Disinformation has become a regular plague of democratic elections. Is regulation able to tackle this problem? How promising are other initiatives by civil society and industry actors? What should be the role of the state in a new media and information order? And how do people decide what to believe or not? A diversity of information and a plurality of communities are essential to rebuild trust in public communication.
This commentary is part of our dossier "Drowning in disinformation", which explores how homegrown state-sponsored disinformation threatens EU democracy.
Elections in a post-truth age
Today’s information society offers all of us a lecture on the relativity of truth. Publication is easy, meaning that access to truthworthy information is all the more difficult. Election races represent a period when the stakes are high, and disinformation campaigns peak. German society was not unprepared: acording to a recent survey, 91% of them were afraid that their fellow citizens would be influenced by disinformation, and 81% thought this could influence election results. However, it is never possible to prove a causal link between election results and the disinformation actions related to it, just as it is not possible to prove a causal link between a political advertisement and voting behaviour.
The first wave of political disinformation campaigns to have a dramatic effect was attributed to concerted campaigns with a foreign origin. However, after several years, it is observed that disinformation is becoming an organic part of domestic political communication as well. Even if the source originates from abroad, the information is often distributed and amplified by domestic actors. The use of private messaging services for the spreading of disinformation and other new technology solutions, such as deepfakes, may further disguise what has become a business of disinformation. Fortunately, deep fakes and audio content have not been employed by German disinformants yet. On the contrary, deep fakes have been used as an obvious joke after the elections. Messenger services such as Telegram and WhatsApp, on the other hand, have already become a focus point, because their services are non-transparent. Facebook has made efforts to act against this threat, by providing a special channel for factchecking through WhatsApp.
Altogether, Germany has been found less flooded by disinformation than some other states. Disinformation has been primarily applied to generate confusion, and to support extremist political opinion. This type of communication has a ritual function, rather than an informative one. Its primary purpose is to represent and reinforce identities, and it is closer to political propaganda than to conscious misleading with regards to facts. How can we fight against such practices?
The legal framework in Germany and the EU
Freedom of expression grants every human being the right to believe in false information or shocking ideas, and to express these. Therefore, it would not be possible to prohibit disinformation without disproportionately harming freedom of expression, which would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Legal regulation is particularly challenged as conspiracy theories become ever more unreasonable, like the QAnon movement or the German SHAEF theory. The more unrealistic, the better they work, as exemplified by the apparent success of a recent book by QAnon believers. Among its many characteristics, when it comes to personal political disinformation attacks or online harassment, women are hit stronger – as it was the case with the Green politician Annalena Baerbock.
Despite these challenges, Germany has been eminent in the number and quality of legal and social initiatives against disinformation. The amendment to the Interstate Media Treaty (Medienstaatsvertrag) added measures to fight against disinformation and misinformation. The state media authorities have received competence to initiate proceedings against media outlets if the journalistic due diligence obligations have not been adequately respected. Messages or advertising created by social bots must also be marked clearly, which may prevent automated amplification of certain content. To increase the transparency of online advertisements, all advertisements, whether political, social or religious, must be labelled as such, and their advertisers or their buyers must be clearly indicated. The new amendment also demands that programmes that have ’Public Value’, in particular public service programmes, must be made easily accessible on certain online platforms (other than social media platforms). This is supposed to ensure a diverse information landscape that offers plenty of quality information to the users, and allows them to easily check the veracity of a false statement. As expressed in the German Constitutional Court’s decision, the role of public service media is getting more crucial in the age of abundant information, where veracity is often questionable. Public service media should form a "counterweight" to the advertisement-driven offerings, ensure diversity and provide "authentic, carefully researched information that distinguishes between facts and opinions, does not distort reality and does not focus on the sensational".
The European Union’s legislative initiative, the Digital Services Act (DSA), keeps the issue of disinformation in the realm of “induced self-regulation”. However, this would be a compulsory self-regulation where the Code of Practice on Disinformation is adopted in consultation with the European Commission, and the efforts to fight against the risks and anomalies are evaluated yearly by an independent auditor (the costs of which are to be paid by each very large online platform). According to the DSA, very large online platforms must identify, analyse and assess the systemic risks of their operation, including the risk of intentional manipulation of their service. Reference is made to the content moderation and recommender systems of the platforms, and the advertising display, as important factors of the risk management (Article 26 DSA).
