March of the Trolls Right-Wing Activists Take Aim at German Election
Ahead of Germany's general election, an international alliance of extremist online activists is busy inciting on the internet. They're spreading hate, fake news and Kremlin propaganda in an effort to help the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany. By Konstantin von Hammerstein, Roman Höfner and Marcel Rosenbach
Sarah Rambatz became a target early last week. In the internet, right-wing agitators declared open season on the young woman from Hamburg. "What do we do with brainwashed traitors?" asked a user on KrautChan, a web platform popular among right-wing online activists. "Simply getting rid of her isn't acceptable in a civilized society. Or is it?"
The national spokesperson for the youth organization of the Left Party was hoping to become a member of Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, but now her political career lies in ruins. She had asked on Facebook for "anti-German film recommendations." More specifically, she wrote: "Basically anything where Germans die." After the post went public, her campaign ended. She is no longer seeking a seat.
The screen shot of her tasteless Facebook post spread with lightning speed across social networks and a wave of hatred broke over the young woman, who was attacked with lines like: "This whore deserves to be screwed to death and dismembered." On Wednesday, Rambatz told the Hamburg's Morgenpost newspaper she was at wit's end. "For several days, I have been in close contact with the police and other government security officials," she told the paper. "My family and I are getting death threats."
But what may seem like a spontaneous wave of online outrage is actually being controlled by right-wing activists seeking to manipulate the German federal election. Rambatz's ill-advised post was just the moment they were waiting for. Since Tuesday of last week, it has been repeatedly posted in chatrooms belonging to the right-wing extremist activist group Reconquista Germanica, with notes like, "This photo should absolutely be spread further."
The group organizes itself along strict military lines and, in addition to its YouTube channel with 33,000 subscribers, it has recently found another home: the chat app Discord. In this command center for anonymous disinformation, the self-proclaimed "officers," "privates" and "recruits" get their "daily orders." In this way, they tried in this way to spread the hashtag #verraeterduell (traitor debate) on Twitter during the Sept. 3 televised debate between Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger Martin Schulz. Their own firepower, the members boast, is so powerful that they even managed to get a "patriotic video" to become one of the most-clicked videos on YouTube in Germany.
'Blitzkrieg Against the Old Parties!'
In the chatrooms of Reconquista Germanica, a "czar emperor" bloviates about "slaughtering" members of the Green Party and of storming DER SPIEGEL's editorial offices with a hundred men. Many people on the boards write that they have finally found a "forum for like-minded people" and that the "stasis of the patriotic movement" has been overcome. Now, they argue, they can go on the offensive: "Blitzkrieg against the old parties!"
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With less than two weeks before the election, the far right are mobilizing on the internet. Groups like Reconquista Germanica send out manipulated photos and collages in the hope that the memes go viral, and they excoriate Angela Merkel, the "old parties" (by which they mean Germany's traditional political parties), refugees and a media they abhor. The only group that isn't a target is the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, with its anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant positions.
"Today, we are opening the meme war against the half-breeds in parliament," reads a Sept. 1 statement from the group. The inspiration for these right-wing warriors comes from the election in the United States, where the "Great Meme War" that Trump supporters waged on the internet contributed to the New York real-estate tycoon's triumph.
Many experts have been taken by surprise that it is right-wing activists, of all people, who are now making the hardest push in the final days leading up to the German election. They had expected that the Russians would try to manipulate the election using hacked data to discredit candidates, as happened in the U.S. So far, though, Moscow has yet to make use of this instrument.
Disinformation and Hateful Memes
Instead, right-wing extremist online activists are trying to influence the vote. They are conducting a hybrid war, with disinformation, fake news, hateful memes and bots, automated accounts that spread their message across the internet. Their aim is clear: to "ensure the strongest possible showing for the AfD in the Bundestag," reads the declaration from Reconquista Germania which, on this point at least, is speaking for a number of right-wing groups.
