Analyzing amplification networks on the German political extremes
Ahead of Germany’s elections on September 24, parties at both ends of the political spectrum are struggling to have an impact. Their low position in the polls appears to be matched by low engagement with their main outlets on Twitter — except for one far-right feed which is not even attached to a functioning news outlet.
This feed has German roots, but posts in English and is heavily amplified by an international network of Twitter accounts that include far-right and pro-Kremlin users, including a number of probable bots. The feed thus serves as a bridge between far-right users in Germany and abroad.
Parties and Polls
A month out from the elections, opinion polls predict a sweeping victory by the incumbent Christian-Democrat “Union” of the CDU (nationwide) and CSU (in Bavaria) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
July and August polls consistently put the CDU/CSU at around 38 percent, with a lead of approximately 15 points over the Social-Democrat SPD. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), far-left Die Linke and liberal FDP remain neck and neck on 9–10 percent, with the Greens further behind on 7 percent.
Looking to the extremes
One of @DFRLab’s goals, in Germany as elsewhere, is to analyze the reach and influence of groups from the political extremes. Given the accessibility of its data, Twitter remains the most effective platform on which to do so, although Twitter’s role in Germany is significantly smaller than that of Facebook.
To assess the reach of the parties at the opposite ends of the German political spectrum, we conducted a machine scan of all tweets mentioning the nationwide Twitter feeds of the AfD, @AfD_Bund (with 68,200 followers) and @Die Linke (189,000 followers).
Despite having far fewer followers, @AfD_Bund generated significantly more traffic than @DieLinke. In the two weeks to August 22, @AfD_Bund was mentioned in over 41,000 tweets by a total of 9,373 users.
By contrast, @DieLinke, with more than twice as many followers, was mentioned just over 15,000 times by 5,276 users.
Two key features emerge from this initial scan.
First, the AfD’s amplifiers seem to be more dedicated. For example, the 50 most active accounts to mention @AfD_Bund posted 6,790 tweets in the two-week period. This was almost double the number of posts from the 50 most active accounts to mention @DieLinke (3,529 tweets). Overall, on average, each @AfD_Bund amplifier posted 4.4 mentions, compared with an average of 2.8 per user for @DieLinke.
This suggests a highly-active core of supporters driving the pro-AfD traffic.
Second, mentions of both sides appear to have been significantly boosted by automated “bot” or semi-automated “cyborg” accounts (a cyborg is an account which appears to post with robotic frequency, but with a high proportion of apparently authored tweets).
However, the accounts which mentioned @DieLinke most appeared to be posting spam tweets mentioning a wide range of political parties, while the amplifiers of @AfD_Bund were more focused.
For example, the account which mentioned @DieLinke most often was called @marcohoffmann67, which posted 658 mentions in two weeks. Despite having tweeted 22,000 times since February 2013, this account only has 44 followers. Its avatar and background are effectively anonymous — typical features of a bot.
Every single one of its tweets in the study period began with a string of official Twitter addresses, including @WhiteHouse and @HouseofCommons, and ended with a string of hashtags. Only a few words in the middle appear to have been authored:
However, the tweets included mentions of the CDU and Greens as well as Die Linke, and numerous German media outlets, marking it as a spam poster rather than a single-party activist.
Similarly, the second most active mentioner of @DieLinke was called @DJJEM, which named it 199 times in the two weeks. Its tweets focused on anti-establishment messaging, and tagged a range of different accounts, including the CDU, SPD, and Greens.
By contrast, the most active mentioners of @AfD_Bund were much more focused. Thus, @Nanniag (which mentioned @AfD_Bund 225 times in two weeks) is a vocal AfD supporter, advertising the party’s manifesto as its pinned tweet, and routinely amplifying far-right posts. As of August 22, over 90 percent of its most recent tweets were retweets, marking it as a likely cyborg account.
Similarly, @MBremerDE — which was created on August 2 and had, by August 22, posted 4,132 tweets, at an average rate of over 200 per day — predominantly amplified far-right voices and posts, and most of its posts were retweets. Again, given the rate of tweeting, some degree of automation appears probable.
Thus, @AfD_Bund appears to have both a more dedicated following, and more apparently automated accounts amplifying it (by the nature of bots, it is not possible to say who operates them). However, overall, neither the AfD nor Die Linke can be portrayed as a major player on Twitter.
Fringe news accounts
To cross-check this assessment of the German far left and far right as fringe players on Twitter, @DFRLab conducted a further machine scan of news accounts frequently shared by the AfD and Die Linke amplifiers identified in the first scan.
As with the parties themselves, three of the four accounts saw relatively little traffic on Twitter. Over a two-week period, Neues Deutschland performed best, mentioned 7,600 times. Junge Welt was mentioned 2,700 times, and Compact Magazin was mentioned just 1,800 times. Almost half of those mentions came from a single account, @ambassador2099, which repeatedly tweeted news and comments to a handful of primarily far-right accounts:
Overall, the amplifiers of these three news sources were predominantly German and predominantly politically engaged; other than @ambassador2099, they did not appear to have a major automated component.
A magazine without a magazine
The exception was @OnlineMagazin, which DFRLab identified as a key driver of the hashtag #MerkelLeaks in an earlier study. Over the same two-week period, this account was mentioned 76,266 times — an order of magnitude more than Neues Deutschland, and almost twice as often as the AfD main account.
