October 1, 2019  |  Updated October 1, 2019

Governments Countering Disinformation: The Case of Germany

By Christina la Cour
The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs has upped its efforts to counter malign influence operations. They have established a new special unit for strategic communication, particularly focusing on countering disinformation and propaganda. Photo: Berlin. Source: https://michaellanglois.org/medias/berlin_1920x800.jpg

Germany was among the first countries to introduce a law against fake news. But the controversial Network Enforcement Act is far from the only German initiative against disinformation and foreign influence.

To understand German concerns about propaganda and disinformation, the so-called “Lisa case” is a good place to start.

In January 2016 a Russian-German girl named Lisa claimed to have been raped by a group of immigrants in Berlin. This story came out just a few weeks after New Year’s Eve, where a series of sex violations had taken place in Cologne and other cities. Her story immediately went viral and sparked anti-migrant protests by Russians living in Germany.

Eventually, however, the German police stated in a press release that Lisa’s story was false. Ignoring this statement, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proclaimed that German authorities had concealed the actual events and failed to protect “our Lisa.” Responding to these accusations, Germany’s then Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called out Lavrov’s claims as “political propaganda.”

The Lisa case has since been used by Germany, the European Union, and NATO to illustrate the threat of Russian disinformation. Perhaps German Chancellor Angela Merkel even had Lisa’s story in mind in November 2016 when she stated that Germany dealt with Russian disinformation on a daily basis, and that the German election was at risk of being affected by online disinformation and influence operations.

Since then, Germany has introduced numerous initiatives to tackle foreign influence operations and disinformation.

“The Facebook law”

Among all the policies against disinformation in Germany, the so-called “Act to Improve Enforcement of the Law in Social Networks” (Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in sozialen Netzwerken) is probably the most famous.

The law, which has since been nicknamed “the Facebook Law,” has been in effect since January 1, 2018. It obliges Internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to introduce complaint procedures for users to report illegal content posted on their platforms. “Illegal content” covers a range of content, varying from child pornography to “hate speech” and fake news.

According to the law, the social media platforms must remove or block any “manifestly unlawful” posts within 24 hours of being notified. If the post is not “manifestly unlawful,” but unlawful nevertheless, the platforms get a week to remove it.

If the platforms receive more than 100 complaints per year, the law also obliges them to publish two reports on their handling of illegal content. One report must describe the complaint procedure. The other report must illustrate how the platforms assess the complaints they receive. Furthermore, the platforms should review their complaint procedures every month to ensure that they function properly.

Should the platforms not comply with the law, they risk paying fines as high as EUR million 50 Euros.

A new Cyber Command

One of the slightly less controversial initiatives in Germany is the new Cyber and Information Domain Service (Kommando Cyber- und Informationsraum) established in April 2017.

This command is tasked with protecting German citizens from various cyber and information-related threats, including the threat of foreign influence operations, propaganda, and disinformation.

In pursuit of this task, the command has launched the Propaganda Awareness Project. This project primarily targets the German military and aims to improve its ability to recognize, analyze, and prevent the spread of disinformation and other forms of malign influence operations.

The project also supports research on propaganda, including the development of a database with a set of propaganda indicators that render it easier to recognize propaganda and to detect the usage of artificial intelligence tools to influence online public discourse. Ideally, this database will assist both the military and other federal agencies in detecting and filtering propaganda.

Strategic communication

Additionally, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs has upped its efforts to counter malign influence operations. They have established a new special unit for strategic communication, particularly focusing on countering disinformation and propaganda. Their aim is not to spread German counterpropaganda, according to a public official who works in the unit. Instead, the aim is to spread reliable information in a sustainable manner, and to remain visible in the modern digital information sphere, which is increasingly subjected to the spread of misinformation.

In this endeavor, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sponsored various information campaigns. One of these is called “Rumours about Germany,” which is intended for potential migrants and publicizes correct information about the rules and conditions that apply for immigrants in Germany.

In a broader scheme, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has teamed up with the tech and society think tank Foundation for New Responsibility. Under the auspices of the project “Strengthen the Digital Public Sphere,” the foreign office works with experts from the think tank to “strengthen the competencies of ministries and authorities in dealing with disinformation.”

Civic education and fact checkers

Another important federal agency working to counter disinformation is the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung), which was established in 1952 to “educate the German people on democratic principles and prevent movements against the restoration of totalitarian rule.” The agency’s recent educational materials have focused primarily on information warfare, and the agency has published a series of articles, videos, and reports on subjects like fake news and information warfare. They also recently held a major conference on “disinformation wars in Central and Eastern Europe” with academics and policy experts from all over Europe.

The agency has also provided financial support to Correctiv—a non-profit organization that conducts fact checking and provides training and workshops in critical journalism and media literacy.

Another major fact checker in the German media landscape is Faktenfinder —an online portal launched by the German public service broadcasting association ARD (Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland). Faktenfinder is dedicated to combatting and correcting political propaganda, rumours, lies, and half-truths on the Internet.

Partnering with Facebook

Another initiative involving external partners is the Integrity & Security Initiative, launched in January of this year as part of a new partnership between Facebook and the German Ministry for Information Security (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik). Building on efforts put in place before the federal election in 2017, the new partnership was set up to protect this year’s EU parliamentary elections in May.

The partnership also involves other tech-companies, which, like Facebook, work with the German government to “help guide policy here and throughout Europe on election interference.”

International cooperation

On the international level, Germany has taken part in the “European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats,” which works to combat multiple modern threats, including online disinformation campaigns.

Germany is also a co-sponsor of NATO’s special unit of strategic communication, the StratCom Centre of Excellence, which since 2014 has assisted NATO member states with multiple tasks. The Centre monitors how and when online accounts operated by artificial intelligence (so-called “bots”) begin to sow discord online (sometimes referred to as robotic trolling). The Centre also helps members improve their ability to plan and coordinate their communication in a way that helps their organization achieve the long-term goal of strategic communication.

Finally, as a member of the EU, Germany participates in the EU’s initiatives against disinformation. The EU has taken numerous steps to combat disinformation, such as creating a special strategic communication unit called EUvsDisinfo, formulating a code of practice in corporation with major tech-players, and putting together their Action Plan Against Disinformation.

More regulation in the pipeline?

Although Germany already has introduced some regulation targeting social media platforms, more changes may be underway. A recent report from the German parliamentary research service allegedly sows doubt about whether freedom of choice is sufficiently protected online. In suggesting the need for more regulation, the report refers to the cases of France and the United Kingdom, where such protections already exist.

According to the German MP who initially commissioned the report, Renate Künast of the Green Party, the report “highlights the need for regulation in microtargeting, dark ads and fake news as central to citizens’ freedom of choice in the digital age.” Time will show whether her colleagues in the German Bundestag agree, and if they pass new regulations before the next election.

Christina la Cour is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Her thesis considers how various governments tackle issues such as disinformation, foreign influence operations, and fake news.

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