They are connected through an informal network that also includes contacts abroad. They maintain ties with other European nationalists and leaders in America's extremist "alt-right" movement. Moscow influences may also be at play given that right-wing extremists' channels also disseminate unfiltered Russian state propaganda.
During the U.S. election, Russian channels maintained contact to the racists of the "alt-right." It appears that an international alliance of right-wing radicalism is at work, a global network of nationalists, racists, xenophobes and homophobes.
Simon Hegelich, an associate professor for political data science at the Bavarian School of Policy in Munich, is a specialist in disinformation and its dissemination. Last year, the researcher presented a study about social bots in Berlin. One notable listener was Chancellor Merkel, who has since adopted "bot" into her vocabulary and warns of the dangers posed by these automated accounts.
Hegelich has been observing for weeks how the German federal election has become a hot topic on online platforms like 4chan and reddit. The platforms played a significant role in the U.S. election, because they were used to spread targeted disinformation and hateful memes.
At 4chan, the publicly accessible subgroup "Kraut/pol" is being used to discuss how the elections could be influenced in the AfD's favor. The aim is to "infiltrate left-wing activists and demoralize them" as well as to prevent supporters of the major parties from voting for Merkel or Schulz, a message posted there states.
The far-right online activists have spent months building up image depositories that they can use to steer sentiment against Merkel, the "old parties" and, especially, refugees. They've created their own meme banks, complete with unflattering photos and photo montages of the chancellor. Another image archive specializes in fake election posters.
In a play on German Justice Minister Heiko Maas' Facebook law, which requires social media companies to remove hate speech within 24 hours of notification, a fake SPD poster can be downloaded there with the claim, "No internet for right-wing populists," as well as pornographic motifs that play off the pedophilia debate that haunted the Green Party a few years back. One can also find a fake Left Party sign reading, "We'd rather have döner kebabs than potatoes."
So far, the memes haven't been disseminated widely. But that's still no reason to give the all-clear yet. Hegelich believes that the images are only effective for very short periods. "Up to half of voters are still undecided," he says. "It's possible that efforts to disseminate them will first happen on a large scale shortly before the election."
The bots are also still hard at work. According to Hegeman's research, around 10 percent of all messages with the hashtag #Merkel are sent by automated social bots as they ceaselessly spread propaganda for the AfD on Twitter. What Hegelich's methods do not tell us, though, is whether the party itself is behind the bots, or whether they were created by supporters.
The organizers of these armies of right-wing trolls have become more and more professional, he observes, and they are starting to abandon the major U.S. platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The international far-right movement is increasingly migrating to the texting service Gab.ai and a rising number of Germans are active on the platform as are American hackers from the neo-Nazis scene.
One is Andrew Auernheimer. Under the moniker "Weev," the American has spent years spreading hateful messages on the web against blacks, Muslims, Jews and gays. "There will never be an election again in which trolling, hacking, and extreme far-right politics do not play a role," Auernheimer wrote after Trump's election, brimming with pride.
That also likely applies to national parliamentary elections in Germany. For months, Auernheimer's Daily Stormer website has been inciting against German refugee policies and against Angela Merkel, who it disparaged as a "communist whore." Last year, printers at several German universities suddenly went berserk, spitting out far-right fliers with the message "Europe, awake!" on them. Auernheimer was behind the action.
The self-avowed anti-Semite has a swastika tattooed to his chest and was sentenced to 41 months in prison in 2013 for hacking a server belonging to U.S. telecoms giant AT&T, but he was released after only 13 months. He now lives as a "political activist" in Ukraine.
When a neo-Nazi recently murdered a woman protesting against the "alt-right" in Charlottesville by plowing into her with his car, Auernheimer summoned his right-wing extremist friends to try to disrupt the funeral. Google and other companies took pains to ensure that the hate site disappeared from the publicly accessible internet.
During the U.S. election campaign, Auernheimer and his fellow campaigners flooded the social networks with pro-Trump and hate-filled, anti-Clinton messages. They also spread disinformation, like the fabricated story linking Hillary Clinton to a child-porn ring in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizzeria.
