Facebook rolls out fake-news filtering service to Germany

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Fact-checking tools come as Merkel warns about Russian hacking ahead of election

Facebook is rolling out measures to fact check and flag fake news for the first time outside the US, bringing the tests to Germany in an attempt to control the proliferation of news hoaxes ahead of its election.

The world’s largest social network is bringing its test of fake-news filtering tools to Germany in the coming weeks after the spread of false stories such as one claiming that Germany’s oldest church was set on fire by a mob of a thousand people.

German users of the social network will now be able to report a story as fake and it will be sent to Correctiv, a third-party fact checker. If the fact checker discovers it is fake, the story will be flagged as ‘disputed’, with an explanation. Disputed stories will not be prioritised by the news feed algorithm and people will receive a warning if they decide to share it.

A Facebook spokesman said the company had been in discussions with German media and publishing groups and was working to get more partners on board.

“Our focus is on Germany right now but we’re certainly thinking through what countries will unveil next,” he said.

The German government has been concerned that its elections could be influenced by the spread of fake news and the hacking of political campaigns, after false stories such as the Pope endorsing president-elect Donald Trump spread rapidly during the US elections and a recent US intelligence report found Russia intended to influence the election by hacking the Democratic National Committee.

The German government announced last month it was planning a law that would impose fines of up to €500,000 on Facebook for distributing fake news. Angela Merkel, chancellor, has warned there are signs that online attacks and misinformation coming from Russia could “play a role in the election campaign”.

In an interview with Welt Am Sonntag on Sunday, Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister, warned that fake news posed a “danger to our culture of debate”, and added that, in extreme cases, those responsible could face up to five years in jail.

“But social networks also have a duty,” he said. “It can’t be in Facebook’s interest that its platform is misused in order to spread lies and hate campaigns. Criminal content should be deleted immediately once it has been reported. And it must be easier for users to report fake news.”

Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington DC-based think-tank, who specialises in Russia and eastern European politics, said Germany had suffered from fake news at least since the start of last year.

“A story was propagated by the Russian press and put into the German press that a young ethnic Russian girl living in Germany named Lise, as the story went, was disappeared, kidnapped and raped by migrants brought in by Merkel,” she said. “It was not true, Lise ran away from home to a friend’s place and nothing bad happened.”

Ms Thoburn said the German elections were going to be the “biggest target” for Russians out of all the European elections taking place in 2017 because Russia would like to see Ms Merkel replaced.

“The German news media is an old fashioned system grappling with a lot of these newfangled modes of conflict,” she said.

Additional reporting by James Shotter in Frankfurt
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved

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