An alliance of mostly anonymous online trolls and extremist agitators meddled in Germany’s election, but researchers said Russians mostly weren’t to blame.
Instead, they said, right-wing groups in the United States were behind materials popping up on YouTube, messaging board sites like 4chan and reddit and texting service Gab.ai.
The evidence came less than a week before Sunday’s vote that handed German Chancellor Angela Merkel a fourth term.
“So far we have not been able to track down any specific Russian activity,” said Simon Hegelich,” a professor of political science data at the Technical University of Munich who has advised the German government about the threat of hacking and false information.
Hegelich said proving connections among sympathizers is difficult and may never be conclusive.
But an analysis of 300 million tweets over the past six months by Hegelich and researchers at the Technical University of Munich shows Germany is a hotspot for posts that use the hashtag “#AltRight.”
“A lot of the stuff we are seeing in Germany can be linked to, or is at least inspired by, the ‘alt-right’ movement in the U.S.,” Hegelich said, referring to a loosely defined group whose far-right ideology includes racism and white nationalism.
Many denigrate both leading candidates — Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union party, and her chief rival, Martin Schulz of the left-of-center Social Democratic Party — with the hashtags #Merkel and #Schulz.
And many of those posts originate in the U.S., adding to the impression that right-wing social media users in both countries may be trying to sway German public opinion. It’s possible that some of this alt-right messaging coming out of the U.S. may be connected to Russian interference; that, too, is difficult to determine, Hegelich said.
(In the final hours before the election, after this story first published, researchers at the Digital Research Forensic Lab, part of the Atlantic Council think tank, said they had uncovered automated social media accounts linked to Russia. These accounts amplified right-wing messages in favor of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which won enough votes Sunday to enter Germany’s national parliament for the first time.)
“There will never be an election again in which trolling, hacking and extreme far-right politics do not play a role,” Andrew Auernheimer, a hacker and blogger for the U.S. neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website wrote after Donald Trump’s election victory last year.
The Daily Stormer has been available intermittently since August after major technology firms including Google forced the site offline for comments about the death of Heather Heyer by an alt-right protester in Charlottesville, Va. Nevertheless, the website continues to publish commentaries about the German election.
“There is essentially no chance that the AfD can win this election,” Adrian Sol wrote Sunday on the site, referring to Germany’s anti-immigration and anti-European Union party.
“However, if they can keep putting pressure on the establishment and change the narrative, (there) may be hope yet that Germany can some day be saved.”
A report published Wednesday by Hope Not Hate, a British anti-racism watchdog, concluded that the alt-right movement has “breathed life and youth back into formerly declining and dormant parts of the European extreme right.”
The report, based on an undercover investigation of far-right figureheads, found that extremist individuals, organizations, websites and forums on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly engaging with each another and “weaponizing” the Internet.
Sandro Gaycken, the founder and director of the Berlin-based Digital Society Institute, said right-wing voices tried to infiltrate conversations about the German election on Facebook and other social media platforms.
One example: Gaycken said for the past two months, new and existing Facebook users in Germany who searched for political discussion groups were automatically given recommendations that prioritized right-wing parties such as AfD.
“It’s really strange because Facebook says this should be impossible because you are only supposed to get recommendations based on your own ‘friends,’ ‘groups’ and ‘likes.’ But everyone in Germany is getting these right-wing party recommendations,” he said. “Even left-wing journalists.”
Facebook said in a statement it was aware of the issue reported in Germany and that it was related to its “Groups Discover” feature. Facebook has now temporarily turned off the category “news and politics” in the “Discover” tab while it investigates the matter.
Facebook said it was also examining the accounts of apparently non-existent users who purchased Facebook ads during the U.S. election. These accounts were subsequently linked to the pro-Kremlin troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. Facebook said that it has not yet uncovered similar ad purchases related to the German vote.
“We haven’t seen any trace of the Russians, just right-wingers,” Gaycken added.
