Munich Security Report 2017

(Dis)Information: Fake It, Leak It, Spread It

If the referendum debates in the UK or the US election campaign are any indicator, facts matter less and less.1 Whether it is the spread of fake news, politically motivated leaks of hacked information, the use of trolls, or automated social media bots: these instruments present a grave challenge to informed public debate. Several factors enhance their impact: today’s media landscape holds many challenges for quality journalism and is, in many countries, increasingly fragmented, polarized, and politicized. Technological changes, most importantly the rise of social media as a major source of information, create filter bubbles and echo chambers in which only partial sets of information are shared and amplified. In the US, for instance, only 14 percent of Republicans “have trust in the mass media.”2 All this creates a structure waiting to be exploited – both by populists within our societies and by interested outside actors.

“If the most powerful and richest democracy in the world can have its electoral process derailed through mass disinformation, electronic break-ins and doxing, then what awaits the elections next year in Germany, France and the Netherlands, where genuine extremist parties are rapidly gaining popularity?”11 

19 DECEMBER 2016

In the recent past, Russia has demonstrated a particular ability to use these weaknesses of open societies to further its objectives and cast doubt on democratic institutions. In early January 2017, the US intelligence community released a report in which they assessed with “high confidence” that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”3 This campaign included the hacking of the servers of the Democratic Party, the leaking of emails by party and campaign officials to WikiLeaks and other outlets, as well as the support of fake news outlets and social bots amplifying the message.4 This has increased worries in other Western democracies, especially in those where elections are scheduled for 2017. Authorities in France and Germany, whose parliament’s network was hacked by the same group that broke into the Democratic Party’s servers, have already warned of Russian attempts to influence the upcoming elections.5 Across Europe, the members of a new “Populist International” rely on so-called alternative media that regularly spread Kremlin-friendly messages or fake news.6 It seems to pay off: in Germany, a poll in August 2016 showed that 30 percent of supporters of the populist Alternative for Germany and 31 percent of left-wing voters trust Vladimir Putin more than Angela Merkel.7 Interestingly, many of the accounts that spread pro-Trump information during the US election campaign have now turned to criticizing Angela Merkel and her refugee policy.8 

The main threat is that citizens’ trust in media and politicians might further erode, creating a vicious cycle that threatens liberal democracy. States must better protect their hardware; but cyber defense will not be enough. Democratic institutions can also support media literacy, strengthen their communication efforts, and educate their citizens. Yet, they cannot forbid “fake news” or introduce “truth agencies” lest they turn illiberal themselves. Preventing a “post-truth” world, in which “nothing is true and everything is possible,”9 is a task for society as a whole.10 



Please note: We regret to inform you that we had to retract the three bottom charts which are displayed on page 43 of the 2017 Munich Security Report. They were based on data provided to the Munich Security Conference that, as we have since found out, was incomplete.


  1. For a good overview, see Glenn Kessler, “The Biggest Pinocchios of Election 2016,” The Washington Post, 4 November 2016, Kessler (author of Washington Post’s blog Fact Checker) notes: “Donald Trump has amassed such a collection of Four-Pinocchio ratings – 59 in all – that by himself he’s earned as many in this campaign as all other Republicans (or Democrats) combined in the past three years.” Still, a poll published shortly before the elections found that “Trump has opened up an eight-point advantage over Clinton on which candidate is more honest and trustworthy, leading 46 to 38 percent among likely voters.” Scott Clement and Emily Guskin, “Post-ABC Tracking Poll Finds Race Tied, as Trump Opens Up an 8-Point Edge on Honesty,” The Washington Post, 2 November 2016,
  2. Art Swift, “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low,” Gallup, 14 September 2016,
  3. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” 6 January 2017,
  4. For an overview of this “vast, covert, and unprecedented campaign of political sabotage against the United States and its allies,” see Thomas Rid, “How Russia Pulled Off the Biggest Election Hack in U.S. History,” Esquire, 20 October 2016,
  5. Kate Connolly, “German Spy Chief Says Russian Hackers Could Disrupt Elections,” The Guardian, 29 November 2016,; David Chazan, “France Blocks 24,000 Cyber Attacks Amid Fears That Russia May Try to Influence French Presidential Election,” The Telegraph, 8 January 2017,
  6. See Anne Applebaum, “Trump Is a Threat to the West as We Know It, Even If He Loses,” The Washington Post, 4 November 2016,; Alberto Nardelli and Craig Silverman, “Italy’s Most Popular Political Party Is Leading Europe in Fake News and Kremlin Propaganda,” BuzzFeed News, 29 November 2016,
  7. “Viele Anhänger von AfD und Die Linke vertrauen Putin mehr als Merkel,” Zeit Online, 31 August 2016,
  8. Stefan Nicola, “Merkel Feels Hillary’s Pain as Web Trolls Bombard Her With Abuse,” Bloomberg Politics, 22 December 2016,
  9. See Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible. The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, Public Affairs (New York), 2014.
  10. Some civil society initiatives, e.g. Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants), have already started to pressure companies to stop supporting fake news sites with advertising. Others document how fake news are spread or try to raise awareness. See, e.g., Digital Forensic Research Lab, “Three Thousand Fake Tanks,” Medium, 14 January 2017, Companies such as Facebook and Google have also begun to introduce measures to curb the influence of fake news. See Alex Hern, “Facebook and Google Move to Kick Fake News Sites Off Their Ad Networks,” The Guardian, 15 November 2016,; Hannah Kuchler, “Facebook Rolls Out Fake-News Filtering Service to Germany,” Financial Times, 15 January 2017,
  11. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “Democracies Face a Fake New World,” The Huffington Post, 19 December 2016,
  12. Data provided to MSC by the Hertie School of Governance. Estimates on budget based on Deutsche Welle analysis. Social media analysis based on 16 September 2016 figures.
  13. See endnote 12.
  14. Bence Kollanyi, Philip N. Howard and Samuel C. Woolley, “Bots and Automation Over Twitter During the U.S. Election,” Comprop Data Memo, Political Bots Project, Oxford Internet Institute, 17 November 2016,
  15. The Economist and YouGov Poll, “Economist/YouGov Poll,” August and December 2016; “Omnibus Poll,” June 2013,
  16. Ipsos MORI, “Perils of Perception Survey,” 14 December 2016, Figures for actuals based on data from Pew Research Center (2010), StatCan (2011), Muslim Life in Germany (2009). In some cases, the size of the Muslim population in a country may have increased since the data was gathered. But even the largest estimated increases, when considered as a proportion of the population, are unlikely to mean the actuals figure increases by more than 1 or 2 percentage points. Whereas the actual data was recorded with a high degree of precision, average guesses are estimates based on survey responses, subject to margins of error and therefore not presented with a decimal place.
  17. Craig Silverman, “This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News on Facebook,” BuzzFeed News, 16 November 2016,