Fake News

Lügenpresse (lit: ‘lying press’) is a pejorative political term used largely by German political movements for the printed press and the mass media at large, when it is believed not to have the quest for truth at the heart of its coverage.

The Nazis adopted the term for their propaganda against the Jewish, communist, and later the foreign press.

The term Lügenpresse has been used intermittently since the 19th century in political polemics in Germany, by a wide range of groups and movements in a variety of debates and conflicts. Isolated uses can be traced back as far as the Vormärz period in the 19th century. The term gained traction in the March 1848 Revolution when Catholic circles employed it to attack the rising, hostile liberal press.

In the Franco-German War (1870–71) and particularly World War I (1914–18) German intellectuals and journalists used the term to denounce what they believed was enemy war propaganda. The Evangelischer Pressedienst, a news agency based in Frankfurt, made its mission the fight against the ‘lying press’ which it considered to be the ‘strongest weapon of the enemy.’ After the war, German-speaking Marxists such as Karl Radek and Alexander Parvus vilified ‘the bourgeois lying press’ as part of their class struggle rhetoric.

During the protests of 1968, a worldwide escalation of social conflicts, predominantly characterized by popular rebellions against military and bureaucratic elites, left-wing students disparaged the liberal-conservative Axel Springer publishing house, notably its flagship daily ‘Bild,’ as a ‘lying press.’

In late 2014, the term was repopularized by the far-right political movement Pegida in response to what its protesters felt was a scornful treatment by the mainstream media, as well as biased press reporting on the rising migrant influx and other immigration issues. It was chosen to be the ‘Un-word of the year’ for 2014 by a panel of five linguists and journalists of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Association for the German Language, Germany’s most important government-sponsored language society) for ‘wholesale defamation’ of the work of the media. President Joachim Gauck condemned the chanting of the slogan as ‘ahistorical nonsense,’ maintaining that in contrast to the Nazi and the GDR era, the federal German press is not manipulative in character and ‘covers events mostly in a correct and balanced way.’

German media detractors felt vindicated by the perceived lack of mainstream coverage of the 2016 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany. Most media outlets ignored the mass assaults by North African migrants and only started reporting on them five days later, after a wave of anger on social media made covering them unavoidable. The delay in reporting on the incidents lead to accusations that the authorities and the media attempted to ignore or cover up the migrant attacks to avoid criticism against the asylum and migration policy of the Merkel government. The German press codex forbids mentioning the religion or ethnicity of criminal suspects and offenders unless there is a ‘factual connection’ to the crime.

The term Lügenpresse came into use during the 2016 US presidential election cycle under the moniker of ‘fake news,’ first largely online in reference to inaccurate or false reporting on social media. The term fake news was later used by the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. At 2016 political rallies in the US, Trump supporters shouted the word at reporters in the ‘press pen.’ Trump himself often referred to the assembled press at his rallies as ‘enemies of the American people,’ ‘the most dishonest people,’ and ‘unbelievable liars.’ American alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer used the term in an NPI (National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank) meeting in Washington, D.C. after Trump’s victory in the election.


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