By Raquel Miguel, Researcher at EU DisinfoLab
- In the context of the German federal elections held on September 26, 2021, false electoral posters were hung in the streets of several German cities and circulated online on social networks. These usually attributed false quotes to politicians, and even included a video impersonating a politician, occasionally calling the attention of the media or German fact-checkers. Regardless of the content of these quotes or slogans, the deception lay in their false connection with the targeted party or politician.
- However, the authors – activists or self-titled artists – justified their actions with legitimate goals, such as advocating for the environment or for human rights. These campaigns have been usually directed against a specific political party (in most of the cases against the conservative Christian Democratic Union) at a particular time, generally before an election, and they addressed electorally sensitive issues such as migration or climate.
- Definition is difficult: some actors labelled their initiatives as activism or, more ambiguously, as “political art” or adbusting, (i.e. a form of political art creating false posters and satirical campaigns, also known as subvertising), while fact-checkers and the media identified these actions as forms of satire.
- When approached from a disinformation angle, these actions constitute a challenge: when does satire become disinformation? Regardless of the intention of the transmitter, the message can disinform the public debate if the satirical context is not understood as such by the receiver.
- That’s why the discussion must be open and good practices need to be considered for a transparent and responsible use of satire at times when disinformation poses a real threat for our societies. In order to encourage the debate, we have interviewed some experts in the field, whom we thank for their contribution.
During the monitoring of disinformation in the context of the German election campaign in 2021, EU DisinfoLab observed the intentional spread of false information with different purposes, mainly to influence the vote by targeting some of the candidates, or to polarise German society.
Something else also caught our attention: false electoral posters had been hung in the streets of some German cities or circulated online on social media. Usually, they attributed false quotes to different politicians or slogans to parties, and there was even a case of a video impersonating a politician. Regardless of the veracity of the quotes or slogans, the deception of these messages lies in their misleading attribution to the targeted parties or politicians.
In the cases presented, the transmitters of the deceptive content were environmental activists or groups of self-described artists who justified their actions as activism or protest campaigns to advocate for environmental justice, human rights, or “political art”. Once the deception of the action was revealed, the actions were reclaimed by the authors or defined by the fact-checkers as forms of satire, for instance, adbusting or subvertising, (an ironic use of advertising or election posters).
These cases share a unique characteristic: the authors openly acknowledged the deception and provided transparency about their acts. However, this often occurred at a later stage, coinciding with investigations by fact-checkers or as an answer to questions by social media users about the origin of the content.
To be clear: we are not looking at disinformers who use satire as an excuse trying to deny their hoaxes, downplaying them as a “joke” once they are discovered, like some cases documented by the organization First Draft, but at activists that use forms of satire as a means to reach their goals, with a potential danger of deception.
Still, these actions raise important questions when approached from a disinformative angle. The present blogpost explores the border between disinformation and activism, between the emission and the reception of the message, showing concrete cases encountered during the German electoral campaign and giving voice to interviewed experts. Although many questions remained unanswered, we hope this can further the conversation.
GERMAN CASE STUDIES: FAKE ELECTORAL CAMPAIGNS AS PROTEST
Case 1: Environmental Activism
Extinction Rebellion, a British environmental activist group with international outreach, was responsible for several false campaigns in Germany the months before the 2021 federal elections. At the end of July, Extinction Rebellion hung posters in several German cities deliberately imitating the visuals of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of the former chancellor Angela Merkel, in order to criticise the CDU’s climate policy. Therefore, the poster seemed to come from that political party and read: “Everyone is talking about the climate. We are ruining it by subsidising the coal and car industry lobby and blocking the transport transition”.
The protest action had offline and online outreach: the posters were hung in Essen, Schönebeck, Wuppertal, or Düsseldorf, as confirmed by the group’s press spokeswoman to the German fact-checker Correctiv, which uncovered the deception. On social media, the activists posted the same images on Facebook (500 shares) and on Instagram (6K likes).
While common sense might induce citizens to think that these messages cannot come from the party, the poster visually mimicked the CDU campaign. In a Facebook comment, the climate activists claimed their authorship in response to another user’s comment: “We make no secret of the fact that [our] supporters have hung the posters”. In the same comment, they justified their action as adbusting.
Extinction Rebellion – who also organised similar actions in other countries – had previously hung fake CDU posters in March 2021 during the election campaign for the regional elections in Baden-Württemberg, to criticise the party’s climate policy. At first glance, the orange posters looked like CDU’s election posters, but at a closer look, one could see that the climate activists had changed the slogans. For examples, they read: “[Vote] CDU, because we don’t care about the future of children” or “[Vote] CDU, because there must still be jobs on a dead planet”.