Setting Up Camp in France and Germany
A short time later, Auernheimer wrote: "Any native French speakers want to get involved in manipulating their elections like we successfully did in USA?" There is evidence that the American "alt-right" hacker scene and the Daily Stormer's server were involved when hacked emails from Emmanuel Macron's camp emerged shortly before the French presidential election.
"We've built a whole team in France. We're in the process of building one in Germany," Auernheimer threatened in March in an interview with Politico. Weev and his cronies have long had Germany in their sights. A year ago, he spread reports from Russian propaganda broadcaster RT about alleged AfD election successes and asked, "Are you sick of winning yet? I'm not."
Since at least the beginning of July, there have been messages in Daily Stormer forums encouraging German readers to become more active and to create their own content. It appears the racists want to build a team for the German election that will also remain active after the country goes to the polls on Sept. 24.
Deep within the racist website's forums, several users have been discussing a detailed action plan. One message reads that attempts should be made to see "if contacts can be established with the grassroots groups of Pegida, Indentitarians, AfD, etc." Pegida is a reference to Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, an Islamophobic, grassroots movement that has been holding protests in Dresden since 2014. But the message also warned that people should exercise caution, given the law against online hate crimes passed by German parliament in June. As a consequence, rather than using the German word for "Jew," the message suggested, the American pejorative "kike" should be used instead in order to avoid becoming potentially actionable under the law. The chat ended with an appeal: "Let's go, WHITE men!"
Ties with People Linked to Trump
Neo-Nazi Auernheimer even maintains relations with people close to the U.S. president -- such as Charles Chuck Johnson, one of the first "alt-right" trolls, who now runs his own fake news website. In earlier days, Johnson worked for the "alt-right" platform Breitbart, where Trump confidant Steve Bannon is back at the helm now that he is no longer at the White House.
Johnson spent election night at Trump's victory party in New York. He and Auernheimer have known and supported each other for years. Johnson even collected more than $150,000 on the crowdfunding portal WeSearch for the Daily Stormer's legal costs.
The "alt-right" movement also maintains contacts with pro-Russian networks. The American activists distributed information in the internet stating that Hillary Clinton had received support during the election campaign from the Ukrainian government, with money they alleged had been provided by the International Monetary Fund. The fake news is ascribed to the hacking group CyberBerkut, which is known to have attacked targets in Ukraine multiple times. Western intelligence services believe that the group has ties to the Kremlin.
It has long been known that Moscow attempts to influence political debates in Germany as well. At the respected London School of Economics, a working group that includes Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and journalist Anne Applebaum and Russian-born writer Peter Pomerantsev, has been analyzing these efforts. They have also looked into the conspicuous affinity Moscow seems to have for the AfD. Since the publication of his book "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia," Pomerantsev has been considered an expert on Russian info wars.
Russia and the AfD
The London team, which works closely with the think tank ISD, is using modern data analysis to research Russian- and German-language news outlets and respective activity on social media. Their findings are clear -- namely that the Russians are conducting propaganda for the right-wing populists. AfD is "presented in a positive light, while other German officials and institutions are shown negatively" in the German-language offerings of Russian media like Sputnik and RT Deutsch. The researchers found that the Russians and the AfD "mutually reinforce" each other, with the Kremlin and the far-right both propagating the same narrative.
One example is the false story that electoral fraud was conducted in the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia in May to the detriment of the AfD. A second incident involves a statement by the Swedish police chief that was inflated in a deliberately misleading way about no-go areas in his country where officials had allegedly lost control. In both instances, pro-Russian bots in Germany disseminated the reports from Russia's state-run international media, showing "a pattern of disinformation collaboration."
The AfD is the only major German political party that has its own Russian-language social media channel and is present on several Russian social media networks, with account names like, "Russian-Germans for AfD in North Rhine-Westphalia."
Will Russia Wage Cyberattack?
