Germany · Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Real-time tracking system measures Russian interference in German elections

People take part in a demonstration of various left wing groups against German right wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany) in Berlin, Germany, September 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Putin backs the far right, according to DC-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is using a new ‘dashboard’ to expose ‘online influence networks’ aimed at German voters

The Russians are actively promoting Germany’s far-right political party in today’s national elections, according to a Twitter tracking service set up by Laura Rosenberger, co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington, DC.

After Russian interference in the 2016 United States election and the 2017 French election, Germany’s September 24 election is the next logical step, according to Alliance promotional material. “Russia’s influence activities continue on multiple fronts. With Germany considered the linchpin to upholding a staunch European response to Russia’s aggression, the upcoming German federal election is Putin’s next disinformation target,” states the Alliance website.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy is a small American foundation that was launched in July and is funded by private donors. Headed by former Hillary Clinton top foreign policy adviser Rosenberger, the Alliance is housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), and aims to document the “subversion of democracy” and generate strategies to fight against Russian efforts.

Named after Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No. 68, which speaks of protecting America’s electoral process from foreign meddling, Rosenberger’s original English-language Hamilton 68 dashboard was launched three years ago. Ahead of Germany’s 2017 election, her team launched a new German-language Artikel 38 dashboard, named after Article 38 of German Basic Law, which states that “members of the German Bundestag shall be elected in general, direct, free, equal, and secret elections.”

Laura Rosenberger, co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington, DC, and Bret Schafer, the coordinator of community, social media, and digital content of the Alliance (courtesy)

Using an automated tracking system, the Artikel 38 dashboard aims to expose “online influence networks, targeting German-language audiences ahead of the German Federal election and claims to give “a near real-time look at Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts.”

The automatic dashboard analyzes tweets from 500 accounts that are connected to @de_sputnik, Russia’s overt German-language propaganda channel, the Sputnik news agency, explained Bret Schafer, the coordinator of community, social media, and digital content of the Alliance.

Artikel 38 delineates the channel’s followers in three ways: the 500 most influential accounts, the 500 accounts most responsive to influence, and the 500 top accounts that most-often direct interactions to other followers of @de_sputnik, relative to interactions sent to non-followers, according to the Alliance.

After systematically analyzing the 500 Twitter accounts that are in some way connected to Sputnik, the automated system determined that those accounts are supporting Germany’s right wing “Alternative for Germany” party, Schafer said.

“Alternative for Germany” is a far-right party that has an anti-Islamic and anti-refugee platform and is projected to get a few seats in the German parliament, Schafer said.

“There’s been a constant trend of far-right messages [in the Twitter accounts that the dashboard tracks]. The top hashtag is ‘Alternative for Deutschland,’” Schafer said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shows the way to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as they leave a hall after a joint press conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 10, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV)

Commenting on the Russian propaganda promoter’s strategy, Schafer said they turn to the most extreme statements from far-left or far-right politicians and amplify them. They promote “the party that could be the most disruptive to German society. Their interest is to get people to question democratic society,” he said.

According to Schafer, the Russian government’s agenda is “very anti-NATO and anti-EU.”

“They would like to divide the US-EU alliance. They’re promoting messages that are very nationalistic,” he said. “They would like to tear apart those trans-Atlantic bonds particularly with NATO.”

Unraveling a conspiracy?

Schafer admitted that there is nothing illegal about promoting or retweeting political messages on the social networking site, or about countries having their own news agencies.

“Most countries have a foreign broadcasting effort. It’s not so much that they have RT and Sputnik, but what we see is a very active presence of bots and trolls — automated Twitter accounts that you can buy,” he said. “The Russian government operates many of them. They are there to retweet and amplify messages. It pushes that story up into people’s feeds so they’re seeing it more than they should be.”

It is possible to buy a thousand Twitter accounts for $45 and set them to automatically retweet messages from other accounts, Schafer said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sunbathes during his vacation in the remote Tuva region in southern Siberia. The picture taken between August 1 and 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky)

Schafer clarified that there is no proof that the 500 Twitter accounts that the automatic system tracks are actually connected to the Russian government, but some of the accounts are known to have a link to Sputnik or RT or Russia Today, the English language international television network that is funded by the Russian government.

A second category of the accounts are “trolls,” individuals who are re-tweeting the messages of that Sputnik or RT put out, while a third category are just accounts that “are identified as consistently promoting those messages.”

By no means are we saying that the 500 accounts are run by a Russian operative

“Some may be just be people who are sympathetic with the Kremlin point of view and just tweet a lot. [The automated system] favors accounts that tweet quite heavily,” Schafer said.

He did not specify how many of the 500 German-language accounts that the system tracks belong to each category — propaganda pushers, trolls or retweeters — and he said it is not known where the accounts are located geographically. Most of them are probably in Germany, he said.

“By no means are we saying that the 500 accounts are run by a Russian operative. These are just accounts that retweet messages from Sputnik,” he said.

“I can’t say for sure that other countries don’t do this, but nowhere near the scale of what Russia does,” Schafer said. “The US intelligence community does not operate trolls to spread disinformation in other countries.”


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