How international far-right activists built an online foothold in Germany
A network of far-right, often English-speaking activists has established a foothold in the German online space via Reddit, using it to push messages which support the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.
While its following is small, the network represents a possible insertion point for fake news and disinformation into the German public discourse just months before the country’s election, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy on immigration and refugees is one of the most sensitive topics.
The subreddit in question is called /r/die_alternative. According to its own welcome section, which is in German, it is “the unofficial AfD subreddit…for AfD supporters. We are not politically correct.”
Its rules, also in German, ban racism, anti-Semitism, Nazi symbols, spam and trolling, and state that “this sub is ONLY for Frauke supporters”— a reference to former AfD leader Frauke Petry (rule 11).
Rules 6 and 7 state that English and German links should be headlined in the respective languages, while Rule 9 states that new “centipedes” must assimilate. The rules insist, “We are not connected to the AfD campaign!”
As of June 8, the subreddit’s most recent content was almost exclusively German-language. The main themes were posts on AfD policies, politics, and reports on migrant crimes.
One of its two “sticky” posts, which remain at the top of the timeline when new posts are made, advertised the AfD’s election manifesto. The other, however, showed a meme of three ‘Pepe the Frog’ characters carrying a German banner and WWII memorabilia, pursued by German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, under the headline, “Praise be to Kek.”
Both Pepe and the term Kek are totems of the US-based ‘alt-right’ movement, which is characterized by fiercely anti-Islam, anti-migrant sentiment. The use of the term “centipede” to denote a Reddit user, as mentioned in rule 9, is also characteristic of the US alt-right. (“Centipede” is not a German word; the translation is ‘Hundertfüßer’.)
The pinned post featuring this image provided, as context, a link to an English-language Reuters article reporting von der Leyen’s call for the Germany army to rename barracks named after WWII German officers.
The uses of Pepe, Kek, “centipedes,” and an English-language report are striking, especially given that von der Leyen’s comments had been widely reported by German media (such as Tagesschau and the DPA wire, which was picked up by Spiegel, FAZ and die Zeit). Together, these markers indicate that the subreddit is not purely a German domestic effort; rather, it belongs to a broader, international movement inspired by the US alt-right.
International far-right origins
This international affiliation becomes clearer when the subreddit’s origins are taken into account. According to its welcome notice, “We moved here from /r/the_frauke.”
The @DFRLab has already reported on /r/the_frauke, named after former AfD leader Frauke Petry, as an insertion point for a fake article targeting Merkel. That investigation showed that /r/the_frauke was one of a community of subreddits dedicated to anti-establishment, anti-liberal, and nationalist politicians and movements, apparently modeled on the notorious alt-right subreddit, /r/the_donald, which supports US President Donald Trump. Many of these subreddits had moderators in common.
Of the /r/the_frauke subreddit’s six moderators at that time, two had German names, two were flagged as Australian and one as American.
Thus, from its inception, /r/the_frauke seems to have drawn inspiration and support from the English-language far right, albeit with German input. Its goal seems to have been to recreate in Germany the impact of /r/the_donald in the US; and in the case reported by the DFRLab, it served as an insertion point for disinformation into the German-language environment.
An Alternative to Frauke
However, Petry stepped down as the AfD leader, amidst internal feuds in April. The reaction on /r/the_frauke was to shut the subreddit down and move to /r/die_alternative. The move was announced on /r/the_donald in unmistakably alt-right terms:
Like Pepe and Kek, the term “uncuck” is diagnostic of the alt-right movement, “cuck” being a term of abuse; the phrase “make Germany great” echoes Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” However, the use of the phrase “according to” suggests that the user is a native German speaker; one way of translating the phrase into German would be “nach,” which can also mean “named after.” It appears likely that the user conceived the sentence in German and then translated it.
MEGA_2017 is a primarily English-language user (although some comments have been posted in German), and largely comments on alt-right, English-language subreddits. It uses an image of Pepe alongside its screen name:
As of June 7, thirty-one of its most recent posts and comments had been made to /r/the_donald; five had been made to /r/die_alternative.
