Fakes and propaganda – How populists and extremists used digital media in Germany

Keynote for #praguemediapoint “Media in the Post-TruthWorls”, New York University Prague, 3rd November 2017

What will happen if a growing number of citizens in a society is saying “rapefugee” – a combination of rape and refugee – meaning the refugee. If a growing number is labeling deputies of the Green Party as child abusing or „gay greens“, other traditional parties as “parties of the system“ and blaming both for selling out your national culture and identity? If an increasing number of people is summoning the growing threat of civil war in your country, declaring that your nation is in an estate of emergency and insecurity?

There are no exact numbers on how many people in Germany are using these discriminating and degrading words – but what is clear and measurable is that this language of defamation is used more often than years ago and that there is a notable and growing number of internet platforms and rightist Facebook Groups around the AfD distributing them. The AfD (alternative for Germany) is a sort of virtual engine for the digital marketing of these ideas.

Following the summon of this growing number of the self-declared “alternative media ” in my country, Germany is a country on the brink, only one step beside an economic collapse and an escalating civil war.

For one and a half years I researched what the stories of this counter-echo-chambers look like, who cooperates with him in these bubbles and which digital strategies have been developed.


There are a few results of my research I’ld like to share with you:

First: the range of non-democratic actors is diverse – they built up a very efficient virtual network – including AfD and Pegida groups, including extreme rightist and conspiratorial platforms, including pure fake news platforms or antimuslim campaign media — and also Russia Today. All these actors form a pragmatic alliance and network, they share content in order to multiply the outreach of their non-democratic messages.

And despite their differences they have messages in common and they share a comparable language!

The attack on democracy starts with an attack on language. If we do not longer have the same words and language to describe reality we would lose the ability to negotiate. But it is this negotiation and narrowing of different positions what makes democracy possible. Democracy means: to find compromises.

And it is exactly the intention and main goal of populists and extremists to poison, erode and to impede this political and social dialogue.

There is second goal of their digital political communication: to disseminate and strengthen emotions: disillusion, fear, anger, hate.

The political success of the populists rely on emotions — the creation of an atmosphere of protest —it is in the interest of their political success to distribute emotional stories.

If we know these two goals, it seems logical that fake is a constituent element of the populist political communication.

In my input today I clearly understand FAKE as disinformation: intentionally produced, wrong and misleading information which is distributed to manipulate and influence people ideologically, politically or/and to harm others.

The media in the new-right echochamber do not have the purpose to inform. It has the purpose to create emotions. And fake is ideal to create emotions and to attain a certain outreach. Fake is far more often shared on social media than facts! It is sensational, taboo-breaking, provocative, and that means: snackable, shareable.

For populists – declaring themselves as „voices of the people“ — social media is a sort of natural environment. The unlimited peer-to-peer communication is an appropriate and efficient distribution tool – a sort of “technical engine” for spreading non-democratic, populist ideas.


AfD started on social media

Just to put the facts on the table: There was and there still is no other party in Germany which has a comparable outreach and activity on social media than the AfD. The party used social media before it even started as an official party. They launched a Twitter account on 14 September 2012 – which was five months ahead of the official start. Shortly before the Election Day 24th of September, the party binds approximately 400,000 people through their different Social media activities. Just to compare that with Christian Democrats and social democrats the number of fans for them was around 170,000 fans.

There are different reasons why the outreach was so high: First of all an intensive networking and exchange of digital content – between extremist right identitarian blogs and YouTube channels and media which are directed or clearly connected to the AfD and more fluid conspiratorial platforms. The existence of a lot of AfD-activists, who understand that the Web is opening up a space for campaigning, which the traditional media was not offering to the AfD, was a main factor to achieve this outreach. Following the examples of alt-right chat rooms in the USA, similar closed chat rooms emerged in Germany during the last two months before the election. And they efficiently launched different Twitter campaigns leading to trending hashtags like „not my chancellor“, „Merkel must leave“ and „vote for AfD“ (#nicht meine Kanzlerin, #Merkel muss weg, #AfD waehlen).

It is an observation proved by a number of network-analysis that the AfD was a main actor and driver to establish Echo chambers of nationalism, hatred and disinformation on the web. Closed AfD Facebook groups were a sort of incubator for launching key narratives supporting the idea of an exclusive German society including pure Bio-Germans; meaning German-speaking, German-native, German-rooted by family history. This is not the society Germany looks like today!

The AfD succeeded in setting the agenda during the election campaign. Starting in the web, their slogans and buzzwords have been picked up by classical media, political talk shows, politically controversies during the campaign. They succeeded in placing the migrants’ issue as the one and only election issue. Concerning Germany – we have to admit their agenda-setting has been much more successful than of any other of the established parties.

