Angela Merkel has used her first speech since announcing she will run for a fourth term as German Chancellor to call for greater scrutiny of fake news circulating online.
In a speech to Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, on Wednesday, Merkel said government has for too long ignored the potential of online sites to influence opinion by circulating fake news.
“Fake sites, bots and trolls can falsify opinion,” she said. “The fact is that today certain algorithms can act as self-generating opinion reinforcers and we have to learn to deal with this.”
Many have accused fake news reports circulating on social media sites like Facebook of influencing the U.S. election and helping swing the vote for President-elect Donald Trump. Sources of spurious information range from news articles produced by "content farms" that specialize in click-bait, to hyper-partisan sites from across the political spectrum that produce or spread false or misleading stories.
Google has cracked down on fake-news sites, announcing plans to block websites publishing fake news from using its ad software Adsense, a key source of revenue for online publishers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also recently outlined plans to filter out “misinformation,” while still insisting it was a "pretty crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook influenced the election.
In Germany, many are worried fake news could have an impact on the country's national election, which will be held in September next year. These concerns have only been heightened by news that Breitbart, the ultra-conservative and Pro-Trump news site, is planning to launch in German ahead of the election.
The Berlin government is debating whether online sites should be held to the same degree of regulatory scrutiny as newspapers, TV and radio broadcasters.
“I believe we should not underestimate what is happening in the context of the internet and with digitalization; this is part of our reality,” Merkel said. “We have regulations that allow for our press freedom, including the requirement for due diligence from journalists. Today we have many that experience a media that is based on very different foundations and is much less regulated.”
Merkel did not offer specific proposals for how to regulate online news or to deal with the problems of fake stories online, but she said she supported efforts by German Justice Minister Heiko Maas and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to crack down on hate speech online.
Under the German constitution, hate speech, defined as incitement to hatred or violence against segments of the population, is illegal. But the law is only spottily applied to online news and websites.
Upcoming European elections — in France in April and May and in Germany in September — are being seen as a further test to the populist and anti-establishment movements credited with helping elect Donald Trump and win the Brexit vote in the U.K. earlier this year.
Right-win populist Marie Le Pen currently tops the polls in France and is expected to go through to the second round of the presidential elections. However the fervent anti-globalist, who has taken heart from Trump's victory, is expected to have a tough time in the second round head-to-head matchup, where she would need to win over at least half of the total electorate.
In Germany, the most recent polls are predicting re-election for Merkel's conservative CDU and the social democratic SPD, who are partners in the current government coalition in Berlin. But, of course, the polls also predicted a loss for both Brexit and Trump.