A month before German federal elections scheduled for September 24, Predata noted that German interest in the election, as measured by engagement with election-related social and collaborative media sources, had been relatively muted throughout the summer. Not so in Russia. Heightened interest in the Russian-language versions of the same German election-related sources indicates that the Russian government, media and society have been closely following Europe's next big election for the past several months.
Given Russia's recent track record of malign interference in Western elections, observers and German officials have been sounding the alarm over the threat of Russian meddling, such as embarrassing leaks and fake news, aimed at influencing the outcome of the German vote. Rather than promoting a certain party or candidate, Russia is looking to amplify voices that attack Merkel's center-coalition establishment and undermine faith in German democracy.
To detect and anticipate Russian influence operations in real time, Predata built parallel German-language and Russian-language signals for a variety of topics related to the upcoming election. These signals can reveal anomalous Russian interest potentially indicative of an influence campaign in progress, as well as whether Germans are responding to fake news or other forms of meddling.
Bolstering the Fringes
The greatest challenge to the center coalition forces (CDU/CSU and SPD/FPD) comes from the ideological extremes. Predata signals found high Russian interest in far-right parties, AfD and NPD, and leftist parties, including Die Linke and Alliance 90/The Greens. Amplifying their radical voices serves not only to chip away at the political center, but also to highlight the vulnerabilities of democratic voting systems, sometimes forced to make room for extreme views.
A signal for AfD and other far-right parties drew heightened Russian interest in summer, around the time of the political parties' conventions. This suggests heightened coverage of the German far-right in the Russian media. German interest in the far right has recently increased. This upswing in interest, however, has been driven primarily by increased interest in AfD co-chair Frauke Petry, who was recently in the news due to an ongoing court case in which she faces allegations of lying under oath with regard to AfD's campaign financing. That the spike in German interest is driven by negative press about AfD suggests any attempt -- Russian or otherwise -- to foment positive coverage for the far right is falling flat.
The story is similar on the far left. Russian interest in the German left -- especially the Communist Die Linke party -- was consistently high over the summer. Yet, there was no consequent increase in German interest. This again suggests that any Russian-instigated efforts to generate news interest in the radical left have failed to resonate with the German public.
Criticism of Merkel's “Open Doors”
Similarly, significant Russian interest in pages related to immigration and terrorism in Germany has far outpaced German interest. Previous successful Russian disinformation campaigns in Germany have been based on these issues (see: the case of “Lisa F.”). Merkel's “open-door” immigration policy has been an especially appealing lightning rod. Tellingly, a Google search of Merkel's name and the policy returns top results from Breitbart News and RT. And despite the spate of recent terrorist attacks, immigration is a subject of greater digital interest than terrorism. The lack of German attention to immigration and terrorism suggests they may actually be marginal campaign issues. Again, heightened Russian attention to the subjects -- indicative of a potential disinformation campaign -- has not resulted in heightened attention in Germany.
New U.S. sanctions announced in August will make it harder for Russia to build two gas export pipelines to Europe. Still, the projects are expected to proceed. Following news of the sanctions, Russian interest in the German energy sector and Gazprom's projects in Germany spiked. German audiences, by contrast, appear to not consider energy to be a key issue in the election and are not biting at news stories about the subject.
Nonetheless, energy could be a vulnerability ripe for Russian influence exploitation. In a PR blow to the opposition SPD, former party member and chancellor Gerhard Schröder recently confirmed that he planned to join the board of Russian state-backed oil giant, Rosneft. As Schröder and his ties to Russian energy companies was in the news in the last month, Schröder's Russian-language Wikipedia page spiked dramatically; German-language attention is now rising. This connection is a double-edged sword for Russia; criticism of Schröder could potentially pull votes away from the center coalition, but the Kremlin has a clear interest in having politicians in power who favor Russian energy projects in Germany.
Are Germans Taking the Bait?
In short, no. Our hypothesis -- one which proved salient in the French election -- is that if Germans were paying attention to an inundation of dubious news from Kremlin-backed sources such as RT and Sputnik, they would also be paying attention to social and collaborative media sources related to those news outlets. To test that hypothesis, we built a signal to gauge German attention to those news outlets. We also built a signal to measure German attention to past Russian influence operations, as it is also plausible that if Germans suspected foreign meddling they'd research past campaigns online.
The signal for Russian-backed media, in green, spiked during the presidential elections in the U.S. and France, as highlighted in the first two boxes. Yet, the signal has not spiked in the lead-up to the upcoming German election. The signal for past Russian influence operations, in yellow, has been trending downward. Together, this signal activity suggests Germans are not paying attention to Russian disinformation campaign material. The situation could change as the September 24 vote draws closer, but for now it seems the Kremlin is having limited influence on the German election.