Executive Summary

In Germany disinformation, or fake news has often been perceived and discussed as a threat to election campaigns – be it the 2017 federal election or the 2019 European elections. It has frequently been portrayed as an external problem, with little attention paid to disinformation stemming from within Germany. Social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were called upon to combat the spread of disinformation.

The novel coronavirus, which has ravaged the world since early 2020, revealed that disinformation exists outside of politics to an alarming degree and is increasingly spread via messenger services such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Two voice messages that spread disinformation about COVID-19 went viral in Germany and were shared so often that the German government eventually had to take action. These problems are not limited to Germany: the World Health Organization now speaks of an infodemic surrounding COVID-19 and social media platforms have started taking aggressive measures to combat the rise of mis- and disinformation, removing false or misleading information on a scale not seen hitherto. This paper was written at the start of the pandemic and will thus not take the latest events and findings into account. It will attempt to outline current findings regarding the spread of disinformation using messenger services in Germany, as well as India and Brazil – two countries that have had to deal extensively with the issue. In order to assess the scope of the problem, it is vital that we use accurate terminology. The term ‚fake news‘ is not suited to this discussion due to its ambiguity. This paper is concerned with information that is either inaccurate (‚fake‘) or disinformation. Inaccurate information is often a result of poor research or a misunderstanding and does not necessarily imply malicious intent. Disinformation on the other hand is intentional, often designed to defame public figures or polarise and destabilise societies. Using the term ‚fake news‘ to both discredit assertions by political opponents, and for a ‚state‘s information ‚campaign‘ in a foreign country isn‘t just damaging to democratic discourse, it also prevents us from understanding the insidious influence of strategic disinformation campaigns. It is not enough to distinguish between mis- and disinformation; the current state of ‚information disorder‘ demands that we consider the various facets of information, as well as the mechanisms by which it‘s spread. Both in India and Brazil, disinformation shared via messenger services – especially WhatsApp – has caused significant disorder. In India, the messenger service plays a key role in the spread of messages that have resulted in mob violence and lynchings. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies use WhatsApp to circulate disinformation, discredit political opponents and silence critics. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has made technical changes to the service designed to stop the spread of disinformation, with limited success. Recognising that solutions which focus exclusively on technological aspects do not look promising, is critical. Several studies analysed in this paper show that messenger services facilitate and exacerbate the spread of disinformation. Any solution must make allowances for the complexity with which information spreads. The case studies show that a lack of trust in government is a key factor in the proliferation of disinformation, as is an increase in nationalism and its epiphenomena, including racism, sexism and anti-semitism. Additionally, a general loss of trust in journalism poses a problem. The infodemic surrounding the novel coronavirus highlights the urgency of the topic. A nuanced and comprehensive discourse on disinformation is crucial, and it is no longer adequate to discuss disinformation as a problem predominantly concerning social media platforms and politics. Addressing the issue can only be achieved by a society as a whole: we need broad social discourse and cannot outsource the solution to social media companies alone. This paper includes six recommendations designed to provide guidelines for political decisions and as a basis for further discourse:

  1. Clear and accurate terminology is a requirement for any solution to the issue. ‚Fake news‘ – though enjoying widespread use – is not clearly defined and therefore not suited to this discussion. Differentiating various forms of mis- and disinformation, the intent of individual actors, as well as the dissemination of information has been neglected thus far and needs to be addressed.
  2. Foreign policy should actively address disinformation campaigns. When governments promote or tolerate disinformation campaigns that leads to disorder, it needs to be condemned on the international stage. When developing global internet governance, combatting disinformation has to be considered, meaning that social media platforms have to be held to greater account by politicians. For both official regulation and self-regulation, human rights must be adhered to.
  3. Disinformation By Design: messenger services need to review the extend to which they can contain the spread of disinformation and provide greater transparency and accountability. Restrictions on mass-forwarding of messages and prominently displaying information from credible sources – which has been implemented by some platforms – is a good place to start.
  4. Misinformation and disinformation are often not punishable by law. As such, regulation has to target other areas. The discussion should focus on what good regulation looks like, rather than how much regulation is necessary, which requires better research. Enforcement of privacy laws, as well as reforming and enforcing antitrust legislation, could be useful tools during this process.
  5. Trust in the media is declining worldwide; an increasingly digital economy and decreasing press freedoms are challenges the media industry currently faces. Financial models that promote local journalism must be established and encouraged. An approach to discussing disinformation without inadvertently spreading needs to be developed.
  6. Disinformation is an issue that affects the whole of society. A federal agency responsible for digital education could provide information to schools and higher education programmes. Combating disinformation requires an informed public, aware of the channels of distribution and the intent and consequences of disinformation campaigns. People are susceptible to disinformation regardless of their educational level; nonetheless, further education is essential.
"We so often disregard facts that run counter to our intuitions and preferences that a reasonable person might conclude it to be an inevitable part of human nature… to be at war with the truth."
Hannah Arendt – Truth and Politics (1967)