Case 2: Artistic action advocating for refugees’ rights
Another case of false electoral campaign appeared in June 2021. Allegedly, the Federal Minister of the Interior at the time, Horst Seehofer, spoke in a video suggesting he wanted to host asylum seekers in Germany and evacuate the camps on the Greek islands immediately. Despite looking very realistic, the video, which circulated on social media in the context of a campaign dubbed “Endlich dahoam” (“finally at home”), impersonated the politician by imitating his voice, as fact-checker BR #Faktenfuchs revealed.
The video started to circulate without any visual reference to the deception, but a group of artists later claimed responsibility for it and for a homonym website, explaining their intention to criticise the strict asylum policy adopted by Seehofer’s Bavarian conservative party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The action of the group self-dubbed “Creative Sisters United” (CSU, coinciding with the acronym of the impersonated political party) was framed in a broader action on Instagram, while the Interior Minister himself denied any links to the campaign. As of writing, the website and the Instagram accounts are unavailable.
Case 3: Satire for the sake of satire
When it comes to satire in Germany, there is one party that represents it par excellence: Die PARTEI (in English, “The Party”). Founded in 2004 by the editors of the German satirical magazine Titanic, the party parodies German politics. For this reason, its proposals are often absurd and ironic, parodying and ridiculing other political parties’ programs.
Die Partei, which won two seats in the European Parliamentary elections in 2019, was the author of a fake election poster criticising CDU’s conservative stances. The content, spread both offline and online, showed a CDU candidate in Düsseldorf, Sylvia Pantel, the CDU logo and the slogan “Politics for all white men and their housewives”. A week later, a law firm demanded that the satirical party take down the posters. Die Partei thanked the attorney for the amplification effect on their campaign and responded with satirical good wishes to Pantel’s successor.
The group claimed that the fake posters were easily recognisable because there were motifs of Die Partei’s logo and its website. However, since the motifs were located behind the Pantel posters, it’s open to debate as to whether they were visible for the audience. The deception was reported by local media.
Case 4: Adbusting: Agitpop, creative writing and vandalism
In Bonn, false electoral posters appeared at the end of August, falsely attributing quotes to the CDU candidates. One of them showed a smiling CDU Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet saying: “High water? I can only laugh”, criticising his behaviour during the severe floods that devastated the North of Germany in July 2021. Another depicted former Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn stating that “(…) homeless, disabled and elderly people don’t really matter”, in reference to him being accused of distributing faulty masks to vulnerable groups. Another poster featured CDU politician Friedrich Merz – later elected as the new leader of the party – next to a misogynous fake quote: “(…) I voted against making marital rape a punishable offence”.
The authors opened advertising frames and replaced existing posters in the city. The photos also surfaced on Instagram, collecting over 11K likes. A group called Public Space Intervention claimed responsibility for the action, assuming responsibility for other similar actions too. After the elections, their actions went on to target, for instance, the new Finance Minister Christian Linder.
In its Instagram bio, Public Space Intervention wrote: “#Adbusting – Somewhere between agitprop and creative writing”, a neologism combining the words agitation and propaganda. The account is filled with fake posters impersonating various politicians. In this case, the action was recognisable as satire within Instagram, but not offline, where there were no clues, while the deception was once again uncovered by local media.
Case 5: Civil disobedience and art
In the same vein, “Systemsprenger:innen” (“System breakers”), a left-wing group that describes itself as an “artists’ and reference group for cross-alliance actions of civil disobedience”, used a similar modus operandi. “We are climate activists, antifa [i.e. anti-fascists], antira [i.e. anti-racists] and [pro] LGBTQI+”, they added in their Facebook page bio. They were the authors of a fake CDU poster spread in Bonn at the end of August criticising the conservative party’s family policy. “Strengthen white families. Preserve Germany’s pure power” reads the caption under the CDU logo and the photo of a mother and child. The offline action was continued online on Facebook, where the group claimed it was an “electoral advertisement by the CDU Bonn (…) which is ultimately honest”, using the hashtag #adbusting. The regional CDU party filed a complaint for defamation in the cases 4 and 5.
THE BIG DILEMMA: IS IT REALLY ABOUT DISINFORMATION? EXPERTS SPEAK
The fact that media and some fact-checkers debunked some of them is evidence of the confusion they generated among the public. In certain cases, the ironic sense may seem obvious, but in most cases, a clear indication of the satirical context was missing.
These actions pose a challenge when approached from a disinformative angle. Questions are raised, such as: can these activism campaigns be considered disinformation? Can they be legitimised in view of the intention and nature of the authors, even if they lead to deception?
First Draft defines disinformation as “content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm. It is motivated by three factors: to make money; to have political influence, whether foreign or domestic; or to cause trouble for the sake of it”. If deliberate deception and harm are key factors of disinformation, the intentionality and potentially detrimental effects of these campaigns must be addressed.
