Germany’s Merkel, Eyeing Election and a Fourth Term, Expresses Concerns About Social Media Bots

James Carstensen | November 30, 2016 | 5:26pm EST
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

Berlin ( – With poll data showing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to run for a fourth term enjoys strong support, her government has turned its attention to a new challenge in the run up to next year’s election – combating social media bots including those spreading bogus news sources.

A Politbarometer poll commissioned by German broadcaster ZDF found that 64 percent of respondents supported the chancellor's decision, while 33 percent opposed it.

Among supporters of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, the chancellor’s approval rate was particularly high, at 89 percent.

While the poll may spell good news for Merkel’s ongoing tussle with the far right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, her party now turns its attention to another perceived threat – “fake news” websites and automated software (bots) typically designed to manipulate social media debate.

In her first major address after declaring her intention to seek a fourth term, Merkel said, “Something has changed – as globalization has marched on, [political] debate is taking place in a completely new media environment. Opinions aren't formed the way they were 25 years ago.”

“Today we have fake sites, bots, trolls – things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with certain algorithms and we have to learn to deal with them,” she added, saying that such practices may need to be “regulated.”

The bots are deployed on Twitter in particularly, where they can be used for political purposes such as bolstering a politician’s supporter count or “Twitter-bombing” discussions on certain topics, to drown out opposing viewpoints.

Phil Howard, professor at the Oxford Internet Institute who leads a multidisciplinary research project on political bots, told Deutsche Welle the bots are used mostly in countries with authoritarian regimes such as Turkey and Russia.

“We haven't caught a bot significantly pushing public opinion in a particular direction in a democracy,” Howard said, noting that they are instead seen “sowing confusion or choking off a political conversation on a global issue that involves an authoritarian government.”

Nonetheless, Merkel invited a data expert from the Technical University of Munich to brief the CDU executive committee on Monday. The Justice Ministry has also announced the convening of a task force on defamatory and hate speech in particular.

No proposals for legislative changes concerning social bots have been put forward yet.

But Justice Minister Heiko Maass has raised the prospect of legal measures against social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, unless they become more vigilant against defamatory and hate speech – which is often the type of material generated by bots.

Justice Minister Heiko Maass indicated he wanted to target companies with legal measures that would act against social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter if they fail to become vigilant against defamatory and hate speech (which are major offenders from the type of content the social media bots generate).

Legislation limiting media is a sensitive matter as falls under the right to freedom of speech in the German constitution.

“The main question is how we are going to deal with this phenomenon,” Thomas Jarzombek, a CDU member of parliament and digital media expert, told Deutsche Welle. “It’s important that we never give the impression that we’re censoring anything.”

Jenna Behrends, a CDU district representative for Berlin-Mitte, argued that it would be difficult to gauge which posts should be combatted, since “who determines which ones are false?”

But Jarzombek said the matter should rather be left up to journalists and news organizations to educate the public to better discern between fake and genuine news sources.

“The media needs to uncover the mechanisms behind fake news and counter them directly by highlighting and disproving specific false reports that are being circulated,” he said.

Mathias Doepfner, chief executive officer of the German publishing house Axel Springer, told Bloomberg on Tuesday that news outlets, not social media platforms, should be responsible for the accuracy of their stories.

“The whole idea that they should have some kind of super-editor, that would then transform Facebook into a global media monopoly,” he said. “And that’s really going into the wrong direction.”

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