How Germany plans to crack down on fake news

German legislators are pushing to tighten criminal penalties for publishing slanderous material, hoping to shield its electoral process from outside propaganda in 2017 elections.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/File
A man poses with a magnifier in front of a Facebook logo on display in this illustration taken in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. German authorities are calling on companies such as Facebook to do more to block the spread of fake news to users across its nation.

Amid rising concerns of propaganda-fueled fake news and its impact on elections, Germany is taking steps to block the spread of false information across social media platforms such as Facebook.

Facebook’s role as a tech company has subtly shifted over the past few years to become more of a media company, selecting trending articles to promote and serving as a space where users can widely disseminate unvetted stories to large swathes of friends and followers. Many have called on sites censor or identify fraudulent posts, and while chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was first reluctant to acknowledge the site’s possible role in swaying public opinion during the presidential election, he has since agreed to take steps to identify and curtail such reports surfacing on the site.

In Germany, where libel laws are stricter than those in the United States, authorities are threatening to bring criminal charges against those responsible for fake news reports, recognizing the power that false information can have on society.  

"Defamation and malicious gossip are not covered under freedom of speech," Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas said. His calls echo those of other top government officials, who have begun pushing for legislation that would tackle hate speech and fake news on social media sites and could punish violators with up to five years in prison.

"Justice authorities must prosecute that, even on the internet," he continued. "Anyone who tries to manipulate the political discussion with lies needs to be aware (of the consequences)."

The push comes months ahead of Germany’s parliamentary elections, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek re-election for a fourth term. Legislators plan to introduce a law early next year that would require social media giants to create local branches that would issue faster responses to complaints.

Facebook itself has taken steps to highlight inaccuracies in the links shared on its site. On Thursday, the company announced that it had partnered with third-party fact checkers, who would begin flagging the “worst of the worst” when it came to fake news.

Just a month before that, Mr. Zuckerberg said it was a “crazy idea” to think content on his site had played a role in pushing voters to elect Donald Trump.

“I do think that there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could have voted the way that they did as because they saw some fake news,” he said at the time. “I think if you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message that Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”

Authorities have grown increasingly concerned after intelligence agencies both in Germany and the US issued warnings about possible Russian interference in the electoral process, noting that foreign propaganda campaigns could seek to sway public opinion and destabilize society.

Germany’s libel laws make it a crime to defame others, and led to the filing of nearly 220,000 claims last year. But few of those involved online defamation.  

Under US libel laws, which are far less restrictive for publishers than Germany’s, it’s not clear that similar measures would work. Mr. Trump campaigned on a platform that vowed to weaken libel protections for journalists, but experts say that’s not only a difficult promise to deliver on, but also one that could spell trouble for free speech protections.

"His statement shows why we need libel protections," Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Associated Press earlier this year. "Trump gets offended, he gets upset, and he wants to sue to retaliate. That's not a good reason to sue someone. I've never heard of politicians say they would repeal case law established under the First Amendment."

"You'd really need a constitutional amendment to do that," he added.

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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