Conspiracy theories are as old as humankind, but the internet provides them with almost infinite reach. Today, seemingly absurd assertions – Angela Merkel is the daughter of Adolf Hitler and a member of the Jewish Rothschild banking dynasty; or Jews are plotting Germany’s destruction – can be spread far and wide, reaching an audience more vast than ever before.
While much has been said about the accountability of social media, there are other platforms that significantly contribute to the spread of alternative facts and “fake news.” In particular, self-publishing platforms have become a wealth of disinformation unchecked by editors or publishers. These platforms don’t receive much attention, but in Germany over the past decade, they have been transformed into an increasingly relevant niche.
The industry is attractive to many who have been rejected by publishers or want to save themselves the long and difficult editing process. Gaining access to the competitive German book market is also difficult for newcomers. Around 90,000 new titles make it every year, and according to the German Publishers & Booksellers Association, the industry generated revenues of €9.2 billion ($9.9 billion) in 2015 – 17 percent of which was online.
The shift in publishing from print to screen has been inspiring for many writers, with success stories such as that of the global bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” first appearing as a self-published work. This has shown an enormous potential. According to a study by the consulting group PwC, 30 percent of all e-book readers have read titles by self-published authors. Of that group, one in four are unable tell the difference between “conventional” and self-published e-books.
“Platforms like Amazon feign neutrality and pocket a share of the money.”
Books-on-Demand, Germany’s largest self-publishing provider, estimates that 100,000 authors across Germany publish their own works – and not only online. Today, one in three printed books are self-published. While PwC expects the industry to grow in the coming years, larger self-publishing platforms such as Amazon’s Create Space are popular precisely because of their reach.
Established in 2005, Create Space doesn’t just play host to erotic novels, fantasy or cookbooks. Titles such as “Hellstorm: The Destruction of Germany”, the anti-Semitic novel “Raubland” (“Stolen Country”) or lengthy screeds on Angela Merkel’s refugee policy show the company to be profiting by providing a platform for right-wing conspiracy theories.
Leonard Novy, director of the Institute for Media and Communication Policy and co-editor of digital publishing blog “Carta,” has been observing the problem for some time: “Platforms like Amazon feign neutrality and pocket a share of the money.” There is a serious need for Amazon to take a closer look at the content it hosts, argues Novy. The accusation is not a new one. Amazon has been criticized as far back as 2009 for distributing books from “Deutsche Stimme” (“German Voice”) – the publishing house of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD. Only after mounting public pressure did the company remove the books from its offering.
Still, the online retailer remains decidedly unselective. Among Amazon Germany’s current assortment are books belonging to the publisher “Kopp,” which has made headlines time and again with right-wing titles. One of Kopp’s most well-known authors is the late journalist Udo Ulfkotte, who penned such anti-Islamic screeds as “Mekka Deutschland” (“Mecca Germany”) or the conspiracy-laden “Gekaufte Journalisten” (“Bought Journalists”). Other smaller publishers also continue to use Amazon to sell content promoting conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.
Ironically, Amazon does claim to have clear rules when it comes to self-publishing. Pornography, violence and “extremely disturbing” content, for example, violate those rules. However, titles like “Hellstorm” and “Raubland” do not. And while self-publishing and distribution platforms like Amazon reject the label of publisher, Mr. Novy questions that claim: “These aren’t copy shops.” While Amazon and others assume the functions typical of a publisher, they are reluctant to take responsibility for what they host.
“Before publication, every single book goes through a multi-stage examination process.”