Officials in Germany's Interior Ministry are urging Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to establish a "Defense Center against Disinformation" (Abwehrzentrum gegen Desinformation) to combat what they call "political disinformation," a euphemism for "fake news."
"The acceptance of a post-truth age would amount to political capitulation," the officials told Maizière in a memo, which also disclosed that the bureaucrats at the Interior Ministry are eager to see "authentic political communication" remain "defining for the 21st century."
One wonders whether by "authentic political communication," the officials of the Interior Ministry are referring to the way German authorities scrambled to cover up the mass sexual attacks on women on New Year's Eve a year ago in Cologne? At the time, German police first claimed, surreally, on the morning of January 1, 2016, that the situation on New Year's Eve had been "relaxed." Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers later dryly admitted, "This initial statement was incorrect." Alternatively, perhaps they are referring to the decision of Germany's public broadcaster, ZDF, not to report on the attacks until four days after they had occurred? Even a former government official, Hans-Peter Friedrich, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Interior Minister from 2011 to 2013, accused the media at the time of imposing a "news blackout" and operating a "code of silence" over negative news about immigrants. How is that for "authentic political communication"?
"Considering the [upcoming] federal elections we must act very fast," the officials urged in the memo, citing the need to combat "fake news."
In other words, the Interior Ministry's bureaucrats fear that Chancellor Angela Merkel will lose the elections in September 2017, and are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent that scenario, even if it means using (even more) federal authority to crack down on free speech by inventing an official state propaganda bureau. The current debate on "fake news" is a convenient excuse.
Germany has, of course, been cracking down on free speech for quite a while now. Already in September 2015, Merkel said, "When people stir up sedition on social networks using their real name, it is not only the state that has to act, but also Facebook as a company should do something against these statements".
Under a government program, which has enlisted the help of the German non-governmental organization, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, led by Anetta Kahane (who has turned out, in a fine twist of irony, to be a former Stasi agent and informer) German authorities are monitoring how many supposedly "racist" posts reported by Facebook users are deleted within 24 hours. Justice Minister Heiko Maas has pledged to look at legislative measures if the results turn out to be "unsatisfactory". The program is scheduled to run until March 2017.
A married couple, Peter and Melanie M., were prosecuted and convicted in July 2016 of creating a Facebook group that criticized the government's migration policy. Their page stated, "The war and economic refugees are flooding our country. They bring terror, fear, sorrow. They rape our women and put our children at risk. Make this end!"
Also, in July 2016, 60 people suspected of writing "hate speech" online had their homes raided by German police.
None of the above seems to be enough, however, for the president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, from Merkel's CDU party, who believes that what Facebook is already doing against "hate speech" is not enough. According to Lammert, there is a need for more legislation. A law to bring social networks under penalty of fines if they fail to erase "hate messages" and "false news" has just been announced by Volker Kauder, leader of the parliamentary group in Merkel's current Bundestag and CDU/CSU faction, and Thomas Oppermann, Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) parliamentary group.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has also recently called on companies such as Facebook to address "false announcements" on the Internet, saying he felt that the Europeans were increasingly becoming "sensitive to who is fluttering around them and who is telling them the truth."
All of this, naturally, has Merkel's strong support. She told the Bundestag in a speech on November 23:
"I support efforts by Justice Minister Heiko Maas and Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to address hate speech, hate commentaries, devastating things that are incompatible with human dignity, and to do everything to prohibit it because it contradicts our values".
Those "values" are clearly circumscribed: The German government's view of what constitutes "hate speech" is highly selective, and appears limited to protecting the government's own policies on immigration from legitimate criticism.
When massive antisemitism swept large German cities in the summer of 2014, for example, no such anti-racist zeal was manifest on the part of the German government. On the contrary, there were instances of authorities practically facilitating hate speech. In July 2014, Frankfurt police let mainly Muslim "protesters" use their van's megaphone to belt out slogans of incitement in Arabic, including the repeated chanting of "Allahu Akbar" and that Jews are "child murderers".
In another such instance, a German court found that the firebombing of a synagogue in Wuppertal by two German Arabs and a juvenile accomplice was not anti-Semitic, but rather "an act of protest" to "bring attention to the Gaza war." The men were convicted of arson.
In Germany, it is criminal to bring attention to the problems that come with the government's migration policies, or to criticize those policies, because this constitutes "hate speech." Firebombing a synagogue, on the other hand, is simply an "act of protest." Perhaps, once the "Defense Center against Disinformation" is set up, such "acts of protest" will be labeled, "Officially Approved Un-Fake Communication."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.