If you jump into the pool, you get wet

How to deal with fake news

[ Article in German ]

For some days now my social media accounts have been flooded with hundreds of  oftentimes malicious comments, to a degree that I can’t properly make use of my Twitter account: I'm unable to respond in time to constructive comments as I'm used to, due to the sheer number of extremely mean-spirited comments. The same goes for my Facebook account, where not only my own posts, but also those of users who have shared or linked my content, attract mean comments that have absolutely nothing to do with the original post.

The reason behind all of this: Via Twitter I have pointed out to two private companies that their ads appear on a fake news platform. Both firms were unaware of this and have announced to change their advertisement policy regarding this matter.

How to deal with fake news is the challenge of 2017!

An increasing number of news sites emerge, mostly online, spreading untrue news stories. Fake news sites attract attention through aggressive headlines, deliberately misleading pictures or constructed data, aiming at spreading fake stories online like a virus. These "stories" emphasise emotion over fact and opinion over truth; they are shared, read or at least clicked on by millions of social media users. This is called "click baiting", since every site visit helps to generate more revenues from advertisement, earning the owner a living and financing his or her political goals and helping producing more viral fake and  manipulated news.

But it's not only commercial interests driving the surge of fake news, as shown by the content and impact of these "news stories". Essentially, fake news is propaganda: anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-pluralistic. It's racist, homophobic, sexist, directed against gender equality and discriminates against minorities and the socially vulnerable. This propaganda bears the potential to disrupt the foundations of our Western democracies, sowing mistrust and hatred against "mainstream politics", public and other institutions of the so-called establishment. It's accusing legitimate news outlets of lying, insinuating that all mainstream media is controlled by a "hidden elite" and synchronised. Thus, society is divided further, paving the ground for political populism and demagogy as well as the recent election wins by far-right, nationalist and anti-democratic political forces in Europe, the US and elsewhere.

The Breitbart case: Media coverage between click bait and propaganda

The Breitbart News Network is a textbook example. Andrew Breitbart is the company’s founder, which maintains offices in Los Angeles, Texas, London and Jerusalem. Today, the company is run by Alexander Marlow, Larry Solov and Stephen Bannon, the latter a former Goldman Sachs manager. He was also one of Donald Trump’s closest campaign advisers and consequentially will now serve as chief strategist and highest ranking adviser in the White House.

Breitbart has recently announced to enter the European market, setting up camp in Paris and Berlin. Marlow, publisher and editor-in-chief, said that he will support far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s presidential bid. Something similar can be expected as regards the  right-wing party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) in Germany.

If we don’t want to see Breitbart discrediting our media landscape and political order, dividing our society and flooding our political opinion-forming process with demagogic rhetoric, we will have to come up with something. Rather quickly.


Unmasking fake news: Quality journalism needs a sound financial footing

Of course, populism and demagogy should primarily be fought with words and content. It’s the journalists’ task to expose fake news stories through quality journalistic research. This demanding and complex job carried out by independent journalists, research networks and initiatives like Schmalbart requires proper financing. What is required is financial support by users, civil society, or even the state.

As a politically minded person, I have a deep interest in preserving our democracy and social cohesion. Thus, I am willing to contribute to high-quality journalistic work through subscriptions, single use payments or by supporting media projects such as Krautreporter and Schmalbart. And I’m in favour of substantial public funding for independent high-quality journalism.     

It’s civil society’s (and our community’s) responsibility to ensure that high-quality journalistic output gets the public attention it deserves. When a fake news story is exposed, counterarguments and facts need to be brought to those who are unaware. An arduous and at times annoying task indeed, but it’s worth it.


No one should be making money with demagogy

Another way to fight fake news is by understanding and disrupting the business model behind it. Besides private money, Breitbart and others generate revenues through ad sales. Nowadays, private companies authorise agencies to place their ads on web sites and platforms, rather than making deals with every single web site their ads appear on. Therefore, they may not even know that they're advertising on Breitbart at all.

Targeted advertising is usually much more effective than spraying one’s ads all over the internet. Companies can exclude single web pages or entire categories from their portfolio. Since it can seriously harm a company’s reputation if their ads appear on dubious web sites, it’s in the company’s own interest to be excluded from fake news platforms (blacklisting).

I have therefore, by way of indication and on Sleeping Giant’s initiative, informed two private companies via Twitter that their ads appear on Breitbart.com. I have sent the following words to the commercial airline “airberlin” and the web portal “werliefertwas”, together with a screenshot:

“Your ads appear on a neo-Nazi web site. This wasn’t your intention, right?”

As I have done this so more or less publicly, my remarks didn’t only make the companies reconsider their ad policy regarding Breitbart, but also created a shit storm against me, both on Twitter and Facebook.

Several replies accused me and the two companies of restricting freedom of speech or even censorship. This is ridiculous. Protected by German law, Breitbart is able continue to express any opinion that doesn’t qualify as “incitement to hatred” or “defamation” – only with two advertising customers less.


What we see at work here is the network of the New Right: Systematic accusations

Others have accused me of denouncing Breitbart. Indeed, I have informed those two companies about their ads on Breitbart.com, hoping that they would reconsider. This is no criminal complaint in the legal sense, but a public complaint.

The severity of the accusations I’m currently facing has possibly to do with my use of the term “neo-Nazi”. Important to know: The New Right in the US as well as in Europe is ostensibly distancing themselves from “old-school antisemitism” and neo-Nazi ideology. Marine Le Pen has moved the Front National away from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father, as the German New Right presents its anti-Muslim stance as proof of their pro-Israel and pro-Jewism positions.

Such a deliberate reinterpretation of politically charged terms should not be left unchallenged. My point of view: Those who discriminate against entire religions and ethnic groups, no matter if Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Christians, simply hate people. And if they engage in racist, xenophobic, homophobe, sexist, or any other kind of discriminatory language, I will continue to call them “Nazis”, even if some may disagree.

Some posts have likened my activities to the 1930s Nazi campaign “Don’t buy at Jews”, referring to Andrew Breitbart’s Jewish faith. This is nothing short of perfidious, even mean-spirited, and it hurts. But it’s also preposterous. My initiative isn’t directed against a single group of people or religion, neither against Breitbart’s Jewish roots, nor Bannon’s Irish Catholicism. My initiative should be dubbed “Don’t buy at people haters, populists or demagogues”. We will defend our open and free society against their insidious attacks.