. Something ineffective would not have become so immediately pronounced throughout the modern world. I completely agree with the points that you’ve made here, and think that fake news threatens to become one of the greatest political decision-makers of the current era. As social media echo-chambers polarize the populace, we begin to see more gridlock, more frustration in the political process, and ultimately, a desire for “something new.” This “something new” can manifest in a number of ways, however, I think we can see that it heavily favors Populist outsiders, seen both in the United States and abroad. A well-informed citizenry is key to democracy, and as the lines become more and more blurred on what news can be trusted, and what news can’t, the citizenry loses their ability to gather this information. This thereby weakens vertical accountability, eroding core tenets of democracy. It is clear that Angela Merkel recognizes this destructive potential, and we can only hope that her policies are effective and adopted throughout democracies, lest we should expect to see more and more polarization, distrust, and eventually, democratic erosion.

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