Far-right AfD is a social media superpower in Germany

Click, like, share: Social media has been at the heart of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) election campaign strategy since the party was founded in 2013.

In the run-up to the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, the news magazine Der Spiegel published extensive research on how the AfD populists dominate the election campaign on Facebook.

This year, just one month before the general election on September 26th, the AfD remains at 11% in opinion polls.

But on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube it dwarfs even bigger parties like the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This makes online campaigns more important than ever in the context of a pandemic. Why can’t the bigger parties catch up?

Measure the AfD’s digital success

DW analyzed the parties’ posts on social media from June 12 to August 15 and found that one of the AfD’s top candidates, Alice Weidel, was by far the most successful politician on the Internet.

Even if she has no hope of becoming the next German Chancellor, her videos have been viewed around 4.9 million times on the various platforms during this period. And the number of comments, likes and shares was higher than that of other politicians. Such engagement is considered hard currency in the world of social networks because it implies that users identify with the post so much that they want to spread it further.

While the AfD has only 32,000 members, the ruling CDU, with an average age of 59, still has almost 430,000, as does the top candidate of the Conservatives, Armin Laschet, who hopes to succeed Merkel as Chancellor.

However, it is performing poorly on social media. His message “Smart climate protection is a cross-sectional task” mobilized only a few users on social platforms and received no more than a few hundred likes, shares and (often unfavorable) comments on Twitter and Facebook.

Facebook: The AfD’s most important platform

In a DW interview, Marcus Schmidt, press spokesman for the AfD parliamentary group, admits: “Without Facebook, I don’t think the AfD would have been successful that quickly.”

The use of Facebook as a channel for its supporters enables the AfD to bypass established media and to spread its messages directly – many of which are openly racist, nationalist and factually wrong.

Each political party operates several pages in the social networks, including those of the federal party, the regional associations and the regional groups. Then there are the personal reports of individual politicians.

Facebook remains the AfD’s most important engagement platform. A total of 84% of Weidel’s user interactions in social media take place on this platform.

It seems to have paid off that the AfD’s social media team was supported directly by Facebook in their initial training, as an employee of the AfD parliamentary group confirmed in a DW interview.

Although the Greens and especially the market-friendly Free Democrats and their charismatic and media-savvy chairman Christian Lindner have stepped up their social media game, Weidel is still far ahead of their competitors in terms of overall shares and comments on all platforms. .

Arson Facebook messages

Successful posts by the AfD want to arouse emotions: They stir up fear of immigrants, crime and social decline and play with anger against Merkel and the country’s “elites”. Lively, provocative messages and emotional catchphrases are the key to the populists’ social media strategy.

Weidel, for example, was successful with the catchphrase “Banana Republic”. Regarding the handling of the recent dramatic flooding in Germany, she said: “The powerful are turning Germany into a banana republic in which the citizens cannot be warned and protected against disasters despite precise knowledge of the coming catastrophes.”

There have been several similar posts – and all of them went viral.

The snowball effect of planned provocations

According to Felix Kartte, senior advisor at Reset Tech, a nonprofit advocating social media regulation, how social media networks work ensures the party gets maximum attention.

Emotional, cheeky, radical and concise – such posts attract comments and are shared, which pays off with the algorithms, explains Kartte.

“Platforms offer a systemic advantage to more extreme comments because their algorithms and recommendation systems privilege this type of content because it is more engaging,” he says. This results in controversial views being over-represented on social media, and populist parties can use this to their advantage even when they have little voter support in elections.

An internal party strategy paper by the AfD for the 2017 federal election campaign explicitly urged members not to shy away from “carefully planned provocations” in order to make headlines and attract the voters’ attention.

Juan Carlos Medina Serrano, political scientist at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich who has been dealing with the AfD’s social media strategy for several years, says the party is adept at making polarizing content viral: aggressive content. Therefore it is less divisible. “

Shaped to go viral

Medina Serrano sees similarities with the successful use of social media by former US President Donald Trump – but also an important difference. While Trump’s presidential campaigns used a lot of paid advertising – in 2016, Trump’s team spent twice as much as Hillary Clinton’s – the AfD hardly used any paid advertising, he says. Instead, it relies on organic content.

First, the party establishes “a narrative of ‘we don’t get enough media time, so support us on social media instead’.” This narrative helps the party position itself as an outsider against the establishment and invites potential voters to come and receive their information directly from the party.

Second, followers are repeatedly encouraged to share the content in order to increase the party’s reach, explains Medina Serrano. Politicians and party officials encourage “constant engagement with their community” by constantly responding to comments.

Serrano also points out that the AfD could possibly have set up fake accounts again.

Before the 2019 EU parliamentary elections, fact checkers for the German public broadcaster ARD found several new Twitter accounts in which young women apparently alluded to each other and retweeted each other’s content. One example was the report by “Beate”, whose profile was taken from a Russian site with beauty tips. Your account managed to get 1,000 followers within a month – including various AfD MPs and other accounts of suspected women who tweeted a remarkable amount.

Medina Serrano admits that the use of such fake accounts is difficult to quantify or prove.

“Wild West” campaign

Social media companies have anti-hate speech rules for their platforms, which have been a problem for the AfD in the past.

Beatrix von Storch, a party leader, became one of the first to be affected by new social media hate speech laws in January 2018 when her accounts were suspended in response to a racist tweet.

But political election campaigns in Germany remain factually unregulated.

In the offline world, Germany has strict rules and restrictions for campaigning, such as limiting the time in which billboards can be hung or limiting time windows for campaign advertising on television – but no such restrictions have been introduced for online campaigns .

Social media campaigns are “basically the Wild West,” emphasizes Felix Kartte, “and that benefits the AfD”,

However, the AfD rejects calls for a voluntary commitment by all parties to a fair and transparent election campaign. In an interview with DW, the press spokesman for the AfD parliamentary group, Marcus Schmidt, describes such initiatives as a “show” to discredit his party.

In view of the growing importance of social media, a citizens’ alliance of trade unions and initiatives in Germany is calling for political parties to volunteer for fair and transparent election campaigns on the Internet. Paid political messages would have to be labeled. And hate comments on posts should be deleted by the parties themselves.

That’s why Reset Tech wants to set up clear rules for online campaigns. For Kartte, the disproportionate reach of the AfD through social media platforms poses a threat to democracy.

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