Researchers see rise in ‘alt-right’ voices influencing German elections

Researchers see rise in ‘alt-right’ voices influencing German elections
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German researchers have detected a rise in right-wing messages related to the upcoming federal elections in Germany.

Simon Hegelich, a political science professor at the Technical University of Munich, told USA Today that he and other researchers have detected a rise in messages linked to the white nationalist “alt-right” movement in the U.S.

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“So far we have not been able to track down any specific Russian activity,” Hegelich told USA Today. “A lot of the stuff we are seeing in Germany can be linked to, or is at least inspired by, the 'alt-right' movement in the U.S.” 

Concerns about Russian interference have loomed large in the lead-up to recent elections in Europe, especially in the wake of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow aimed to interfere in the 2016 presidential election partly to aid President Trump. 

Ahead of the French presidential election earlier this year, experts pointed to evidence of Russia using disinformation to knock down Emmanuel Macron and prop up Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front. 

But in Germany, where the federal elections will take place on Sept. 24, researchers are pointing to an uptick in U.S. "alt-right" messages infiltrating the political conversation.

Researchers including Hegelich have posted an analysis of roughly 300,000 German-language tweets relevant to the German elections collected over a six-month period that point to a spike in right-wing messages. Some of the tweets' keywords include “AltRight” and “MAGA.” 

The researchers also saw an increase in German-language tweets connected to Gab, a new social networking site popular among the extreme right-wing. 

At the same time, they observed a decline in German-language tweets about the election originating from Sputnik Deutschland, the German division of Russia's state-run online news organization, though they cautioned that the data sample is not representative. 

"Many people say that Russia is responsible for massive propaganda efforts on social media. On the other hand, we here at the Political Data Science team find mostly social bots, hyperactive users and trolls that are related to the right. We think there might be a strong linkage to the so called AltRight from the US," the researchers wrote in a blog post. 

Experts have previously pointed to a rise in interaction between Russian media influencers and pro-Russia trolls and those pushing far-right and "alt-right" messages in the U.S. online. For instance, pro-Russia personalities and accounts have amplified negative coverage of Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, by pushing the #FireMcMaster campaign.

“It’s the same in Europe, but the specific themes change,” Lee Foster, manager of information operations analysis at FireEye iSIGHT Intelligence, told The Hill in August. “There, one of the most prominent themes is migration and the refugee crisis.” 

According to USA Today, many of the German-language tweets associated with the "alt-right" and analyzed by Hegelich criticize the top candidates in the German election, namely current Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rival, Social Democratic candidate Martin Schulz.

Sandro Gaycken, founder of the Digital Society Institute in Germany, told USA Today that right-wing voices are also trying to get into the conversation about the election on Facebook, pointing to evidence of right-wing political discussion groups being prioritized in searches on the platform. Facebook told USA Today that it was aware of the matter and had temporarily disabled parts of its “Groups Discover” feature pending further review. 

Facebook has recently come under fire after disclosing that it sold political ads to a Russian group tied to the Kremlin ahead of the 2016 election. 

Facebook has sought to crack down on fake accounts following revelations of Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election.