The achievements of these digital media strategies are measurable. One out of three tweets about the parliamentary election in the weeks before September 24th referred to the AfD. This means: one third of twitter traffic was connected to a party mobilizing at that point 10-12% of voters! – in comparison tweets referring to the Christian-Democrats were around 18%, for the social democrats around 9 %!

And you can see the practical consequence of this agenda-setting in the Bundestag, the German parliament now: 12,6 Percent of Germans voted for the AfD – a populist protest party including a wide range from frustrated low-income people to conservative middle class eurosceptics, to extreme-right nationalists and racists. Among the current AfD voters you find one million former conservative CDU/CSU voters, half a million former social democratic voters and 1,2 million people who did not vote during the last elections. This broad political mobilization is for me not explainable without taking into account the digital campaign of the AfD, who was the only party with an efficient digital media strategy.


Populist narratives always deliver an interpretation and evaluation of reality

There is a set of narratives the populists are using – they are adapted to current occasions or events. It was very interesting for me that we could prove on data-basis how persistent these narratives have been. And that they were intensively shared in the weeks before the election. I cooperated with a network analyst and political scientist Josef Holnburger who worked on this data. On this occasion I will sum up the research results – The key narratives of the populists are:

  1. All the others – from the lying press to the traditional parties – are part of a corrupt elite, they are enemies of the normal people.
  1. Islam is not a religion! It has nothing in common with European culture and identity. It is an ideology of violence. As a consequence, all Muslims are ready to commit violent attacks or rapes.
  1. We, the normal people are only “second class” in Germany, Marginalized by a policy which is protecting the rights of the elites and protecting even the rights of migrants more than ours – to the detriment of normal citizens.
  1. The state is at stake (Staatsversagen), it is failing, not longer guaranteeing the security of citizens and protecting their rights.
  1. There is a lack of security in my country: women couldn’t cross the street without being violated by immigrants
  1. There is a risk that our identity and culture get lost because of the growing number of immigrants. Perhaps there is even a political plan behind it – our mainstream politicians are inviting Muslim migrants to our country in the aim to replace Germans by Muslim population.
  1. As a consequence, we should revise and adjust our understanding and memory of our national history. There is no longer the need to feel ourselves guilty, and to confess so often our historical responsibility for the nazi-era and the holocaust. We are another generation and it is necessary to finish the unilateral memorial cult making us responsible for a very short time of German history!

What is clear: these narratives are all emotional, evaluating and interpreting reality, they are delivering frames — which define h o w we perceive reality or news. And these very different frames separate and polarize our society.

Populists and extremists need to create stories of the utmost urgency to legitimize their mission. Their stories should activate and agitate people. This is the reason why the story of a white Genozide or a civil war is so often used. The aim of their communication is to get people engaged (not informed) – to make them part of their political battle, or as the AfD called it : the uprising of the German people. to achieve this, they distribute appeals and apocalyptic (fake)news.

You are no longer safe in this country! We are crushed down by a wave of criminal asylum seekers, who replace the original Germans! The state and its institutions are corrupt, selfish and in the hands of an Elite, ignoring the needs of the normal people! The press and the media is part of the elite’s power play, do not trust the lying press!


Active involvement is part of the populists’ communication 

Their stories create emotions and space for active involvement.

What you feel is real! – this is what the stories of the populists stand for. And fake stories: Angela Merkel is a granddaughter of Hitler, social democrat Schulz will create “concentration camps for dissident citizens” – is evoking immediately those emotions.

Let me put in a very simple formula: populists and extremists need stories with clear heroes, winners and losers. All their stories follow this storyboard and character bible: they report on heroes – dissidents and resistant (wutbuerger) citizens – who already engage in the pegida-movement or the AfD – and on victims: normal people like you and me. They tell about perpetrators – the corrupt elite, mainstream media, violent foreigners – and victims : normal people like you and me. They tell the story that a revolution and wave of resistance is needed to destroy an unjust political system where citizen rights are not protected. they tell the story that our democratic institutions are not representing the people‘s will, that our judges are not neutral etc.

Approximately 60 percent of AFD voters admit in opinion polls that they voted for the AfD because of frustration and disillusion. They do not feel themselves heard, recognized – and represented. These are the feelings – beside anger or fury – the AfD distributed, strengthened and provoked systematically by their narratives and stories intensively distributed in a digital media strategy.

After 1 1/2 years of research in the echo chambers of the rightist populists I must say that I felt the influence of these narratives on me. The stories in my Research-Newsfeed were filtering and influencing how I perceived reality, political communication and news. My world was shrinking in a certain way. The misanthropic basic attitude of these stories made me cautious and more mistrustful. I felt myself more quickly unsecured. For many of AfD voters these narratives and these fake stories have been more convincing than reality. One very simple reason for that: there are no debates in the rightist echochambers – they agree, like, share and tweet the same opinion. And when so many people think or feel like me – could that be wrong?