Cyber experts with German security authorities have been observing Russian operations attentively. They attribute a major attack on the computers of the Bundestag in 2015 to the hacker collective APT28, which they believe is either controlled by Russian intelligence or is at least given assignments by it.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency, which is also responsible for counterintelligence, believes that APT28 was also responsible for two more major waves of attacks on the Bundestag in August 2016. But so far, at least, the data the hackers pilfered still hasn't turned up anywhere. For months, the security agencies have been warning about possible Russian attempts at manipulating the federal election campaign. Now they're scratching their heads over the possible reasons for the reserve.
One theory is that the Bundestag didn't get hacked in 2015 in order to try to influence the election. It's possible that it was just a classic case of trying to obtain information. Speaking in favor of that theory is the fact that the members of parliament whose computers were hacked are involved in issues pertaining to Russia. It's also feasible that the stolen data simply isn't all that interesting. It's possible the Russians didn't succeed in purloining "kompromat," or compromising material that could be used in the propaganda war against German politicians. It might even be that the Kremlin's attempts at influence are under such public scrutiny at the moment that the political risks of an action aimed at Germany appear to be too high. German security authorities consider that to be a probable explanation.
Still, the experts aren't giving the all-clear. The fact that Moscow hasn't published any hacked documents yet doesn't mean that it won't try to exert any influence on the election. It has built other instruments in Germany to handle that job in the form of Russia-friendly think tanks, contacts in the business community, German-language propaganda media and ties with the Russian-German community. Not to mention close contacts with the AfD.
The Kremlin could also use its cybertools more intensively, especially given that the news only recently emerged that Russian manipulators placed paid ads featuring political content during the U.S. election campaign on Facebook, and that hundreds if not thousands of user accounts on Twitter and Facebook that heavily targeted Clinton were likely influenced by the Russians.
Because it cannot be ruled out that Russians or other attackers could still attempt to manipulate the German election at the last minute, authorities here have undertaken preparations on a scale never before seen ahead of a federal election. They have spent months preparing emergency response plans and a messaging chain. Working groups have also been meeting. "This effort is a novelty, but also appropriate and necessary given the events in the U.S. and France," says one high-level official involved in the preparations.
At the Federal Interior Ministry in Berlin, a 10-person working group led by a state secretary meets regularly to prepare for possible leaks, fake news and disinformation campaigns. It also includes the participation of experts specializing in "societal cohesion," who are monitoring whether the campaigns have managed to incite certain groups. One recent example is the case in early 2016 of Lisa, a Russian girl living in Germany who, according to fake news reports, had been raped. The rumors agitated the Russian-German community and triggered protests. Keen to avoid having to invite people to participate in a group with a name like "Working Group Disinformation," officials chose not to name it at all.
A few weeks ago, the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) provided candidates for the parliamentary election with some tips to help better protect them from cyberattacks. For example, the agency offered to verify their accounts with Twitter and Facebook in order to prevent any abuse in the form of fake accounts.
The federal returning officer, who is in charge of monitoring election returns in the country, has also been preparing for months for possible problems. Dieter Sarreither has had his computer tested several times by the BSI to check for security vulnerabilities. Last week, news emerged that a certain election software used could be vulnerable to an attack.
Traditionally, the president of Germany's Federal Statistical Office, which is based in Wiesbaden, also serves as federal returning officer. But on election day, Sarreither will set up temporary headquarters in parliament in Berlin, in part to circumvent the possibility of computers in Wiesbaden from being attacked and paralyzed. In Berlin, he will also have social media closely monitored for fake news that could jeopardize election procedures.
In the worst-case scenario, it will be possible for him to reach the populace through the situation center at the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance near Bonn.
But what might that worst-case scenario be? Sarreither peers out the window of his office in Wiesbaden, where the Rheingau area is stewing under the warm afternoon sun. He has to think about it for a second. Then he says: Perhaps if the federal returning officer suddenly goes offline on election day, with a dead telephone and his email disconnected and someone on the internet spreading news that the German president has canceled the election.
Sarreither has to laugh -- he's a statistician, after all, and thinks in terms of probabilities. That scenario, he says, is highly unlikely.