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The Discursive Institutionalisation of 'Fake News' in Germany

The third speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Kirsten Gollatz, whose focus is on the institutionalisation of the 'fake news' controversy in Germany. The debate on 'fake news' there continues, and the term itself is controversial; it has now entered the German dictionary, but nonetheless remains ill-defined. There is an ongoing renegotiation of the norms, rules, and responsibilities of the various relevant actors in this context.

Germany already has some comparatively strict laws that address public debate on social media platforms: laws have long addressed hate speech, and now also target the dissemination of 'fake news', and platforms like Facebook have engaged actively with this public debate. This brings together regulators, law enforcement, social media platforms, users, and other civic actors, and through the continuing debate there is a discursive institutionalisation of the concepts involved in this debate.

The present project observed the public debate around the two terms 'fake news' and 'Falschmeldung' across the German media, and identified a number of major spikes in the volume of public debate; in 2016, these were related to the role of 'fake news' in a number of major events and issues, including the refugee debate, a shooting in Germany, the U.S. presidential election, and the upcoming German federal election. In the latter case, the debate was less about specific actual issues than about the potential threat of 'fake news' influencing the election outcomes, and possible responses to it.

As a result of this debate, there is now a new German federal law that seeks to 'improve the enforcement of the law (against hate speech and disinformation) within social networks', and there are similar legislative initiatives in a number of other democratic as well as autocratic jurisdictions; additionally, there are also renewed calls for technological fixes for the problem. Further, a variety of fact-checking sites and projects have now also emerged, in Germany and elsewhere. How we and the media talk about 'fake news' has affected how legal and technological actors have responded to this challenge.