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Germany investigates fake news after bogus Breitbart story

Officials suspect Russian meddling ahead of parliamentary elections

Merkel Receives Epiphany Singers Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

The German government is investigating a recent surge in fake news, Reuters reports, following claims that Russia is attempting to meddle in the country’s parliamentary elections later this year.

The investigation comes after police in the city of Dortmund were forced to debunk a story published on Breitbart over the weekend. The Breitbart article claimed that a “1,000-man mob” chanting “Allahu Akbar” set fire to a church on New Year’s Eve, but police said that no incident occurred. A local newspaper said that Breitbart distorted its original report. Breitbart, which has stood by the article, plans to launch websites in both Germany and France ahead of elections this year.

German officials tell Reuters that the government has considered setting up a bureau under the press office that would be dedicated to tracking and combatting fake news. “We are dealing with a phenomenon of a dimension that we have not seen before,” Steffen Seibert, a German government spokesperson, tells Reuters. The Czech Republic created a similar “anti-fake news” unit last month, though plans for the German bureau remain unclear due to concerns over the government regulating news.

Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency also tells Reuters that a December cyberattack on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last month exhibited the same “infrastructure” as a 2015 attack on the German parliament. That attack was attributed to APT28, a Russian hacking group that is believed to have infiltrated the Democratic National Committee (DNC) last year, US officials have said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seeking reelection this year, warned in November that Russia could try to interfere with the country’s elections through cyberattacks or propaganda campaigns.

“We are already, even now, having to deal with information out of Russia or with internet attacks that are of Russian origin or with news which sows false information,” Merkel told reporters on November 8th.

In December, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told German media that judges and prosecutors should crack down on fake news that spreads on Facebook, saying: “Defamation and malicious gossip are not covered under freedom of speech.”