Disinformation in cyberspace
According to current European Commission polls, 80% of EU citizens encounter what they consider to be false or misleading information several times per month.
Those who spread disinformation often do so to launch targeted attacks on the cohesion of Western societies. They are attempting to undermine the credibility of the established media in order to weaken public support for these media, influence elections for the benefit of certain candidates and create extreme views that can split societies. They do this by posting comments that intentionally disseminate false information or emotionalise issues and obscure the facts. Another method is to employ automated users – so-called social bots – which post prepared content to the respective platforms.
There are many examples: In response to the conclusion reached by a UN team of experts that a poison gas attack was carried out by the Syrian regime in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, numerous statements discrediting the team’s findings were spread with the aim of creating confusion (more on this here). The same occurred in the case of flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine (more on this here). More recently, there was the Skripal case. Here, too, a variety of rumours were spread concerning the timeline of the poisoning, the source of the nerve agent and the reports issued by the respective groups of experts (more on this here).
What is Germany doing?
For our foreign policy, this means that Germany must not be a mere observer in the battle of narratives. Disinformation often poses an existential threat to the diversity of opinion, critical and independent journalism, as well as public trust in democratic institutions. The German Government is fighting this development through its targeted participation in debates in the digital domain, i.e. in fora where disinformation is spread. On these platforms, the German Government provides both reliable information that can be fact-checked and a narrative based on this information.
Examples of the Federal Foreign Office’s activities:
Since 2015, the Federal Foreign Office has been supporting efforts in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to enhance the resilience of these countries’ societies, so that they can better withstand disinformation campaigns. For example, the German Government organises workshops in cooperation with its partners to give Estonian journalists the opportunity to visit and learn about the work of publicly funded media outlets in Germany.
Since the autumn of 2015, the Federal Foreign Office has published content under the heading “Rumours about Germany”, whereby it addresses and corrects false information that is spread by human traffickers and provides information on legal migration. The information on the www.rumoursaboutgermany.info website is available in English, French, Arabic, Tigrinya, Farsi, Urdu and Dari, thereby reaching people from almost all key countries of origin and transit. Since late October 2017, the website has been visited by more than 340,000 people.
As a member of the Global Coalition against Daesh, Germany is also actively exposing propaganda of the so-called Islamic State through its internet-based communication. The Coalition’s Communications Working Group is countering the false narrative of the so-called IS in a targeted way by making the facts known. Moreover, the German Government is campaigning for sustained international engagement in the region by actively communicating what Germany is doing to successfully stabilise the areas that have been liberated from the so-called Islamic State. The German Government is also highlighting what has been achieved through cooperation between international partners and the Iraqi Government.
Germany closely coordinates these activities with its partners in the EU (cf. press release by the European Commission of 26 April 2018) and in the G7 (cf. Charlevoix Commitment on Defending Democracy from Foreign Threats of 8 June 2018)