Merkel’s party won win 33% of the vote, well ahead of Schulz’s SPD on 2.05%. AfD came in third, with 12.6%. Merkel could forge ahead with plans to pursue closer political and economic union with EU members, a policy as deeply unpopular with AfD’s supporters as her decision to open Germany’s borders to 1 million refugees since 2015.
Germany’s vulnerability to political hackers, Internet trolls and bots linked to Russia is hard to gauge. Plus, there may not be much point doing so, according to Mark Galeotti, who runs the Center for European Security, a research institute in Prague.
“There is no ‘pro-Putin’ candidate,” he said.
“Any interference would be unlikely to have any substantive impact on the election result and only harden Germany’s position against Moscow.”
Merkel has sought to blunt potential Russian interference through aggressive public information campaigns, by establishing additional cybersecurity agencies and strategies and by ushering in the Network Enforcement Act, a law that comes this October will fine social media companies up to $57 million if they do not remove hate speech, defamation and incitements to violence within 24 hours.
German political parties also pledged not to use social bots in the election campaign, and independent media monitoring organizations such as Correctiv, which debunk false information and call out disinformation, have been established recently.
The government has insisted the software used to tabulate votes — paper ballots are hand-counted and then passed to regional authorities — is secure despite a study published Sept. 7 by the Chaos Computer Club, a German technology watchdog, showing the system’s encryption method was outdated and vulnerable to manipulation.
But what may seem like a lack of interest from Moscow may be a sign of success.
“I think there is more Russian activity than meets the eye,” said Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based political affairs expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a public policy think tank whose Alliance for Securing Democracy unit built an online tool that tracks Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts. Its “Hamilton 68” dashboard analyzes about 600 Twitter accounts directly controlled by Russia, by users who promote Russian themes, and by users and topics Russia seeks to discredit or attack.
“In the past we have seen a very systematic and skilled outreach program into Germany’s Russian-speaking population. This was first tested in state elections in Berlin last September. In those areas where there are very high numbers of Russian speakers living in Berlin, the AfD’s vote share was up to 35%,” Forbrig said.
He said these campaigns involved circulating posters and leaflets with messages that were inimical to the German government’s position on Russian sanctions or NATO.
Forbrig said there could be forms of Russian support for the AfD not yet recognized.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy has concluded that Russia has meddled in the affairs of at least 27 European and North American countries since 2004 with interference that ranges from cyberattacks to disinformation campaigns.
In 2015, a Russian-intelligence-linked hacking group called Fancy Bear stole data from German parliamentarians, including Merkel. This data has yet to be released to the public. Fancy Bear is the same group thought to be behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee in the run up to the U.S. election. Moscow repeatedly has dismissed allegations it intervenes in elections as anti-Russian propaganda.
Still, Forbrig added the German election may be less susceptible to outside influence for three reasons: Voters watched alleged Russian meddling take place in the U.S. and French elections, which has led to high levels of awareness; Germany’s multi-party electoral system makes it more difficult to predict how messages and information targeted at one group might impact others; and Germany’s media is, Forbrig said, generally more “balanced and calm” and lacks “shrill voices” compared to its counterparts elsewhere. Further, its media is still viewed as a trusted source of information — not always the case in President Trump’s Washington.
“If the Russians have any juicy information obtained on Merkel or anyone else they probably would have dumped it by now,” said Melissa Hooper, an expert on legal and civil society issues related to former Soviet Union countries.
Hooper has followed Russia’s attempts to use Kremlin-backed NGOs, think tanks and public policy foundations to influence the outcome of the German election. Additionally, she is trying to determine if there is any crossover between what these institutions are saying about the German election and messaging coming from right-wing groups.
“On a lot of issues you see similarities, and they are what you would expect: the functioning of the EU; democracy and whether it’s serving everyone or really the provenance of elites; it’s about NATO and issues of migration,” she said.
Hooper added: “I have not seen any gotcha moment yet.”