Nice on stage, ugly online: How hate speech and fake news undercut Germany’s election campaign


Germany’s mainstream political parties and their candidates led a remarkably civilized campaign in the digital age, avoiding U.S.-style political polarization. Even so, hate speech and disinformation on social media played a role in diverting public attention away from policy issues to personal attacks in an election that should been about shaping a path for Germany’s future.

Election advertisements in Germany

It’s not as if nobody tried to borrow from Donald Trump’s “stolen election” playbook in Germany. In the weeks before the September 26 poll, dubious claims sprung up on social media, questioning the security of mail-in voting and raising suspicions over other types of election fraud. Members and followers of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) were identified as the sources of these baseless allegations. But outside of their bubble of supporters, the conspiracy theories fell flat. The AfD won 10.3% of votes, coming in fifth and underperforming its 2017 result by more than two percentage points.

In an age of online hysterics, Germany’s election overall was fought and won in the political center. On stage in three televised debates, the candidates of the three leading parties, the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Greens, attacked each other without insulting or delegitimizing their opponents. Not every claim passed fact-checking tests, but none of the campaigns were fueled by blatant lies. The parties also mostly steered away from using divisive issues such as migration policy for scoring political points.

Yet this does not mean that Germans were immune to the distorting effects that misinformation on social media or on messenger apps such as Telegram are having on democratic processes around the world. Even though extreme positions did not prevail in this election, they enjoyed an outsized visibility on social media, sowing distrust and potentially contributing to an indecisive outcome, which will most likely result in a three-party coalition government. The originators of hate speech and fake news may not have won, but the large swings in the polls since this spring suggest that large amounts of negative information about the candidates added to many voters’ indecision at a time when Germany needed to chart a new path forward after the 16 year-long Merkel era.

Right-wing AfD reigned supreme on Facebook

According to data by The Markup’s Citizen Browser project, there were more Facebook pages associated with the AfD than any other party, and according to a social media dashboard prepared by Der Tagesspiegel, posts by the party’s top candidate Alice Weidel were shared almost 590,000 times, a number by multitudes higher than that of any other candidate. This is a parallel to the United States, where right-wing commentators dominate Facebook and other social media channels. The numbers were not the same across platforms though. In Germany, progressive Green candidate Annalena Baerbock raked in the most Likes and Shares on Twitter.

It’s safe to assume that the AfD’s deep online engagement with its supporters, who have been shown to consult fewer news sources than the average citizen, views less content outside its own filter bubble – but that content from that bubble has the potential to get out and sow distrust in democratic processes and institutions among more moderate voters. As in the United States, these campaigns had more than a little help from outside actors. Research by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy has shown that articles by the German-language version of Russia’s state-backed news outlet RT containing disinformation or negative bias about candidates, outperformed established media outlets on social media, and were eagerly shared by anti-government and anti-vaccine groups on messenger apps.

This negative social media undercurrent was harmful in an election that could have been about shaping a path forward at a critical time for Germany’s economic and social future and its role in the EU and on issues of global security. Most Germans are aware that their country is at risk to fall behind in global comparisons on issues – ranging from technological innovation to social inclusion and meeting its climate goals. But after 16 years of an incremental approach to politics under Angela Merkel’s center-right government, trusting someone new with running the show can be a scary proposition. An overdue national debate about these issues was drowned out by petty debates over faults in Annalena Baerbock’s resume to gaffes of the CDU’s candidate Armin Laschet.

Among all candidates, Laschet was the most popular target for defamatory Twitter hashtags. He was criticized and ridiculed for joking with his advisers during a visit to the German regions hit by the flooding catastrophe in the summer, among other incidents. According to a report by Hate Aid, a German group that offers advice to people affected by digital violence, Laschet was the leading target of hate speech on the platform, followed by the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz and by Annalena Baerbock.

Baerbock faced Russian influencing and gender-specific hate

But Baerbock faced more troublesome challenges. As a progressive politician, she was at the center of attacks from the far right. As the co-chair of a party that is critical of the Russian government, she was in the focus of Russian-led influencing campaigns as the RT posts mentioned above. As a woman, she was confronted with misogynist attacks and sexualized disinformation. She is not alone with this: 64% of the female members of the Bundestag, the German parliament, have experienced gender-specific hate messages online, according to a survey by Der Spiegel.

As democracies struggle with these issues, the contours of policies to address them are taking shape – in the EU’s draft Digital Services Act and elsewhere. There is a need for clear definitions and sanctions for content that violates basic rights; for enforcing platform accountability and transparency about algorithms that promote and recommend content; for stricter regulations for sponsored content and political advertising and a ban of microtargeting; and for supporting quality journalism and public media; as well as data access and oversight by regulators, researchers and civil society.

Beyond these guardrails, society-at-large also has a role to play. Democratic societies that value free speech have to endure a certain amount of dissonance, which can get ugly. Citizens in democratic societies have a responsibility to stay informed and vet sources, and education systems have to prioritize teaching media literacy. Politicians have a responsibility to engage the public on their policy agenda rather than ducking away and hoping that the next ugly Twitter campaign might spare them and hit their opponent.