This is remarkable in itself; it is even more so when the account is examined. It claims to be tied to internet magazine artikelmagazin.de, but the website has not posted since April 2015 (archive here).
However, its early tweets did amplify the magazine’s output, and were far more aimed at general readers, such as this food feature on pangasius fish from 2013:
The @OnlineMagazin Twitter account, in other words, no longer has an online magazine behind it.
The website was in German; the @OnlineMagazin posts are primarily in English, although the language is non-idiomatic:
The linguistic traits appear to be German in origin, with “amok driver” being a direct translation of the German “Amokfahrer”, and “after Italian media” being a mistranslation of “nach italienischen Medien”; “nach” usually means “after” but is also regularly used in the sense of “according to”.
Some of its amplifiers appear to be primarily German-focused. For example, the account @UweWolff966 mentioned it 284 times in the two weeks to August 22; every single mention was a retweet.
This account posts largely on German themes, at a very high rate; between July 23 and August 22, it posted 6,353 tweets, at an average of over 200 per day. The great majority of its posts are retweets, often of the same account multiple times in successsion:
The likelihood is that this is a semi-automated account, created to amplify far-right messages in and about Germany.
Another amplifier, @artepmobil, appears similarly German, and even more automated. It was created in July 2014; by August 22, 2017, it had posted 289,000 tweets, at an average of over 260 per day. Over 90 percent of its most recent tweets on that date were retweets, almost all in German. This appears to be a German far-right bot.
However, far more than any of the other accounts in this study, the @OnlineMagazin account is also amplified by non-German voices, including high-volume accounts from the international far right, amplifiers of Russian state propaganda outlets, and probable bots and cyborgs.
Thus, the most active amplifier of @OnlineMagazin in the two-week period (348 posts, all of them retweets) was an account called @languillem. In April, @DFRLab reported on this account as the most active amplifier of the French editions of Kremlin outlets RT and Sputnik; in May, it played a role in amplifying the hashtag #MacronLeaks, attacking then-French presidential candidate (now President) Emmanuel Macron.
This account is almost certainly a bot. As we wrote in April, “@Languillem is hyperactive. In a scan conducted in the week of March 30 to April 5, it posted 3,808 tweets, at an average of 544 per day. Of those, 88 per cent were retweets; 16 per cent were retweets of @RTenfrancais and @Sputnik_fr. The account is anonymous, with a username, screen name and avatar image (a koala) which reveals nothing about the user, or users, behind the account. @Languillem has all the appearance of a largely automated account set up to amplify others, including the Kremlin’s.”
Its activity now appears to have spread to amplifying English-language far-right messaging from Germany.
The same can be said of the account @nous_francais, which was created in February, and has posted 25,800 tweets since (an average of 137 per day). The account’s screen name is “Fred #FDS” (the hashtag standing for “français de souche”, French by origin); judging by its appearance and bio, including the phrases “faisceau de combat” and “toujours aigle jamais vassal”, it seems likely to be the new incarnation of an account called @encore_fred, now suspended, which had the same wording.
It also amplifies Sputnik French and RT Deutsch. Again, therefore, it is both a multilingual Kremlin amplifier, and a multilingual far-right amplifier.
Other highly-active amplifiers have other backgrounds. One called @Aethonaia (125 mentions of @OnlineMagazin in two weeks, of which 124 were retweets) posts in Dutch and English, as well as retweeting Onlinemagazin in both German and English.
The great majority of its posts are retweets of anti-Islam, anti-migrant, anti-liberal and anti-left voices from the U.S., UK and Europe; it earlier amplified attacks on Merkel and traffic alleging NATO military support to Syrian rebels. This is a far-right account, but appears to be Dutch in origin.
Yet another key amplifier was @genesisalfa1212 (245 mentions of OnlineMagazin in two weeks, all of them retweets). This poses as an American account; it even has the screen name “America”.
Since its creation in February 2017, it has posted 61,700 tweets, at an average rate of 330 per day; over 90 percent of its most recent posts as of August 22 were retweets, many hostile to Islam or to former U.S. President Barack Obama.
It appears to be a bot, but a largely America-focused bot with no apparent interest in Germany other than as a source of far-right content.
The parties of the far right and far left in Germany are thus, in general, minor players on Twitter. Their footprint is small, their user bases tend to be limited and they show little ability to generate large Twitter movements.
This is broadly consistent with the level of support they receive in the polls.
The exception is @OnlineMagazin. This is a distinctly unusual account, even in the context of the German political fringes.
It generates far more traffic than other popular outlets in Germany’s far-right and far-left communities, even though the publication it claims to represent has been inactive for over two years. It was mentioned almost twice as often as the AfD main feed, and by more than twice as many accounts (over 25,000).
Its support base is far more international, boosted by hyperactive (and possibly automated) users on the German, French, Dutch and American far right, as well as probable bots which significantly amplify Kremlin propaganda. Some of these appear to have a German focus, but for many, Germany appears to be of only secondary interest.
At the same time, the account does have clear German origins, as its early tweets of the magazine’ recipes show.
It thus appears to be a relative rarity: an initially German account which has attracted a following among the international far right. It is regularly retweeted by far-right accounts in a number of other countries, including the U.S.; it sometimes retweets far-right accounts from those countries.
Far more than other accounts on the fringes of German politics, it is therefore a bridge between fringe Twitter users in Germany, and those in other countries.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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