Fake news failing, but hackers still in the game

Spot the real fake. Source: CDU, Flickr, Fotolia

In this year’s German election, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, or CDU, has been campaigning with the slogan: “For a country we can enjoy living well in.” Recently, photos appeared online, showing the same slogan used by the old East German communist party. But what at first seemed an embarrassing gaffe turned out to be a clever fake, spread largely by the populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

It isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, stoking fears among politicians and business leaders that instances of targeted misinformation could rise in the final weeks of the campaign. According to a report by management consultants Deloitte and obtained by Handelsblatt, 58 percent of top German executives and 72 percent of politicians think more attempts are likely or very likely.

But the survey of 500 executives and politicians also voiced optimism that manipulated information would have little impact. Only one-third of respondents felt it might have a serious effect on the election, with 55 percent seeing the risk as “less substantial.”

“Ultimately the German media enjoy a high level of credibility among voters.”

Alexander Sängerlaub, researcher, Foundation for New Responsibility

This discrepancy can be explained by widespread faith in Germany as a well-informed society. Levels of political knowledge among the populace are higher in Germany than the United States, said Renate Köcher, head of the Allensbach Institute that conducted the poll.

Other experts agree. “Ultimately the German media enjoy a high level of credibility among voters, even though they criticize them,” said Alexander Sängerlaub, who researches “fake news” for the Foundation for New Responsibility, a Berlin-based think tank. Fake news in Germany is primarily a right-wing phenomenon, he says, and doctored reports rarely appear in the mainstream media.

But misinformation is only one side of the coin. In the run-up to ballot day, hacking could present a more immediate threat.

Last week, news broke that IT specialists hacked the software used to transmit election results from polling stations to the central election authorities. “We pointed out those security flaws during the summer,” Arne Schönbohm, head of the Federal Office for Information Security, or BSI, told Handelsblatt. Local authorities should implement software updates to plug security holes as soon as possible, he warned.

The website of Julia Klöckner, a senior CDU politician, was attacked 3,000 times in a single day

The BSI says it is ready for the election. “We are extending our monitoring programs. They’ll run 24 hours a day,” said Mr. Schönbohm. If a hacker were to alter advertised polling times on the Federal Election Commission website, for example, it could have a serious impact on turnout, he said.

Mr. Schönbaum said the BSI had been informing parties, political foundations and social networks of the risks for a number of weeks, and that awareness was good. “All of this makes society better protected against possible election manipulation,” he suggested.

In one recent incident, the website of Julia Klöckner, a senior CDU politician, was attacked 3,000 times in a single day. Many of the IP addresses involved appeared to originate in Russia, said Ms. Klöckner. However, Russian involvement is by no means certain, since it’s easy to fake identifying details online.

According to Mr. Sängerlaub’s research, most fake news in Germany is spread by supporters of the AfD, as well as by profit-oriented sites such as the German edition of Epoch Times, the Chinese news site.


Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on the Economics Ministry, digital policies, the Free Democratic party, small and medium-sized companies, and innovation. Brían Hanrahan adapted this story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: heide@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!