European Democracy: Angela Merkel Faces Far-Right And Pro-Russia Activists Allying To Spread German Election Propaganda

Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 22, 2017. Markel faces a German national election in September. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no friend of Vladimir Putin. In an infamous 2007 summit, Putin even allowed his dog into the meeting room—allegedly in a deliberate attempt to exploit Merkel’s deep-seated fear of the animal.

So it’s no surprise that pro-Kremlin propaganda outlets and activists are trying to disrupt the German election in September; so-called “fake news” is considered such a threat there that the government is cracking down on it in law. But what is surprising, according to an analysis by the Atlantic Council, are the alarming new alliances being formed to distribute propaganda to German internet users.   

The German government has warned about “bot” activity—fake accounts that exist to boost the reach of Kremlin propaganda. But when the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab studied the social media followings of “three German-language propaganda organs linked to the Kremlin ” (RT Germany, Sputnik Germany, and NewsFront Germany) they found something more.

“The analysis shows that the most active amplifiers of these outlets do, indeed, include apparent bots,” the lab’s researchers write, “but they are not the most important factor. The signals are significantly boosted by pro-Kremlin activists, far-right users, and anti-migrant users, who have been known to work together to harass critics.”

Alongside bot activity, the researchers detected highly committed genuine accounts from both Russia-supporting networks, and backers of German far-right parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which stuck with the networks over time, repeatedly sharing their content.

“This gives the impression of a long-standing amplification network dedicated, and perhaps created, to amplify Kremlin messaging,” the researchers wrote of the pro-Russian accounts.

And the two groups have joined together to harass critics in aggressive Twitter mobbings. The researchers point to a tweetstorm in May that targeted Julian Röpcke, a journalist for the Bild newspaper. While many of the participants were apolitical trolls from a rapacious German troll community appropriately named “filth twitter,” others joined in to boost the signal:

“The storm launched by the [filth Twitter] group was amplified by accounts whose primary purpose appears to be supporting pro-Kremlin or anti-migrant narratives,” the researchers write, “Whether coordinated or opportunistic, this reinforces the impression of a close ideological connection, at least, between Kremlin propaganda and the German far right.”

The Atlantic Council’s work emphasizes that the reach of Russian propaganda in Germany is currently limited. But the government should not be complacent, researchers say.

“The significance of this network is its potential influence, rather than its current impact,” the researchers write, “The connection between the two online communities represents one channel by which disinformation, or hacked documents, could be inserted into the German information space, and amplified by local actors, ahead of the elections.”