Far-right voters were more likely than others to believe fake news stories in Germany’s general election campaign, according to a study by a Berlin-based think tank.
The new research indicated that such misinformation may at least have reinforced the views of people who supported the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which became the first far-right party to win seats in postwar Germany’s national parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote.
Fake news is generally thought not to have had a big impact on last month’s German vote, in contrast to its emergence as a major issue in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign and evidence it played at least some role in other recent European elections. But the study by Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, a think tank focused on digital issues, suggests it nevertheless had an influence.
“This isn’t just a trigger for more questions and more research, but also for political action,” wrote Alexander Sängerlaub, project leader of the fake news initiative at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, in his summary of the findings.
“How do we get facts back into realms of communication that have been freed of facts? And who’s even ready to believe the facts? These are definitely two of the challenges that arise from the ‘post-fact’ era.”
The study, based on a survey of more than 1,000 people, found that AfD voters were more skeptical of traditional media sources than the wider German electorate. AfD voters also relied more heavily on social media for political information compared to other German voters.
While Twitter is a relatively small player in Germany, Facebook — with more than 30 million users in the country — remains a large force, albeit used less for political campaigns than it is in other Western countries.
The researchers said far-right supporters were more likely to believe digital misinformation and false news reports if it confirmed their preconceptions.
That included negative reports about refugees and migrants that were shared widely among far-right supporters across social media and other online platforms ahead of the September 24 election, reinforcing an existing digital echo-chamber that may have galvanized these voters to head to the polls.
Three-quarters of AfD voters in the survey, for example, believed a false report that more than half of recently arrived refugees had not finished high school. Fifty-six percent of all those questioned believed the false story.
One out of every four AfD voters also said they believed false reports, mostly spread on social media, that Margot Käßmann, the former bishop of Hanover, had said all Germans were Nazis — versus just 11 percent of all respondents in the poll, according to Stiftung Neue Verantwortung’s analysis.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc came first in the election and has begun exploratory talks on forming a government with the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens.