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In a world of ‘fake news’, who will stop the rush to judgement?

Credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

September 20, 2018   4 mins

One of the most over-used and ill-defined terms of recent years has been ‘fake news’. It is something which is almost as little understood as it is little defined. Like its cousin, ‘post-truth’, it has been the subject of too many editorials and too little thought.

Perhaps events in Germany will sharpen peoples’ minds. Even if ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ are not the mots justes in this case, something (beyond “news I do not like”) is happening there that requires attention.

In recent weeks, Angela Merkel’s premiership has experienced one of its most serious crises yet – the culmination of an extraordinary dispute over facts between the Chancellor and the head of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service. The argument stems from events in Chemnitz at the end of August, when a 35-year-old German man of Cuban extraction called Daniel Hillig was stabbed to death. Two men – one from Syria and another from Iraq – have been arrested (and one released) since the murder.

The killing sparked far-right rallies in Chemnitz and counter protests too, for which the local police were clearly unprepared. And it is over the nature of the reaction to the killing of Daniel Hillig that a crisis of information, intelligence and politics has occurred.

As I documented in The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, there has been a pronounced tendency in recent years for the political class across Europe to skip the primary issues and go straight to secondary ones. So they focus not on a problem but on the reaction to that problem.

Many of those at the protests in Chemnitz appear to have been local people shocked and outraged at an act of violence. Others were undoubtedly expressing anger and concern about the migration policy that the Merkel government enacted in 2015. And a number of people were filmed making Nazi salutes – which have been illegal in Germany since 1945 – and there have since been some arrests.

But the German government was swift to move its focus from the killing of Daniel Hillig to criticising those turning up to protests. A shocking video emerged online that purported to show locals pursuing foreign-looking people. The Chancellor and others seized on this footage as evidence that there had been a whipping-up or hunting (“hetzjagd“) of people in the aftermath of the murder.

The principle source of this claim was a 19-second video released on Twitter via an account called Antifa Zeckenbiss (“Antifa tick-bite”). The description in that video was that it showed a menschenjagd (“whipping up/hunting of people”) in Chemnitz.

Enter the head of the domestic intelligence service in Germany, Hans-Georg Maassen. From what we can tell, he did not agree with the political pronouncements that were being made on the basis of the video. He was concerned that the account which had posted it was fairly new and run by unknown actors. He also expressed doubts that the video showed what the politicians were claiming it showed, stating that the BfV had “no reliable information about such hunts taking place”.

Since when, there has been unprecedented political manoeuvring around the story. Allies of Merkel joined the Chancellor in trying to push Maassen out of his job. There were efforts to portray Maassen himself as far-right or in sympathy with the far-right. The fact that he had met with members of the AfD party (though in his role he met members of all political parties) was used against him. The pressure successfully built and he was forced to leave his job, though his defenders (including one prominent cabinet colleague of Merkel’s) ensured that he was moved to a post in the Interior Ministry.

Inside Germany, the minutiae of all this has been devoured. Elsewhere the bare bones have been chewed over. But the true implications of this case have been hardly dwelt upon. The nub of the problem lies in that 19-second video.

For Chancellor Merkel and those other politicians who supported her recent migration policies, the footage is enormously helpful. It diverts attention away from a highly controversial policy of the Merkel government and directs it toward something that almost everybody is against – the hounding of people by neo-Nazis.

But what if the video had been released by a far-right Twitter feed, as opposed to a far-left one? Would its contents, whatever they were, have immediately been assumed true by the political class? Or would doubts about its authenticity have been expressed from the outset?

What if the video had shown people who looked like migrants pursuing people who looked like native Germans? Would it have been seized upon? Or would people in positions of power have called for calm, and for people not to rush to judgment until it was clear what the footage showed?

The caution initially expressed by the (now former) head of the BfV over the video’s contents, which has since been verified as genuine, was seized upon by some people – including politicians – as evidence that he had far-right sympathies. Let’s switch things around. Would those reserving judgment on a video released by the far-right be accused in turn of being far-leftists or Islamists?

The Chemnitz tape is an encapsulation of the world we have headed into, in which the actual case is of less significance than the reaction to it. So what should the reaction of politicians, governments and intelligence agencies be to such videos?

As they are released online, the public can see them straight away. So should there be any filter between the public and the video? How can we stall the publication of contested footage by the media? And how can politicians and others reserve judgment if the press and public are already all over such a piece of footage?

Even more important, once film like this is in the public domain, who can be relied upon to stand up and say “Stop”? Ordinarily, the head of the domestic intelligence agency in a developed democracy would have such a role, if anyone did. But events in Germany show that this is no longer the case.

So what gatekeepers do we have left? The answer would appear to be none. And either we work on appointing them – or building them up – or we accept that we are now in a period in which facts become (as the writer Kevin Myers once put it), “Whatever you’re having yourself.”

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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