ActiveFence works to identify false narratives being spread online that challenge election integrity and social cohesion around the world. In the first of our Election Reviews, available for download below, we assess the false narratives that spread across German social media during Germany’s 2021 federal elections.
It is a defining feature of democratic societies that on an agreed day, a nation’s citizens will gather to elect and invest in their leaders with authority and power. This act, which unites a country, relies on a social solidarity stronger than political disagreements. All must believe that the elections were fair and accept the results.
ActiveFence’s team works in countries across the globe, to safeguard platforms, and the societies who rely on them, from false or misleading narratives. From our global vantage, we have seen a spillover of conspiracy theories that were popularized during the previous two US elections, steadily eroding social trust in democracy worldwide. Across North America, South America, and Europe stories about a conspiracy of the global elite who fix election results through mail-in ballots, and exploit the pandemic to consolidate neo-liberal power, have gained currency. These stories are not easy to disprove, and once established, they become the prism through which many view and interact with reality. The social cost is severe. If left unchecked the damage from such harmful narratives could be irreparable—countries like the UK and US are still fractured from their seismic 2016 votes (on Brexit and the election of President Trump).
The German 2021 Elections
As the largest economy in the European Union, Germany wields considerable power beyond its borders, and its leaders steer the union’s political and economic integration. As such when German voters go to the polls their decisions have repercussions across the other twenty-six EU countries. This election took on greater significance as Chancellor Angela Merkel, who governed Germany for sixteen years, announced that she would not contest the 2021 election. With no incumbent, the field was thrown open for the other parties to nominate serious contenders for the chancellorship.
The following insights are taken from ActiveFence’s ongoing global reporting, which we provide to our partners during election campaigns.
In the final six weeks of the election, ActiveFence observed an almost 200% increase in novel misleading trends and narratives in the German ecosystem. The harmful narratives that arose during the German election, were born from the anti-establishment narratives of the German far-right and their online supporters. These sought to corrupt the relationship between citizens and the political establishment, citizens and journalists, and perhaps most dangerously between citizens and election officials. The trends identified in our report will seem familiar to all those who followed the US election of 2020, but with local idiosyncrasies in each case.
Here we compare three narrative crossovers promoted between the ‘anti-establishment’ challengers from the right in both countries: President Trump’s “America First” supporters, and those of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland’s “Germany. But Normal” campaign. In both countries the narratives that spread online erode political social solidarity, undermine trust in the media, and threaten the electoral process.
An Unfair Political System
A vital feature of a healthy democratic society is the belief that the political system is fair, representative, and responsive. The narratives shared in both elections challenge this, working to convince that the political system and its media enablers, was captured by the elite establishment.
- Both the supporters of former President Trump and the AfD (who were the third largest party after the 2017 elections) explained failures to fulfill all of their campaign promises by blaming a broken, corrupt system defined by political obstructionism.
- An investigation into AfD campaign donations was reframed as proof that the legal and political institutions were intrinsically corrupt. This mirrored US-based claims that investigations into the financial and political conduct of members of the Trump administration were also symptoms of a corrupt politics captured by elite interests.
In the lead-up to both elections, a narrative arose, which used many reframed events to allege that the ‘political establishment’ was working to repress the representatives of the ordinary citizens, and by extension the public themselves. Media organizations who refuted these allegations were also labelled as biased.
Stolen Votes – A Corrupted Democracy
Another narrative shared between the two political ecosystems was that the elections were fraudulent. This is especially dangerous as for elections to work, trust in their fairness is essential.
- In April 2020 President Trump claimed that, “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters, They’re fraudulent in many cases”. This narrative gained significant traction, and led to the Stop The Steal campaign claiming that the US 2020 elections were fraudulent. This actually mirrored the 2017 AfD-inspired narratives that alleged that the mail-in ballots were used to secure elections for the leading CDU party – led by Chancellor Merkel.
- In a boomerang action, the election fraud narratives returned in 2021 to Germany with the AfD suing to overturn the results of the Baden-Würtemberg state elections in May 2021, after alleging that the vote was rigged. This suit was based on a last-minute jump in the voter turnout, assumed to be the mail-in votes, which ended up being for the CDU. These claims followed into the federal elections, and AfD supporters were marshalled to become election observers to witness the expected fraud in anticipation of future legal challenges, such as those witnessed in the US.
National ecosystems are not silos. Trends which begin in one geography, are translated across borders and languages, and affect users in other territories. ActiveFence’s coverage is not limited by language or geography. We activate local language and intelligence experts wherever a risk arises to provide intelligence insights before risks metastasize. The report, available for download below, is a detailed example of the ongoing work our experts produce to safeguard our partners and their users at sensitive points in the calendar.