Can the law stop fake news and hoax-spreading bots? These politicians think so

With federal elections scheduled for late September in Germany, momentum is building behind using anti-botnet laws against automated social-media accounts that churn out disinformation.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Could disinformation affect Germany's upcoming elections?

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Justice ministers in three German states have proposed using anti-botnet legislation to crack down on automated social-media accounts, or 'bots', which spread so-called fake news.

Following widespread reports that Russian intelligence-led disinformation campaigns interfered in the election of new US president Donald Trump, some German politicians, including chancellor Angela Merkel, have been warning that similar tactics could be deployed in the run-up to Germany's federal elections, scheduled for late September.

They fear that hoaxes could steer voters towards the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which occupies similar anti-immigrant ideological ground to that of Trump.

Late last week, a report from the German federal government's Bureau of Technology Assessment warned that 'social bots' could undermine trust in German democracy.

According to the Berliner Morgenpost, several parliamentary committees are set to discuss the report this week. However, the regional governments in Hessen, Saxony-Anhalt and Bavaria are impatient with what they see as the federal government's hesitancy on the matter.

Der Spiegel reported at the weekend that the justice ministers of these three Länder, or German states, want to use the weight of criminal law to enforce social networks' anti-bot terms. They would like to do so by modifying an already-contentious draft law that's designed to criminalize the operation of botnets.

The law, proposed by the Länder rather than the federal government, would equate the hijacking of victims' computers with physical breaking and entering.

Of course, the bots in botnets, used to pump out spam and launch denial-of-service attacks, are very different beasts from the bots that try to derail or warp social-media conversations. The bots in botnets are hijacked internet-connected devices, while social-media bots are automated accounts.

According to Simon Hegelich, a political data science professor at the Technical University of Munich, the resulting initiative is inconsistent, though not without "some good ideas". He reckons the main aim here is to help force the big social networks to crack down on the problem themselves.

"We have to think strategically about these proposals," Hegelich told ZDNet. "I don't think they're meant to be implemented in exactly the way they are now. It's a strategic move to make it very clear that our politicians care about these topics, and that social-media platforms have to move, otherwise they'll have to face uncomfortable policy decisions."

The social networks have already been having a tough time in Germany over the past couple of years, mainly over their handling of illegal hate speech.

Under pressure from the government, it was no surprise that Facebook this month made Germany the second country after the US to benefit from its new anti-fake news fact-checking program.

Currently in the testing phase, the scheme uses unpaid partnerships with fact-checking organizations, such as investigative journalism outfit Correctiv in Germany's case, to follow up on users' concerns about the promotion of untrue stories.

However, Facebook says it does not have social bots on its platform, thanks to its real-name policy and ban on fake profiles. Asked for comment, a Twitter spokesman highlighted the social network's bot policies and insisted that Twitter "strictly" enforces them. The policies ban the automation of retweets and favoriting, for example.

A spokesperson for the German federal government told ZDNet that the question of social-bot legislation is the subject of ongoing analysis, but declined to comment on state-level initiatives.

Are new laws necessary at all, though, or indeed practical? Hegelich noted it is already illegal to disseminate dangerous hoaxes in Germany, and pointed out that the whole issue of "fake news" is hampered by poor definitions.

"Even as scientists, we don't have the right categories. We're all nearly blind in this topic," he said.

However, he suggested that this kind of disinformation might not be so effective in Germany anyway.

"I don't think that Germany is comparable to the situation in the US because the society in Germany is far less polarized. For one thing, it may be tricky to identify the operator of a law-breaking bot for purposes of prosecution," Hegelich said.

"It's very hard to change people's opinions on politics via social media or any kind of media, so probably the effect won't be as strong here."

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