Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

In this short analysis, Sami Nenno takes a closer look at the content of fact-checks and misinformation in Germany.

2024 is a year of elections: USA and EU but there are also local elections in Germany for which current polls predict strong increases for the far-right. Misinformation is a constant concern regarding these elections. Even though disinformation is not as threatening as often depicted, it is harmful for democratic processes and we need a solid understanding of it.

Misinformation is a (moderate) threat to elections

2024 is a year of elections. Over 70 elections will be held around the world including the US-presidential election, the European Parliament election but also local elections in eastern Germany. Misinformation is widely held as a threat to democratic processes and there is constant concern that false information might influence their outcome. 

One disclaimer in advance: the threat of misinformation is often overstated. There is good evidence that misinformation reaches only limited parts of society and often it is shared because it confirms pre-existing political attitudes rather than changing people’s minds (Altay et al. 2023). Nevertheless, misinformation does not leave democratic processes entirely unaffected and therefore it is necessary to take a close look at it.

What is misinformation?

Fake News used to be a frequently used term in research. However, it has often been instrumentalized by the far-right to undermine the credibility of established media. This is why nowadays we rather speak of dis- or misinformation. 

While disinformation is false information that is spread with the intention to harm and deceive, misinformation is false information without such an intent. Even though disinformation is at the core of the problem, speaking of misinformation is more convenient for practical reasons: It is difficult to demonstrate or find evidence for the intention because of which a person spreads false information.

Fact-checks help not only the people but also the researchers

Next to calls for advances in media literacy and strict regulation of online platforms, fact-checking has been one approach to tackle misinformation. And while fact-checking is certainly no magic-bullet that single-handedly removes misinformation from the web, there is evidence that it helps people to correct misperceptions (Nyhan et al. 2020). 

A side-effect of fact-checking that warms the hearts of many communication researchers is that it provides a rich data source. Fact-checks repeat and contextualise the claim they aim to verify. Therefore, fact-checks can be used as a proxy or stand-in for studying the content of misinformation. 

With the help of two student assistants, I conducted a content analysis on a sample of 600 fact-checks that were published by four major fact-checking organisations in Germany: Correctiv, dpa, AFP, and Faktenfuchs. They are all certified by the international fact-checking network and published a total of around 5000 fact-checking articles in the last four years. Based on the sample and with the help of computational methods, it was possible to analyse the topics of all articles.

Evergreens of misinformation

Earlier research has shown that misinformation in Germany often targets immigrants and inner security (Humprecht 2019). This is also reflected in the fact-checks of the previous years: throughout the observation period, immigration/integration and justice/crime have been major topics (Fig 1). Claims that belong to this category spread, for example, false information about how many refugees Germany wants to take in, on social care for refugees but also on cannabis and its legalisation.Misinformation about the environment and climate has received even more coverage than the aforementioned categories. Throughout the last year, misinformation on this topic was with only a few interruptions the most prevalent of all. Faktenfuchs reports that their most frequently read article of the year 2023 was on that topic: According to false claims, Germany contributes only 0.000028% to the global CO2-emissions (in reality it is 1.8%).

Figure 1: Topics of fact-checks/misinformation in Germany between July 2019 and December 2023 (n = 5195). For many articles it was possible to determine the detailed topic like transmission, characteristics, or origin of the Coronavirus or impacts of the economic sanctions on Russia but for other articles it was only possible to classify them as being about Ukraine rather than about Corona or general topic.

Misinformation meets crisis

Beside these evergreens, misinformation in Germany is strongly event-driven. For example, during the 2021 election, misinformation related to political parties and election processes experienced a drastic increase. However, as for the media in general: crises are a major driver. First and foremost, there was the Corona Pandemic. Lockdowns, Covid-19, vaccination. These were topics around which a large share of misinformation was spread between 2020 and 2022. It is clearly visible in Fig. 1 that important developments of the Corona crisis and its management were surrounded by misinformation.

To a lesser extent but similar to the Corona crisis, the Russian attack on Ukraine and the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s response triggered an instant response in the misinformation landscape. Early misinformation on Ukraine was mostly about war events but during later stages prominent actors like Selenskyj or Klitschko were targeted, as well. Interestingly, misinformation narratives on the events in the middle-east follow similar patterns as those regarding the war in Ukraine.

The spread of misinformation in Germany follows two patterns

Topics that are subject to misinformation follow two patterns: there are the evergreens like climate, immigration, or inner security and there is crisis-driven misinformation on, for example, Corona or the war in Ukraine. And while the evergreens are constantly covered, for crises there are extreme bursts in misinformation that (almost) vanish if public attention fades.