False claims about election fraud, often promoted by leading far-right politicians, are starting to pick up pace ahead of Germany’s nationwide election in September, according to data from Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms provided to POLITICO.
Far-right voters, including some from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, are the main promoters of such misinformation.
Russian-based media groups like RT also have fostered a favorable image of the far-right party, particularly among voters in Eastern Germany, based on analysis from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that tracks online extremism across the European Union and United States.
The analysts found that election fraud narratives had spiked on both mainstream social media platforms and fringe networks during the Saxony Anhalt state election on June 6. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party won that vote — the last before the country’s federal election later this year — and pushed the AfD into second place in a state that had been seen as a stronghold for the far-right party.
“The far-right is trying to undermine trust in the elections,” said Julia Smirnova, one of the researchers who conducted the review of social media activity around the Saxony Anhalt election. “Russian state media has given more positive coverage to the AfD and given more space to their politicians than for other political parties.”
The analysts looked at social media activity in the run-up and aftermath of the Eastern German election, as well as tracked political discussions within encrypted Telegram channels and fringe video platforms like Bitchute. While the majority of the election fraud discussions did not break out from online far-right audiences, the research found that social media posts related to such misinformation were readily accessible across mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter. No evidence of voting irregularities has been found in Saxony Anhalt.
SACHSEN-ANHALT REGIONAL ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit Poll of Polls.
In one, an anonymous Twitter user posted an image of an alleged local voting precinct and said he was an election worker who planned to spoil AfD ballots to reduce the political group’s ability to win the election.
Yet the photo was of a U.S. polling station. That didn’t stop a prominent AfD politician from using it for a Twitter post that has been shared almost 400 times and has yet to be taken down. In total, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that the hashtag wahlfälschung, or election fraud, was used almost 5,000 times on Twitter within 24 hours of the June 6 election.
Twitter declined to comment on the research, but said that its election integrity policies applied worldwide. Facebook said it was working with independent fact-checkers and had introduced greater transparency on which political groups bought political ads on its platform.
“We are also coordinating closely with the German authorities on the upcoming elections to be able to react quickly if problematic issues arise, ” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
Similar efforts to undermine people’s trust in elections were widespread during the recent U.S. presidential election. Both candidates and social media users spread fake reports that ballots had been illegally spoiled and that people had vote illegally, often via postal voting.
Several high-profile German far-right influencers, often using encrypted channels on Telegram, the fringe social network, with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of followers, have hyped up that concern. They have warned local voters that examples of supposed voter fraud in the U.S. may also take place in Germany, according to the analysts’ review of social media activity. One of these far-right supporters published lengthy claims of election fraud about the Saxony Anhalt election to his large Telegram followers, who subsequently shared those findings on both mainstream and fringe social networks with little, if any, pushback from the companies.
Analysts are concerned that such tactics may be repeated in the September election in Germany where the largest social media platforms are only now starting to roll out efforts to stop politically-motivated misinformation from garnering a large online audience. In the U.S., the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google clamped down hard on election-related misinformation, including demoting or even banning social media users who spread falsehoods around voting.
“Outside the English-speaking world, we see enforcement gaps from the platforms and extensive election-related misinformation starting to spread in the German-speaking content,” said Chloe Colliver, head of digital policy and strategy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “My biggest concern isn’t that policies won’t be in place for the German elections, but that those policies won’t be comprehensively enforced.”
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