All European countries are confronted with a similar digital structural change of the sphere of public information and political opinion building. There is a growing support for autocratic, racist nationalist ideas – and a growing doubt on democratic institutions and procedures. It is an attack on our humanitarian value system and our liberal understanding of diversity in our societies. And there is no doubt that the propaganda of those narratives on the web is playing an immense role in distributing and expanding populist positions. One could say: Germany is only at the starting point of this development. Yes, that is right! Only one out of five tweets on twitter referring to the election during the election campaign was a wrong, a fake information. In the US campaign it was every second tweet!

2017 was the year, where the rightist populists placed themselves with comfort – politically and in the public perception: 11 Million French voters vote for the extreme right Marine Le Pen. Which means, that the Front National has four times more seats in the National Assembly than before. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands won 13% of voters and leads now the second strong party in parliament. And the AfD is —after the SPD — the biggest oppositional party in the German Bundestag with more than 90 deputies.

The rightist digital political communication is not a virtual method alone. It implies an impact on “Realpolitik” in our country. At has an erosive effect on our political and social discourses, and a disruptive effect on the way we form our opinion. Following the election coverage of the traditional media on one hand and on the other hand following my far-right research newsfeed I am sure: we should not continue to just notice that. We should no longer only react but act. Looking at this trend it is high time to train us in a more sovereign and competent handling of the populist’s communication scheme consisting mainly of too simple stories, on disinformation, on provocation and breaking taboos. This is a challenge for political and media communication and to all the actors in this sectors and in civil society.

The attack on democracy and values starts with the attack on language – the creation of slogans, the creation of simple narratives. The populists are enlarging what we are allowed to say – when Björn Höcke, labels the holocaust monument in Berlin a “monument of shame”, when AfD-Facebook group members attribute violence and sexual abuse to all Muslim men, marking and defamating Islam as an “ideology of violence” and denying it as a religion. When the populists say “people” they refer to a racist concept of cultural origins, excluding migrants and sometimes also the children of the children of former migrants!

All this is fundamental and means: to abandon human rights. To amend our constitution. To create a two-classes society of pure Germans and others, who shouldn’t be able to get the same support and social welfare. It is an exclusive intolerant model of society , separating and polarizing us. In this sense, the presence of populists and their political communication is a challenge for all democratic actors, be it politicians, be it journalists, teachers, active citizens. It is necessary to consciously reshape our functions and responsibilities, in the aim to establish a digital civil society.


What is the right reaction?

It makes no sense to react with aggression! We should not use the same provocative misleading language or follow the slogans and words of the populists. On the other hand it will not work to simply try to avoid what is thought or discussed at the basis of these populist and protest movement – and shared and multiplied in the web. Democracy will not fail because of controversies, disputes and conflicts of opinions. Democracy will fail when there is a lack of controversies. When the ones in power try to avoid a direct confrontation, try to avoid provocative issues or burning social questions – while the other comment and discuss that aggressively in the web. We have to put the hard and difficult questions on the table – be it in parliament, in Talkshows or on local political level.


Working on media literacy is key

There are indicators that legal means to oblige the online companies to reduce and liquidate fake and hate posts are inefficient. Fake is simply to massive. Much more efficient will it be to work and engage in strengthening digital media literacy. My institution – Deutsche Welle Academy – worked since a few years ago intensively on Media Information literacy, we support citizens in 50 countries to critically and attentively use and participate in digital media. To raise resilience in areas of conflict and post conflict and in areas of massive disinformation. There are good reasons to do so! Nevertheless in Germany this issue is a very neglected and underestimated one and we – like other western democracies – must invest a lot more in view of the quantity of disinformation which will not diminish but grow further in the future. The more people know how to critically use information and how to differentiate fake and truth – the less successful the simple stories of the populists will find their audience.

Civil society should digitalize. What do I mean by saying that? I think it is a risk for democratic actors to act and activate in an analogue environment – while non-democratic actors dominate the virtual “social” environment, what social media are for many. I am convinced that we need better digital strategies to get people engaged for civil society purposes and civic participation. The web clearly offers new opportunities for that! Shaping this digital civil society and understanding the role of media and journalists as a key promoter could create new chances for a broader inclusive participation of people in decision making. This is the big asset I see in the deep structural change of public information sphere.

