Sascha Hölig and Uwe Hasebrink
Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research, Hamburg
Germany is one of the first countries in the world to implement controversial laws to combat online misinformation while public broadcasters have been facing growing criticism over their response to a resurgent right-wing.
The Network Enforcement Act, commonly known as NetzDG, took full effect at the beginning of 2018 and requires online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to remove illegal content — or face fines of up to €50m. But the law has been controversial in Germany with some saying it could lead to inadvertent censorship or curtail free speech. In an early test, a far-right member of parliament had her Twitter account suspended and Facebook content removed shortly after posting an anti-Muslim message.
Facebook alone has hired over 1,000 German-language moderators to review contact that has been flagged by users in ‘deletion centres’ in Berlin and Essen.1 But while there is general agreement that platforms should do more, concern focuses on whether legal content could also be removed, if Facebook, Google, and Twitter act conservatively to avoid fines. Germany’s biggest newspaper, Bild, has called for the NetzDG to be scrapped.
The emergence of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), as the third strongest party in parliament following federal elections has led to intense debates on how the media should cover their often extreme political views. While some argue that high media exposure builds unwarranted attention, others say that growing public support for right-wing parties cannot be ignored. This issue has been a particular dilemma for public service broadcasters, which have been criticised for suppressing debates over immigration and distorting the views of right-wing parties.
Despite this, our data show that public service providers like ARD and ZDF remain the most trusted news brands in Germany along with regional newspapers. Tabloid newspapers and digital-born portals tend to have less trust. More generally half of German internet users (50%) say they trust the news most of the time, with four in ten (61%) trusting the media they use. By contrast, fewer than a fifth (18%) say they have confidence in the content they find in social media. Anti-establishment websites like Junge Freiheit and Politically Incorrect (PI) news attract attention in the media and especially in social media but are used by a small proportion of Germans.
Meanwhile public broadcasters are facing renewed attempts from commercial publishers to restrict their activities online. Newspaper groups say that free public service content makes it impossible to charge for online news despite limited evidence.2 A court ruling at the end of 2017 supported publisher complaints that ARD’s popular Tagesschau app is too ‘press like’ because it contains too much text. Public broadcasters are now reshaping their apps to contain more video, even though Reuters Institute research consistently shows that most consumers prefer text when consuming online news.
In the print market, mergers of newspapers and pooling of editorial departments continues, cutting costs but sometimes at the expense of consumer choice.3 Although digital advertising remains the most important business model, more newspapers are shifting their strategies to online subscriptions. In May 2018, Der Spiegel launched Spiegel+, with a monthly subscription (€19.99) allowing access to exclusive online content and articles from the print edition.
At the beginning of 2017 the Funke Group launched a freemium model for five of their regional online newspapers. According to PV Digest, paid content revenues in the media sector rose 16% in 2017 to €320m. The largest share of this belongs to Axel Springer’s Bild (9%) with the Zeit-Group increasing their sales by 3%, due to last year’s successful launch of the paid content model Z+. Even so, overall progress remains slow overall with fewer than one in ten of our sample (8%) paying for online news.
The use of ad-blockers increased by 5 percentage points in the last year to 33%, as the dispute over the legitimacy of the software rumbles on. Media companies have been challenging the practice of filtering out certain advertisements (blacklisting) or redisplaying them after paying a fee (whitelisting) in the courts. Rulings on the issue have so far been contradictory, and the Supreme Court will now be asked to make a decision.
Television remains the most widely used source of news, though numbers watching continue to decline (-3) while use of the internet for news has grown significantly in the last year (+5). About a third of our sample (31%) uses social media for news, fewer than in other countries.
Germans have relatively high trust in the news (50%) and these numbers have remained relatively stable in the last few years. But 2018 data show that the proportion of those who do not trust the news media has increased slightly. Other studies have also found indications of growing polarisation in terms of media trust.4
- https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/05/tough-new-german-law-puts-tech-firms-and-free-speech-in-spotlight ↩
- Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, ‘Paying for Online News’, Digital Journalism, 5(9) (2017): 1173–91. ↩
- Landesanstalt für Medien in NRW, ‘Medienkonzentrationsbericht 2016/2017’ (Düsseldorf: Landesanstalt für Medien in NRW, Formatt Institut, 2017), http://www.lfm-nrw.de/service/berichte/medienkonzentrationsbericht.html. ↩
- Tanjev Schultz et al., ‘Erosion des Vertrauens Zwischen Medien und Publikum? Ergebnisse einer Repräsentativen Bevölkerungsumfrage’, Media Perspektiven, 5 (2017): 246–59. ↩