This user moderates two other subreddits, /r/mega_2017 and /r/AngelaForPrison. The latter is clearly modeled on US alt-right subreddit /r/HillaryForPrison, while the term MEGA_2017, short for ‘Make Europe Great Again,’ is modeled on Trump’s motto; neither subreddit has seen significant activity; posts on both are in English only.
MEGA_2017 seems likely to be German in origin, but its inspiration is from the US alt-right and, in particular, its activity on Reddit.
Two other moderators of /r/die_alternative also belong firmly in the alt-right sphere. The user called powerstroke_3000 appears to only post in English, and is focused on US alt-right discussions, with all its most recent comments posted to /r/the_donald.
One comment was especially revealing. Posted in English to /r/the_donald, it asked users for help to upvote an AfD politician’s speech on YouTube: “Please spare a few seconds for Germany.”
While some moderators of /r/die_alternative work primarily in English, others post mainly in German. Both KannDirEgalSein and Alternativer have German names, mainly post to /r/die_alternative, and post long comments in German, focusing on German politics and AfD characters.
However, both these users also post in English. Alternativer even explained the move from /r/the_frauke to /r/die_alternative in English.
Overall, the pattern of activity shown by the moderation team suggests that it includes both English-speaking and German users, but that it draws inspiration and support from the US-based alt-right.
The same pattern emerges from an analysis of the users who post comments to /r/die_alternative. The user Alternativer is, by far, the most active, submitting 40 of the subreddit’s 50 most recent posts as of June 8.
Other recent posts came from MEGA_2017, and six users who are not moderators of this channel: Erika_BS, Gabout, SimpleSimonCoveney, Jamhgrdrt, droitex, and FikiFik. Together, these users represent a cross-section of far-right, anti-migrant, and white supremacist sentiment from across Europe.
Erika_BS primarily posts political content in German, but also posts negative stories about migrants in English. “She” regularly posts to a number of subreddits, including /r/die_alternative and /r/the_europe, but also /r/POLITIC, which largely contains right-wing and US-centric content, /r/Germany, which contains a wide range of content about Germany (not necessarily political) in English, and /r/edefreiheit, which largely contains German-language, anti-migrant, and anti-Islam posts.
One of the moderators of /r/edefreiheit is a user called exit_EU. This user also moderates /r/the_europe and /r/MEGA2017. It shares the latter role with MEGA_2017, indicating the close-knit nature of this community.
SimpleSimonCoveney also shares anti-migrant material. Named after an Irish politician, it mainly posts in English and repeatedly posts the same material to multiple subreddits, including openly racist ones such as /r/WhiteEurope (motto: “Whites should have a homeland free from ‘multiculturalism’ or forced integration”) and /r/farright (“A safe space for race realists”).
Jamhgrdrt, droitex, and FikiFik follow a similar pattern, cross-posting primarily English-language content to the subreddits mentioned above, and others including /r/multiculturalcancer (“A place for European nations to stay up to date on their government’s betrayal of the local citizenry and the invasion force they are using to create a passive, globalist, labour pool for their international masters”) and /r/IslamUnveiled (“Islam is a violent and oppressive ideology which is a threat to the civilised world. It is incompatible with democracy and western values”).
FikiFik does also post content in German; as of June 8, neither Jamhgrdrt nor droitex had posted in German, though they had sometimes posted about Germany.
As with the moderators, therefore, the users of /r/die_alternative include both apparently German users focused on the AfD and apparently non-German users, who regularly post to a network of alt-right, far-right, and white supremacist subreddits. While German-language posts outnumber English-language ones on /r/die_alternative, they almost all come from a single user, Alternativer.
The /r/die_alternative subreddit represents a bridge between the English-language far right, including the US alt-right, and similar users in Germany. While its outward appearance is German-focused, with a German name, German welcome section, and primarily German-language content, its user base and moderators are closely connected to international far-right movements.
Its following is not large; few posts have received more than a handful of votes. However, given the combination of German and English users, it represents a foothold in the German online space for the international far right. Moreover, it follows on from /r/the_frauke, which was used not just as a foothold, but an insertion point for at least one piece of fake news.
Given that Germany faces elections later this year, and that Chancellor Angela Merkel has already been targeted by the international far right for her stance on migration, /r/die_alternative appears to be one possible channel by which activists outside Germany could attempt to influence the democratic process in the country.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).