Citizens' assembly against disinformation

18. March 2024

The internet, artificial intelligence and other digital innovations make it easier to spread misinformation. The Bertelsmann Foundation therefore launched a participation project on 24 January 2024, which also includes a citizens' assembly on the topic.

Misinformation on the internet is a threat to democracy, as it can undermine citizens' trust in politics, public discourse and state institutions. A large majority of people in Germany also recognise this danger. The Bertelsmann Stiftung would now like to develop recommendations for dealing with disinformation in the participatory project "Forum against Fakes" with the help of citizens and present these to politicians.

Disinformation is a problem for society

Manipulated information gives the impression that it is real, verifiable news. This is how false information is deliberately spread. According to an as yet unpublished study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, 84 per cent of people in Germany say that disinformation on the internet is a major problem for our society.

With the project "Forum against Fakes - Together for a Strong Democracy", the foundation wants to actively counter the danger posed by disinformation. This is because the spread of targeted misinformation can undermine trust in politics and the media as well as the democratic opinion-forming and decision-making process.

Germany-wide participation project

The "Forum against Fakes - Together for a Strong Democracy" was launched on 24 January 2024. This is a Germany-wide participation project organised by the Bertelsmann Foundation in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Homeland, the Mercator Foundation and the Michael Otto Foundation for Sustainability. The project is supported by the news portal t-online and the #UseTheNews initiative.

The aim of the project is to educate and sensitise citizens about the dangers of disinformation. The recommendations for action developed in the forum are aimed at decision-makers at federal and state level, as well as other interest groups such as platform operators, the media and civil society organisations.

Online participation and citizens' assembly

In order to involve as many people as possible and achieve the best possible result, the "Forum against Fakes - Together for a strong democracy" project combines two different types of participation:

1. The entire population is called upon: anyone and everyone can get involved in a broad-based online participation process. Since 24 January 2024, everyone in Germany has been called upon to respond online to the question: "Fakes and manipulation: What should we do to protect our democracy?". People were able to submit their own suggestions for dealing with disinformation and vote on proposals from other participants.

The response was high: more than 165,000 people took part online and have so far voted 700,000 times on the proposals submitted. Further votes could be cast until 1 April 2024.

Citizens see fakes and manipulation as threat to democracy

The analysis of the results so far has shown that citizens see fakes and manipulation as a real threat to democracy. To counter this danger, over 1,600 concrete proposals have been submitted, appealing not only to politicians, but also to educational institutions, platforms and social media.

2. A diverse group of 120 citizens discusses the results of the participation with each other in a citizens' assembly and works on the most important points. The mini-public is a reflection of the population according to the criteria of age, gender, regional origin, level of education and migration background. The citizens' assembly began its work on 15 March 2024.

Citizens' assembly formulates recommendations for action

In addition, the citizens' assembly has the opportunity to discuss issues with experts. With this knowledge, the mini-public can deal with the most relevant topics in a well-founded manner. As a result, the citizens' assembly formulates concrete recommendations for action for politicians, which are summarised in a so-called citizens' report.

The Forum against Fakes project will run until summer 2024 and the online participation process will be dovetailed with the citizens' assembly in three phases: Firstly, the online participation collects topics, ideas and suggestions on how to deal with disinformation, which the citizens' assembly takes up and works on in its meetings. In the second phase, online participants provide feedback on the ideas developed by the mini-public. This feedback in turn serves as a source of information for the citizens' assembly to formulate concrete recommendations. In the final phase, the three most important recommendations for action can be voted on online.

Federal government wants to utilise project results

Finally, in September 2024, the citizens' assembly will hand over the citizens' report with policy recommendations to the Federal Ministry of the Interior and for Home Affairs (BMI) and the Bertelsmann Foundation. The citizens' report is also addressed to other ministries, parliamentary committees and politicians from the federal and state governments. The BMI uses the policy recommendations contained in the report to develop its strategy for dealing with disinformation, among other things.

Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser: "Targeted misinformation distorts and poisons the political debate. Our measures against disinformation are therefore measures to protect our democracy. It is important to me that the 'Forum against Fakes - Together for a Strong Democracy' project invites citizens to a nationwide debate on how disinformation can be dealt with and what expectations and recommendations they have of politics. We will use the recommendations, among other things, to develop a new strategy for the federal government to deal with disinformation."

"Participation is worthwhile"

Project manager Dominik Hierlemann from the Bertelsmann Foundation explains the purpose of the participation process: "When politicians develop new strategies for social challenges, we believe it is important to involve citizens. We need broad public participation on important political and social issues. That's why we initiated this project.

Participation processes in which as many people as possible can take part - with concrete ideas and proposals. Where do citizens see the greatest challenge? What is most important to them? Which proposals are most popular? Participation is worthwhile because we learn something new as people, because we engage with others, because we find out more about a topic. We all too often forget this aspect of democracy. In our case, participation is particularly worthwhile because there is great political interest in the results of this forum."

Read more: Forum against Fakes