available languages: english June 26, 2017

 

Executive Summary

    • The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and the Pirate Party were more active than other parties with the leading Twitter hashtag, #LtwNRW. A few of the most active accounts fit the criteria for being automated (social bots). Some of the most active accounts have been previously identified as part of an existing AfD support network, while the Pirate Party seems to also have been supported by one such account.
    • When sharing content by media, parties preferred media that are close to their ideology. Overall, the media shared during the run-up to and after the elections centred on mainstream outlets and political content, with only a few instances of alternative media.
    • The AfD cast serious doubts on the integrity of the elections (using the hashtag #Wahlbetrug, or election fraud) and felt vindicated when recounts in a few districts resulted in an increase of the AfD’s votes by 0.3% of overall votes. In response, the AfD requested that international election observers monitor the federal elections in September.
    • The CDU in NRW, which won the elections, showed little activity compared to non-mainstream parties on Twitter.

 

Introduction

Social media has become a part of the public and semi-public arena of German democracy. The allegations of Russian interference in the US elections and the hacking of e-mails of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign as well as those of the German parliament have raised concerns about the role social media may play in Germany’s federal elections on 27 September 2017.

In early May, Germany’s federal cyber agency urged political parties to improve their security and, as early as last November, Angela Merkel warned Germans that fake news and social bots could attempt to influence the elections. Since then, the German government has ramped up efforts to counter hate speech and disinformation campaigns by proposing severe penalties for companies that fail to remove hate speech and fake news; in January, the German Bundestag’s Committee on Education, Research, and Technology also held a session with experts to discuss the potential impact of social bots on public policy and the upcoming elections.

Last year, all of the major political parties pledged not to use social bots, but in February journalists at the Frankfurter Allgemeine discovered a large network of pro-AfD bots on Facebook. And in March, researchers analyzed Twitter data related to the German elections and found that 12.8% of the content that was shared was of an “untrustworthy provenance.”

DRI will monitor the use of social media in the campaign for the 24 September federal parliament. To test our methodology we took a brief look at the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) on 14 May to see how the run-up to the polls unfolded on social media. Our analysis is based on 72,072 tweets from 17,897 unique accounts using the #LtwNRW hashtag between 29 April and 21 May 2017, and the accounts of major political parties in NRW that entered the state parliament.

Key Findings

#LtwNRW: Who was tweeting the most?

Supporters of the AfD and Pirate Party dominated the chatter around the #LtwNRW hashtag, with the top 30 or so tweeters identified as supporters from one or the other party. Many of the accounts in our analysis, such as @mundaufmachen, @PinocchioPresse, @2017_AfDwaehlen, and @balleryna, have been previously identified as part of an AfD support network, whereas other accounts are official and include @AlternativeNRW and @AfD_Bund. Other official accounts that actively used the hashtag include the Pirate Party’s @PiratenNRW and Monika Pieper (@monipiratin), a parliamentarian in NRW.

Among the top tweeters of the hashtag, there are several accounts that have tweeting patterns that suggest they are bots. For example, over a period of nine days, one account, @artepmobil, averaged 550 tweets per day. Another account, @mrstone0856, has already tweeted 38,000 times since January 2017, when the account was first created. Over an eleven day period recently, @mrstone0856 tweeted an average of 454 times per day, a rate that makes the account likely to be a bot. (Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab classify accounts as “bot-like” if they tweet on average more than 72 times per day). Both @artepmobil and @mrstone0856 are seemingly used to amplify the AfD’s messaging.

 

Traditional media in Twitter

Overall, users shared a large percentage of traditional and regional media sources alongside the #LtwNRW hashtag. We identified 541 links to external content, coming from 188 unique domains (we curated our domain list by including only domains that occurred at least more than 3 times). Although we have not included an in-depth analysis of the ratio of traditional media to “alternative media” or disinformation, we did identify links to questionable content, such as an anti-Islam blog. Still, traditional media and political content topped the list of shared links.

A familiar narrative emerged when we took a closer look at the Twitter timelines of some AfD supporters. For example, the account @artepmobil has a penchant for the right-leaning press and alternative news sites, and often tweeted articles about refugees. Around 13% of the 804 news links shared by @artepmobil between 10-21 May were related to migrants and refugees, with headlines such as, “The Truth about Foreigners and Immigrants: Shocking Facts,” and “New Wave of 4,400 African Migrants Hits Italy in Just Two Days.”

Political parties and fragmented media

The heat map below shows that the media sources shared by political parties in NRW rarely intersect. The main parties share links to stories from Die Welt and WDR the most, whereas the AfD’s account, @AlternativeNRW, is often alone in the type of media it shares most, such as right-leaning sites like Junge Freiheit and Tichys EinBlick or right-wing, anti-Islam blogs like Philosopphia Perennis. The darker the colour in the heat map, the more the party shares that specific media source.

Media shared by the parties in NRW

mediasharedltwnrwparties

Questioning electoral integrity

Leading up to the NRW election, supporters of the AfD used social media to cast doubts on the electoral process, alleging a serious risk of electoral fraud. This was often couched in calls for AfD supporters to volunteer as election observers for the party, which is permitted by the electoral law. Calls were often alarmist, however, and the AfD had asked for the deployment of observers as early as August 2016 for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the polls in other state elections.

Typical tweets about election observers (#Wahlbeobachter) warned against electoral fraud (#Wahlbetrug):
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After the elections, the NRW electoral administration did uncover some irregularities. In 50 of 15,000 districts results for the AfD were wrongly counted and, after being corrected, the party’s vote results increased by 0,3% – too little, however, to affect the attribution of seats in parliament.

Between 13 – 19 May there were 1,579 tweets about #Wahlbetrug. One key influencer that used this hashtag included Kolja Bonke, a prominent, right-leaning author whose account was recently suspended and who shared a story about the AfD missing 37 second votes in one precinct. After the elections, many AfD supporters used the story shared by Kolja Bonke to justify their allegations of fraud. Although it is true that the AfD did have the most lost votes compared to other political parties, the increase in their votes after corrections were not significant enough to have any impact on the composition of the parliament. Nevertheless, by 25 June, the story about the 37 missing votes had been shared to 1,796,671 people in social media, mainly through official AfD accounts, such as former party leader Frauke Petry’s Facebook page, the AfD magazine’s Facebook page, and the AfD Saarland Facebook page. As a result of the irregularities in the elections, the AfD demanded that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observe the federal elections in September.

Retweet Network of #Wahlbetrug
Below we include a force-directed network that shows the main accounts based on the number of retweets. The nodes are coloured by group and connections between nodes are based on retweets. The main influencers using #Wahlbetrug are those nodes found in red.

fraudnetwork

Conclusion

Social media platforms like Twitter have become a haven for non-mainstream parties to bypass traditional media and reach global and domestic audiences directly. The use of bots and curated social media accounts allows these parties to amplify their messages and create the perception of widespread support. There are no gatekeepers in social media and blogs and alternatives news sites are shared like traditional media as credible sources of information.

During the NRW elections, the social media presence of non-mainstream parties far outpaced that of traditional parties, although similar levels of support did not translate at the polls. With the federal elections approaching, events such as crime, terrorism, or campaign leaks could play a role in the electoral campaign, and how and who drives these narratives in social media will be important to understand how the democratic process is influenced.