Guest essay by Eric Worrall
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is planning new censorship laws, a harsh crack down on “fake news”, which according to President Obama seems to include any criticism of climate theory.
“Something has changed — as globalization has marched on, [political] debate is taking place in a completely new media environment. Opinions aren’t formed the way they were 25 years ago,” she said Wednesday while addressing Germany’s Bundestag, or parliament. “Today we have fake sites, bots, trolls — things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with certain algorithms, and we have to learn to deal with them.”
Merkel indicated that she supported tougher measures to crack down on hate speech in its various forms and figure out new ways to regulate the complicated ecosystem of online information (and misinformation).
“I believe we should not underestimate what is happening in the context of the Internet and with digitalization; this is part of our reality,” Merkel said. “We have regulations that allow for our press freedom, including the requirement for due diligence from journalists. Today we have many that experience a media that is based on very different foundations and is much less regulated.”
President Obama stating the problematic new media ecosystem includes “climate denial”
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”
Does Angela Merkel think criticism of climate science should be included in her crackdown? I haven’t found a direct quote where Merkel describes climate “denial” as “fake news”, but given how close she is to President Obama on this subject, this seems a reasonable assumption.
Under German Law, Merkel has the power to prosecute or imprison people who voice proscribed opinions. German Law, unlike the US Constitution, does not provide a guarantee of free speech. German law contains a broad and vaguely defined concept of Volksverhetzung, “incitement of the masses”.
Volksverhetzung, in English “incitement of the masses”, “instigation of the people” (the official English translation of the German Criminal Code uses “incitement to hatred”), is a concept in German criminal law that refers to incitement to hatred against segments of the population and refers to calls for violent or arbitrary measures against them, including assaults against the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population.
It is often applied to, though not limited to, trials relating to Holocaust denial in Germany. The criminal code (Strafgesetzbuch) Chapter 7 (Offences against public order), Paragraph 130 (Incitement to hatred) of the Federal Republic of Germany defines when a person is guilty of Volksverhetzung.
The concept draws criticism by press and legal scholars for not being defined with the necessary definiteness and violating the principle of clarity and definiteness (Bestimmtheitsgrundsatz) and thus is called an elastic clause (Gummiparagraph) allowing in theory to punish nearly any political statment made and violating the freedom of speech.
The only silver lining to this ghastly business is in order to legally persecute “climate deniers”, if this is Merkel’s intention, she will have to define what climate denial actually is. Defining climate “denial” is harder than it might seem, because there is a lot of agreement about the fundamental physics. A legal definition of climate “denial” would have to include ridiculously prescriptive clauses, such as “expressing a belief that equilibrium climate sensitivity may be less than 1.5c / doubling of CO2”.