Social Bots and Fake News in the German federal elections 2017

The Ukrainian crisis, the Brexit referendum and the US election campaign 2016 have shown that political decision-making on the Internet is facing new threats: In particular, so-called social bots use machine automation to autonomously search for topics in social networks, spread articles and make comments that are difficult to distinguish from those of real users. There is a credible danger that social bots can generate attention for extreme positions or trigger a shift in public discourse through the sheer mass of automated content supply and interactions.

But to what extent do computer programs disguised as humans actually manipulate political discourse on Facebook? Can their mass-produced contributions to discussions influence the public formation of opinion and even political decision-making processes? And what role does the phenomenon of "fake news" play in the context of these algorithm-based communication processes? The research project is dedicated to these questions within the context of the German federal election of 2017.

With regard to potential manipulative interventions, three independent effects are examined: (1) the generation of attention, agenda setting and the shaping of images as a direct influence on users through news items (re-)produced by bots, (2) the influence on the perceived climate of opinion by strengthening certain viewpoints, and (3) the influence on metrics (e.g., number of comments), which often serve users as orientation points for the perception and evaluation of discussions.

In addition, the phenomenon of "fake news" will be examined more closely. These messages, predominantly with an affective load and strongly biased reporting, exploit  the interaction-oriented mechanisms of social media platforms, which thus may fuel conspiracy theories. On the basis of initial investigations, various effects of fake news on online discussions are also being examined: (1) the direct influence of users who believe the widespread fake news, (2) the polarization of the public through the publication and sharing of fake news on Facebook, and (3) the potential influence of emotional style and explosiveness of news on a more frequent and longer lasting further dissemination of these news and a resulting higher probability of accidental exposure by citizens who are not critical of elites and the media.

head of project:
Prof. Dr. Marcus Maurer
Prof. Dr. Christian Schemer
Prof. Dr. Birgit Stark

Responsible research staff:
Dr. Pascal Jürgens
Simon Kruschinski M.A.

research program media convergence

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