There is the need of raising good stories and good fact based stories for democracy. We should have our own good story! I’d like to ask you: when did you read recently a convincing story why Europe is worthy and offering new perspectives to build up businesses, connect people? I read a lot about Macrons Europe-speech, about the dissents between Berlin and Paris on several complex questions, or the Czech elections. But where is our own inspiring and attracting narrative on Europe as a territory of opportunities, a borderless entity including different cultures and languages, a diverse society, sharing similar, perhaps the same values?


What does that mean for journalistic work?

I fear that what I will say now is neither a surprise nor really new – it is a very pure, quality and fact driven idea how journalists should deal with this challenge. The professional aim should be: Do not abandon the basic standards due to the high speed of the web but try to use and benefit from the sharing-economy and distribution of the web to produce digital content which is competitive. Having said that it is clear, that we must kill our darlings of editorial comfort to invest our shrinking resources to relevant digital products.

If we want to regain credibility, if we want to be the media for all, if we understand ourselves as being the institution to put the questions of the people on the table – than we have to adjust our work, invest more in research on the ground, enhance diversity of perspectives and interlocuteurs, be more courageous and fearless in questioning statements and political decisions. And we have to know what is discussed in the populist digital information rooms – if we do not know that – the starting point of our work is uncomplete and unilateral!

The easiest way to say that is: I’d like journalists to report on what is really happening instead of reporting what is said by officials. I don’t need any more me- too-products and official buzz, and honestly I do not want that someone far away from my situation of life is explaining me how I should perceive and interprete politics. This is also a clear effect of the digital news spread, which means in priority to exchange and share information not to distribute it unilaterally.

Journalists have to know what the fears and concerns of “normal” citizens are – they must understand what is discussed in the echo chambers of the populists. It makes all the more sense to take the fears and concerns of those people serious and to manage their legitimate requests. Which is very often not the case among journalists sitting in the capital. And very often lacking a distance to policy circles and deciders. People want journalists to report more about what happens really than to report what is said and declared!


Digital journalism stands in a hard competition – and there are very traditional essentials to be respected:

  • We have to make a difference in quality!
  • To be near to an event
  • To research not to report and echo
  • To factcheck accurately[1]
  • To give the context and the background

– this is part of our profession you may say! Yes, that it is right. But in the election campaign in Germany it has been obvious that media did not do that!

Don’t follow the agenda of the populists but have your own!

Don-t discuss misleading and provocative words of the populists – as journalists and politics did in the German election campaign by using the words “Obergrenze” (Limiting the number of refugees) or “kultureller Ausverkauf” (selling out of culture).

Get people involved – if media is not finding a way to better integrate audiences and social groups it will limit itself to products-out-of-a-distance which will no longer be competitive.

If we don’t deliver digital quality products we will lose the competition with the massive disinformation – and this is a serious risk for our democracies.

Part of our society does not feel themselves represented – neither by classical parties or the government, neither by media. And this impression is not so wrong in many perspectives: just one example – research showed clearly that German media covered the refugees migrating to Germany out of the “yes we can” – perspective of chancellor Merkel. And you find many examples for avoiding harmful issues, not reporting about AfD and its social background. Journalists are too often turning away from the fears and concerns of many voters, who support populist ideas.

We should not accept and observe passively that key issues of the future of our society are high-jacked by non-democratic actors on the web – like identity, like tolerance, like diversity. It is not a side aspect and a pure viral phenomenon,  it has quite practical and erosive effects on political opinion building and democracy.

It will be the web where it will be discussed and perhaps decided how we want to live together as a society and what our values are – and it is very important that all stakeholders of civil society develop ideas how we want to shape this digital information sphere and develop digital participation.

How could we build up more direct citizen interaction channels with politics, local government? How could we better connect digitally the different actors of our civil societies, building up a democratic network in the web? How about enhancing the access to information via the web by governmental institutions? In all these regards Germany is a few steps behind and must accelerate, perhaps encouraged by the digital forerunner Estonia, where people have the right to access the web by law.

It is high time to reshape and rethink the role models in our society; the profound change by digitalization of our information sphere opens up so many opportunities! We should ask ourselves how a digital civil society will look like in order to inclusively engage different social groups, to create and cultivate spaces of controversies – and what our role is in there!

Read more on that issue in my next book “Fake statt Fakt – wie Populisten, Bots und Trolle die Demokratie angreifen”, will be published in may 2018 at dtv editors house




[1] Some examples exist already and I refer only to a few: The first draft coalition implies 40 media and web businesses to fact-check and verify information and fake news. also in Germany many new initiative started during the last two years as the Faktenfinder of the Tagesschau , corrective, Mimikama – just to name a few of these German-speaking projects. Not all of them a pure journalistic initiatives apart is seven society and non-governmental Organisation. Some are crowd-fund-financed.