Besides the developing legal background, civil society initiatives in Germany also actively work against disinformation. Some of them are committed to debunk information, like the Klima-Lügendetektor, or to spread trustworthy information, such as Faktencheck21 and Correctiv. The latter has reinforced its effectivenes in cooperation with the Federal Association of Advertisement Papers. Yet others aim at improving media literacy, such as DigiBitS and Klicksafe, or even at educating to actively create media content such as Klickwinkel.
The value of trust and communities
We need to further study the factors that bring people to believe and share disinformation. People seek urgent responses to their insecurities. Social media has generated an empowerment to speak, and a transparency of the leaders in power, but it has not brought about real power for the people to improve their own life situation, or to exercise proven effects on politics. This has opened a conspicuous gap between individual’s virtual potential and their real capabilities, which boils down to a lack of trust in the establishment that seems unresponsive and alienated.
Traditionally, truth has been validated by social institutions like churches, scientific institutions and other spiritual or intellectual authorities. The ideas and facts that people believe in are the building mortar of their identities and their community memberships. Due to global multiculturalism and social media, cross-cutting communities have been created across traditional lines of nationality, family and social class. People find online communities that answer their fears and problems, and reconstitute their identities with these chosen memberships.
The story of someone who left a conspiracy theory community tells us that it was another group that helped him to separate – a group whose mission was to debunk disinformation. The power of a supporting community, other than the previous community, has been a key to success with many societal problems, such as addictions. The fight against disinformation may rely on new and existing communities whose values are solidarity and validation of facts, whether online or offline, and which are available for everyone who seeks answers or moral support.
Germany is a land of many associations: it fosters a rainbow of various communities, in fact. One of the aspects of this diversity is its plural party system. Two-party systems may be more exposed to disinformation and propaganda than multi-party systems, because of their inherent polarisation. Disinformation usually employs negative propaganda, i.e. it aims to discourage people away from particular political parties, or from voting, rather than trying to convince people about a positive action. Lacking many diverse choices, voters get more easily disillusioned and cynical about the democratic process, whereas if there are several political parties, disappointed voters have more chances to find another one to their taste. Germany’s political map shows a considerable voter migration since the last elections, and yet none of the parties is clearly a winner or a loser of this re-alignment.
Another aspect of plurality is Germany’s federal system. Even though some decisions may be taken more slowly than in centralised states, or are finally vetoed by just one Land (region of Germany), this consensual process provides stability to the political system. Sodo bottom-up initiatives that stand up for a better world and against disinformation. Thanks to a relatively wide civil activism and participation, not only radical voices are heard, as is the case in other, less open societies. Where social structures are more closed, social participation carries a high risk to an individual, and citizens who stand up for the community need to cope with social disadvantages and individual sacrifices. In these circumstances, only more risk-taking, and consequently more radical, personalities would expose themselves publicly.
Where to draw a line for disinformation
This also shows a direction regarding where to draw the line in the case of disinformation. Much like hate speech, if it poses a clear and present danger of violation of individual rights, then that speech should no longer be tolerated. Ensuring pluralism and freedom of expression is a state obligation. In the age of internet and social media, this includes ensuring a safe place to speak for every user, without the fear of being harrassed, whether online or offline, for their public participation.
Even if disinformation cannot be directly tackled on the basis of its content, the information environment can be tailored so that free and democratic public discourse is preserved. Self-regulation alone promises little results as long as the attention-based business model functions in its current form. Disinformation spreads like fire and yields extra profits for platforms, which contribute to the success of its distribution. Even slight amendments to advertisement regulation would achieve meaningful changes in the attention-driven media economy. For example, obliging large companies to refrain from sponsoring disinformation with their advertising could remove some incentives of the disinformation business. Obliging them to also spend a ratio of their advertisement budget on news media companies rather than platform companies, would throw a lifeline to the struggling traditional news and investigative media sector. Increasing transparency and fairness in the political advertising field would also be necessary. A robust enforcement of the current EU data protection laws would diminish the risk of manipulative micro-targeted political advertising. An EU legislative plan to set up some safeguards for political advertising is on its way.
Other measures to strengthen the media in fulfilling its democratic roles are also necessary to balance out disinformation and misinformation. Besides strengthening public service media, the news media sector could re-organise itself. Rather than increasing or maintaining competition, engaging in cooperation and networking would benefit the overall information environment. Media freedom and pluralism have also been on the agenda of the European legislators, and further acts may be expected.
To conclude, disinformation is not only the product of a few evil minds. While false information, deception or manipulation are as old as the hills, its prevalence and persuasive power have increased due to the new information system. New information technology has impacted social processes and processes of information exchange. The solution, therefore, should also be systemic, addressing processes and networks, rather than individual actors.