Just a few days away from the German federal election, a widely held opinion is that Germany has been spared from interference by Moscow. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the main advocate of the current EU sanctions on Russia, is widely expected to remain in power come September 25th. Moreover, hypothetically compromising documents that were lifted from the German Parliament in a 2015 Russian cyberattack have not yet been published. On the surface, the situation could not be more different from that of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, which saw active Russian meddling, including the devastating leak of a trove of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.
But, behind the scenes, Russia is remarkably active. Since July, the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), housed by the German Marshall Fund in D.C., has been monitoring the activity of Kremlin-affiliated actors on Twitter in the U.S. via its Hamilton 68 dashboard. Last week, ASD launched Artikel 38, a similar tool that monitors the activity of Kremlin-affiliated Twitter accounts in Germany.
The researchers at ASD trawled through the 16,000 followers of Sputnik’s German arm and used three metrics – influence, exposure, and “in-groupness” – to narrow the initial list down to 600 accounts that consistently echo Moscow’s political line. The dashboard now automatically monitors these accounts in real time and distills their content into a readily analyzable format.
Looking into the data harvested by Artikel 38 over the last week, it has become clear that Russia is not only active in the German information sphere, but also that it is using the same tactics during the German elections as it did in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. In both countries, and especially in Germany, Moscow carefully avoids the limelight. Its Twitter network rarely produces the content it promotes. Rather, it amplifies domestic sources that align with its perspective. In the U.S., Fox News and Breitbart feature prominently in the top domains promoted by the Kremlin. In Germany, these are mostly made up of fringe blogs with more or less conspiratorial worldviews.
When it comes to themes, there are three types of content amplified by the network: the first is xenophobic, such as anti-immigrant and anti-Islam; the second is anti-establishment, such as anti-Merkel and targeting of mainstream parties and the media; and the third is pro-Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s right-wing populist party that exploits the fears and resentments stirred by the refugee crisis. Taken together, these topics represent the greatest societal divides within the German democratic system.
Out of 58 distinct URLs tweeted by the Kremlin-affiliated Twitter network between the 13th and 19th of September, 23, or 40 percent, of them linked to stories that were either clearly anti-immigrant or anti-Islam or both. Of these 23 stories, 14 portrayed immigrants as criminals. These stories include a mix of actual and exaggerated or outright fabricated news, such as immigrants mugging pedestrians, incidents of immigrant violence in German schools, or the supposedly exploding number of crime and rape caused by refugees. For instance, the story behind several of the top-tweeted URLs, including one mainstream outlet and several fringe blogs, was that a 16 year old girl had been raped by two Afghan men near the city of Munich.
In addition to stirring fear of immigrants in general, the network also specifically targets Islam. Articles retweeted by the network consistently refer to Islam as “aggressive, divisive, and expansionist” or invoke a Geburtendschihad, or the fear of a demographic “Islamization” of Germany. For two consecutive days, the network retweeted an Austrian story that ran the headline, “More Muslims than Catholics”.
Harsh criticism of “the establishment” is another dominant theme on the dashboard. Stories about Merkel herself are front and center, with 11 URLs – including one that directed users to a YouTube song – focused on Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis. These posts strongly criticized, insulted, or even criminalized the chancellor, claiming that by admitting large numbers of refugees, Merkel had violated the rule of law, committed treason, and was allowing the steady “Islamization“ of the country. For three consecutive days, one of the most-tweeted links led to a blog post on why “Merkel belongs behind bars.”
Altogether, eight anti-establishment stories re-tweeted by the network attacked the German mainstream media. They accused it of censoring reports critical of Merkel and her refugee policy. Articles shared by the network claim that the mainstream press does not address the costs of integrating refugees, and that it manipulates public opinion or simply desists from reporting crimes, or even terrorist attacks, committed by refugees. According to one story, the above-mentioned rape of a 16 year old girl had to be unveiled by social media because mainstream outlets kept silent – an untrue assertion.
The network acts as a sounding board for the concerns of right-wing populists. But it does not only feed sentiments that AfD may exploit; it also openly promotes the party itself: over the period analyzed, #afd has consistently been the most tweeted hashtag. Moreover, about a fourth of the most tweeted URLs refer to content that is pro-AfD. There are two types of stories: those that advertise AfD by creating an image of strength, for instance by reporting a “sensational finish” in which the AfD would overtake the Social Democrats on Sunday, and those that provide a platform to AfD voters to explain their choice. The second type of story portrays the party as the victim of a witch-hunt by a scared establishment. It purports to “expose” how mainstream parties, individual politicians, schools, and the media all seek to downplay and destroy AfD.
In sum, the Russian network promotes the following picture: in Germany, a complicit press obfuscates a treasonous female leader’s attempts to replace her people by barbaric immigrants. This is exactly the white supremacist message that the Kremlin pushes in the United States. The terminology sometimes differs. For instance, the mainstream media is derogatorily referred to as “Nanny-Medien,” “nanny-press” that hovers above the German public and shields it from the truth, by the German far-right. It is similarly berated as “Lügenpresse,” literally the “lies’ press,” by the American alt-right. Likewise, the Nazi concept of “Umvolkung,” a “demographic inversion” that would have ethnic Germans forget about their culture and origins, is now known as “the Great Replacement” in the U.S.
Other times, terminology is exactly the same: calls for Merkel’s imprisonment are a dead ringer for the “lock her up” chants that accompanied Trump’s campaign rallies. This is no coincidence. Moscow is promoting the same divisive rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic. By revealing the threads that make up the fabric of Russian disinformation, there is an opportunity for us to unravel the Kremlin’s efforts and come together in defense of democracy.