During a conversation with EU DisinfoLab, postdoctoral researcher at Sherbrooke University and expert on humour, Emmanuel Choquette, stated: “We have to consider two aspects: emission and reception of the message. Maybe the intention is not transmitting false information, just to make people laugh or convince them of the base of caricature or irony, but it doesn’t mean that people are not confused and do not interpret the message as real. Even if it could be obvious for one person, it can be different for others”.
Regarding the potential harm, the targeted parties perceived it differently and thus gave different responses. For example, reactions ranged from legal actions against supposed damage to the party image, to public condemnation, and from denying authorship over the action to simply accepting the joke.
The deliberate or non-deliberate nature of the deception is hard for the audience to assess. For instance, indicators of authorship were discreetly placed in Die Partei’s posters; other groups reclaimed ownership online, but not offline: e.g. Public Space Intervention, Systemsprenger:innen, or Extinction Rebellion.
There was no visible indication of authorship in the Creative Sisters United’s video presented in the second case study, as debunker Max Gilbert from BR24-#Faktenfuchs told EU DisinfoLab.
“The campaign had a very realistic appearance and at first glance, could therefore be classified as disinformation”, Gilbert commented. “The video spread without context across social networks, YouTube and Instagram accounts bearing the name of the action. Due to the lack of context and the regional relevance for Bavaria, we decided to fact-check it and expose the video and the account as fake”. He added that “afterwards, an alleged group of artists claimed responsibility for the action and identified it as satire, thus avoiding the category of disinformation”. However, he highlighted that “at the time of our research, it was not known that this was supposed to be an artistic or satirical action”.
THE DICHOTOMY OF SATIRE: A LEGITIMATE RESOURCE AND A DISINFORMATIVE CATEGORY
Therefore, confusion can arise from misunderstood or undetected satire, which is also considered a category of disinformation in First Draft’s Classification. According to the organisation, satirical information has no intention to cause harm, but has the potential to mislead. However, a way to avoid misleading effect is to provide proper contextual information, for example, a clear indication from the authors or a disclaimer describing the satirical or artistic context.
Alice Echtermann, Deputy director of the German fact-checker CORRECTIV.Faktencheck spoke to us. “Unfortunately, in practice, we often see that fake electoral posters or quotes from politicians are misunderstood as genuine. The authors sometimes claim afterwards that it is satire. However, there should always be a clear indication that it is fake or satire, and this indication should be discoverable by users. Posters or logos can also be provided with such a notice. If this is not done, the fake either accepts or presumably even intends to be misunderstood. Activism and the authors of political actions should therefore always be recognisable”.
Gilbert agrees: “The fact that satire is published in a clearly communicated context or format – such as a satirical program, a satirical magazine or on a satirical account on social media – ensures that recipients can classify it accordingly. However, if this context is missing, content that is actually satirical or artistic can be deceptive and contribute to people’s uncertainty or incorrect information”. Regarding the CSU false campaign, he adds: “If it had been clear to everyone from the beginning that a group of artists was behind the action, or if there had been a labelling as satire, we would not have intervened”.
In this regard, Choquette comments: “Citizens are not in a show waiting for the gag. (…) Nobody is telling them: ‘You are going to receive disinformation but don’t worry, it is just a joke’”. If there is no prior context indicating that satire or humour is being used, “the entire responsibility of the interpretation falls on the public sphere and the recipients of the message”. According to the expert, responsibility must also fall on the transmitter.
CONCLUSIONS AND OBSERVATIONS
- As mentioned, these actions for the sake of activism leading to deception are not new. We have seen similar ones in the United States, in France, Sweden, and Italy in the past years. However, except in one case, there were not linked to forthcoming elections. A growing awareness of the effects of disinformation in recent years coupled with the engagement of fact-checkers and media on these actions allow us to look at these German cases under a new light.
- At sensitive times of intense disinformation flows, such as during elections, an act with legitimate aims can contribute to misleading the public, intentionally or unintentionally, and may even cause harm. Even actions with legitimate goals can constitute challenges for the counter-disinformation community since, on the one hand, they constitute free expression but, on the other hand, contribute to spreading false information.
- These actions are generally not regulated by electoral campaign rules which require transparency. However, they are usually directed against a specific political party before an election and address electorally sensitive issues such as migration or climate. This could warrant stricter observation.
- Good practices and transparency are critical when engaging in these actions. While legitimated, satire can misinform if it is not properly contextualised and understood as such, should the responsibility fall solely on a receptor. The sender also has a responsibility to provide the necessary context for their actions to be understood as satirical actions with activist purposes. This context may include labelling the content by the authors from the first moment of the content’s circulation. Such context or indication is most useful to the public during the action, not afterwards.
- The German cases also illustrate the challenge facing social media platforms when dealing with satire. Some of them already have rules requiring the labelling of satirical pages, such as Facebook. Twitter has some specific guidelines for parody accounts. But even when actors comply with them, as in the case of activists who clearly define themselves on Facebook or Instagram, that context can disappear in the offline actions.