Fake news invades Germany

by Cathrin Schaer / 07 December, 2016

Thanks to the internet, news is now about what people want to believe rather than the facts.

In late November, some Germans running a YouTube channel received a controversial video. “A brigade of young migrants in paramilitary clothing marching together through the central city in Hanau,” the owners of the Thinking Outside the Box channel proclaimed. “They do not appear to be carrying weapons. But one cannot mistake their mission.”

Actually, one can. The marchers are members of a local gang. Still pretty frightening, but nothing to do with recent immigration. And all that this video, shared more than 22,000 times on various social media, really proves is that Germany has “fake news”, too – the same kind that’s being blamed, partially at least, for Donald Trump’s victory.

Here in Europe, the US president-elect is the conversational gift that keeps on giving – at dinner, over coffee, at work. People are worried. But journalists are more worried than most. Contrary to some popular opinion, a lot of reporters truly believe that if their fellow citizens are given good information, they will make good decisions in their own, and in their community’s, best interests. That’s why the journalists got into this line of work in the first place.

The US presidential elections and the British Brexit vote have shaken those beliefs. “Are people really that f---ing stupid?” was how one American editor in Berlin put it to the office early on November 9.

Pundits have talked a lot about the role so-called “fake news” plays in this apparent self-sabotage. But I’m not even sure this is about fake news. Nor is it just about blaming Facebook for monetising anger, frustration and mob mentality. After all, a lot of businesses do that. Just look at the beauty industry.

Rather, it’s about what people want to believe.

For example, at dinner recently, a usually rational, retired financier huffed that “there is now sharia law in northern England”. He’d heard about it online. He’s intelligent, well-educated and well-off, but he only read the headline. Why? Only the headline supports his anti-immigration theories.

Then a generally sane Facebook friend posted an article about how Hillary Clinton’s emails indicated her association with a paedophile ring. Like, seriously? Yes, seriously, said friend replied. The mainstream media lies, he argued. And obviously because this isn’t mainstream, it must be true. It didn’t matter that the information came from bogus right-wing sources and that he was generally a pretty left-wing guy. All that mattered to him was that it wasn’t “mainstream”.

At this point, you start questioning not only your own profession’s efficacy, but also human nature. Americans, some of whom face genuine hardship, voted for Trump because they thought he would help. They ignored all the ludicrous things he said and did and his unsuitability for the job and they picked him anyway. It suited them. Just as the spectre of marauding migrants suits some here in Europe.

President Barack Obama recently told the New Yorker that “the baseline of facts that we [politicians] could all work off” has dissipated. Now there are only post-truth ghettos, populated by everyone who agrees with, well, you.

Two weeks after Trump’s victory, German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented on this, telling German MPs that opinions are formed differently online and that she supports banning online hate speech, possibly before Germany’s 2017 elections.

But there is another solution. Disenfranchised humankind may not want the facts, but conventional wisdom suggests they will always want kitten videos. In this current climate, this dark age of poisonous idiocy and wilful self-deception, baby animals could be the best distraction for the single-minded moron. Great idea, huh? See you all down at the pet store.

This article was first published in the December 10, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. 

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