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German election campaign largely unaffected by fake news or bots
September 22, 2017 / 3:20 PM / a month ago

German election campaign largely unaffected by fake news or bots

BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Germany is on guard against any last-minute meddling in Sunday’s election but experts have seen only isolated attempts to swing votes during the campaign.

Election campaign posters of the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) with a headshot of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and of Germany's Social Democratic Party SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz for the upcoming general elections are pictured in Berlin, Germany, September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/Files

There are also no signs that fake news will affect the outcome of the election, which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are expected to win.

The broadly clean bill of health from political experts and social media watchers is in contrast to the U.S. and French presidential elections of the past 12 months, in which Russia was accused of trying to influence the outcome.

“People generally aren’t expecting a huge amount of digital meddling because in the end it didn’t work in France, and it’s just too closely associated with Russia. It would hurt them (Russia),” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a lawyer and researcher with a Green Party-connected think tank in Berlin.

The sharing of false or misleading headlines and mass posting by automated social media “bots” have had little influence in Germany’s quiet campaign, government officials and political experts say.

And an Oxford University study concluded this week that far less fake news was being spread in Germany than in the United States before the 2016 presidential election.

Concern had been raised in Germany by the accusations of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election to prevent Democrat Hilary Clinton winning and in this year’s French presidential election, in which eventual winner Emmanuel Macron’s team complained his campaign was targeted by a “massive and coordinated” hacking operation.

Russia has denied meddling in foreign elections.

FAR-RIGHT SET TO ENTER PARLIAMENT

Germany’s biggest political parties, worried about the impact of a hack that stole politicians’ data in 2015, agreed this year not to exploit any information that might be leaked as a result of a cyber attack, and not to use bots.

Social media watchers spotted a small-scale effort late in the campaign by Russian accounts on Twitter to amplify a call by German far-right activists for their supporters to volunteer as observers at polls to prevent possible voting fraud.

The far-right call for election monitors centred on a site with a tiny following called wahlbeobachtung.de, which features demands for a recount if many invalid ballots are found. It was retweeted by a Russian “bot-for-hire” 169 times in recent days, fake news tracking site Digital Forensic Research Labs said.

The site, run by EinProzent (One Percent), an anti-immigrant, anti-Merkel “patriotic citizens’ network”, has drawn just 305 Facebook users to sign up as monitors so far. German voters will cast votes at some 88,000 polling stations.

Of 1 million tweets tracked by the Oxford group in the first 10 days of September, 30 percent were tied to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), far outweighing support shown for the party in polls: it is running at around 10 percent.

That puts the AfD on track to enter parliament for the first time as the third largest party.

Facebook Germany spokesman Klaus Gorny said the company was keeping a close eye on abuse while sticking to its principles of allowing free speech.

He said there was no doubt that right-wing postings, some of them quite offensive, had increased, but Facebook was only removing content that was illegal.

“There are certainly things that are completely off, but they’re not illegal,” he said. 

Editing by Timothy Heritage

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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