Angela Merkel is as good as her word: the German chancellor is backing a new law that would ban fake news stories distributed via social media, according to German newspapers. The move comes amid growing concern that fake news on social media influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, and could play a similar role in Germany’s own upcoming elections.
Politicians from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union are proposing a law that would require social media sites to immediately remove fake news stories and make the publishing of such articles a criminal offense. The CDU currently governs in coalition with the leftwing Social Democratic Party as well as its own sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, giving the government an easy majority and making it very likely that the law will pass, perhaps with some revisions after parliamentary debate.
The law is known to have Merkel’s backing, and the powerful chancellor has previously spoken out against fake news circulating online, particularly bogus stories about the roughly one million Middle Eastern refugees who arrived in the country over the last two years.
Articles distributed on social media have reported made-up events, including criminal actions allegedly committed by refugees. The fake news stories follow real events including widespread sexual assaults against women by Middle Eastern men in Cologne during last year’s New Year’s Eve celebration. Many pundits fear the fake news stories will work to the advantage of the populist, rightwing Alternative for Germany party, which wants to limit immigration and leave the euro.
While the ban on fake news appears to have broad support, it’s unclear exactly how Merkel and her allies propose to enforce any regulations on online content, including the questions of who would be in charge of deciding what content is fake and what real, and indeed what the definitions of fake and real news should be.In practice there is a considerable gray area surrounding fake news, requiring potentially subjective judgment calls to distinguish it from opinion, satire and commentary. A ban on fake news could also serve to stifle marginal journalism by startups and citizen reporters, as early, unverified reports could quickly be quashed as “fake.” Similarly, all journalism by mainstream news orgs citing unnamed sources, including leaks and whistle-blowers, might be open to dispute and censorship if the sources proved unwilling to reveal themselves.