Ahead of the German federal elections, Patrik Hermansson looks at how the far right AfD party has become the biggest source of fake news and disinformation on Facebook.
Trust in traditional media has become a frequent topic of discussion in academia and society as a whole. In international comparisons, the German public broadly views traditional media outlets as credible. However, views on it are polarised, and people who supported populist views were significantly more critical of traditional media. This report finds that Alternative for Germany (AfD) has exploited the fact that their voters are distrustful towards mainstream media and that they have fanned the flames by frequently sharing some of the most conspiracy oriented and racist websites.
This report examines a network of German language right-wing alternative media outlets and details how they are connected and how they draw large audiences from Facebook. It finds that AfD has an outsized importance in amplifying alt-media outlets in Germany. Of the 20 most effective Facebook profiles amplifying alternative media outlets in Germany, 14 are AfD associated pages. Pages by its regional branches and its representatives are the most effective actors on the platform in driving shares of links to articles on the 37 alt-media sites studied in this report.
AfD also share explicitly racist sites. Representatives and regional Facebook pages of the AfD regularly share PI News, a racist website with connections to multiple far-right groups including Generation Identity. PI News is currently under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz).
AfD’s position as a relatively large party and with an already successful social media presence, as outlined in a recent report by HOPE not hate, makes the party especially influential in amplifying alt-media. This has several negative effects. The desire of alt-media to delegitimise experts and science is a threat to equitable and democratic societies. They break down a shared understanding of world events and the state of society. This issue is especially evident in the currently ongoing pandemic.
The role of Facebook in driving traffic to far-right alt-media sites in Germany is significant and these are an important part of the far-right online landscape in Germany. Multiple sites receive hundreds of thousands of shares per month. Alt-media websites do not fall under the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) which regulates how social media platforms moderate hate speech. However, Facebook plays an important role in amplifying content from these websites, despite their content often clearly breaking the terms and conditions applied to users on Facebook. The content on certain sites, in particular PI News, is deeply hateful. Other sites publish COVID-19 conspiracy theories that would not be allowed on Facebook. Only one of the 37 sites in our sample was blocked from being shared on Facebook.
The crossover between conspiracy theory, anti-lockdown movements and right wing and far-right alt-media outlets is also meaningfully demonstrated. We find that conspiracy theory sites are among the most shared alt-media sites. This is testament to a worrying rise of conspiracy theory content in the current pandemic. Their connections demonstrated by direct linking to and from distinctly far-right sites presents a problem in terms of radicalisation.