One morning in November, Simon Hegelich, a professor of political science at the Technical University of Munich, was surprised to get an urgent invitation from the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wanted to hear more about his research on the manipulation of voter sentiment. Less than two weeks earlier, the U.S. elections had ended in victory for Donald Trump, and the post-mortems were full of buzzwords the Chancellor urgently needed to understand: filter bubbles, bots, fake news, disinformation, much of it related to the claims that Russia had somehow hijacked the elections. “Basically she wanted to know what the hell is going on,” Hegelich recalls. What was past, Merkel thought, may be prologue. With German elections scheduled for Sept. 24, the Chancellor knows that her bid for a fourth term in office may be subject to the same dirty tricks employed in the U.S. presidential race. As Europe’s most powerful leader and its most determined critic of the Kremlin, Merkel has long been a target of Russian influence campaigns. Troves of emails were stolen from her political allies in 2015 by the same Russian hackers who later targeted the U.S. presidential race. During her 12 years in power, Merkel has also watched the Kremlin’s media apparatus air broadsides against her policies in a variety of languages, including German, English, Spanish and French.
Her concern is not just the Russian media outlets that spread disinformation, Hegelich says. It is also the automated algorithms, known as bots, that help false reports go viral much faster than politicians or fact-checkers can debunk them. When American voters were shown a series of such stories from the U.S. elections, about 15% reported seeing them during the race; 8% said they believed them, according to a study published this spring by Stanford University. In June, when researchers in Germany asked a similar set of questions, 59% of Germans reported seeing fake news online; 61% said that it poses a threat to democracy.
So Merkel’s government is preparing for a siege. Her coalition in parliament passed a law at the end of June that will impose fines worth upwards of $50 million on Facebook and other social media companies that do not promptly remove “illegal content,” a term that Merkel’s government has used to target everything from hate speech and pornography to malicious propaganda. “False news is a threat to our culture of debate,” the official behind the law, Justice Minister Heiko Maas, told the German weekly Welt am Sonntag in January. Two months later, when he presented a draft of the Network Enforcement Act to reporters in Berlin, Maas made clear that the government aimed to regulate social media with an unprecedented rigor. “There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street,” he said.