Merkel’s departure and Russian disinformation weigh on German election
23 Sep 2021|

On 26 September, Germans will elect the members of the 20th Bundestag and its new chancellor. For the first time since 2005, Angela Merkel’s name will not be on any ballots, as she is retiring after 16 years in office.

Over the last six weeks, polls have indicated that at least three parties will need to negotiate a coalition to form the next government, with many options open as to which parties they’ll be—and who will appoint Germany’s chancellor.

Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, have been on a downward trend, with recent polls showing the party at 21.6%, down from the 33% support it received in the 2017 federal election. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, are leading in the polls with 25.2% approval, a 4.7-point improvement on 2017. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) stands at 11.0% compared to 12.6% in 2017, while the Die Linke (literally ‘the left’), lies at 6.5%, down 2.7 points since 2017. The latest opinion poll has shown a substantial increase for the Greens with 15.6% of the vote, a 7.2-point increase on their 2017 performance, which may indicate their best ever federal result.

The rise of the Greens has not gone unnoticed, with the party the subject of numerous negative articles from pro-Russia media outlets such as SouthFront, which labelled the Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock an ‘American Nazi’, and Rossia 24, which called the party the ‘Green Khmer’, and alleged it was funded by Hungarian philanthropist George Soros.

In June, RT DE (Russia Today Deutsch) published an opinion piece which said Baerbock’s resume was ‘as authentic as the (fake) Hitler diaries’. Another piece claimed her diplomas were bought and labelled her a puppet of World Economic Forum leader Klaus Schwab. The Greens have been vocal opponents of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is set to carry natural gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. They’ve argued that the pipeline works against the environmental and geostrategic interests of the European Union by strengthening the economic position of the Kremlin.

Merkel and the CDU are no strangers to this style of attack by pro-Kremlin media outlets. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that in the three-months before the 2017 election, RT and Sputnik reported overwhelmingly negatively about the German government and the chancellor, while the AfD and Die Linke received extensive positive coverage.

This election cycle has been no different, with RT DE making numerous accusations against Merkel and the German government, including a claim that Berlin supported terrorist groups planning a coup in Belarus and that Merkel and her government were ‘Russophobic’.

As with Baerbock, Merkel has been targeted with disinformation intended to discredit her personally. Covid-19 has also provided fertile ground for disinformation, with the Russian government attempting to discredit the Pfizer vaccine while promoting the Russian-made Sputnik V shot and claiming (incorrectly) that Germany tops the list of countries with Covid infections). The narrative that the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny was staged by the West, a claim which first emerged in September 2020 from Russian news agency TASS, re-emerged when RT DE picked up the story again in July 2021, portraying the poisoning as a part of a wider anti-Russia campaign.

Since November 2015, the European Union’s database ‘EUvsDisinfo’ has identified 846 cases of international media outlets publishing pro-Kremlin disinformation.  Germany is the main target of Russian disinformation within the EU.

The impact of pro-Russian media outlets is increasing in Germany. The most popular German-language pro-Kremlin news outlet is RT DE, with more than half a million ‘likes’ on Facebook and 47,700 followers on Twitter. It portrays itself as a trustworthy and independent alternative to mainstream media. RT DE has become the third most shared media outlet in German-language news, with only German news outlets Bild and Die Welt ahead of it. RT DE is also attempting to obtain a broadcasting licence to establish a German-language free-to-air television channel, the preferred source of election-related information for more than 50% of Germans.

In contrast to the negative coverage of mainstream political parties like the CDU and the Greens, AfD and Die Linke have received positive coverage from pro-Kremlin outlets. Both parties’ election platforms align more closely to Russian interests than those of the mainstream parties. AfD opposes all sanctions against Russia, advocates for military cooperation with Russia and a finalisation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and recognises Crimea as a part of Russia.

Die Linke wants Germany to exit NATO, condemns Berlin’s current approach to Moscow and encourages negotiating a friendship treaty. Pro-Kremlin media outlets portray the AfD as a friend of Russia and the AfD engages positively with news spread by pro-Kremlin media outlets.

When members of Die Linke visited pro-Russian ‘separatists’ occupying regions of Eastern Ukraine, pro-Kremlin news outlets were highly supportive of the trip.

AfD Bundestag member Anton Friesen has been actively posting and reposting articles from Sputnik that praise the AfD’s pro-Russian agenda on Twitter. Die Linke has also cast doubt on Kremlin involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. Gregor Gysi, the former parliamentary leader of the party has suggested that opponents of Nord Stream 2 were responsible for the attack. A speech by Gysi in January n which he further accused Germany of involvement in Navalny’s poisoning was picked up and republished by RT DE and Russian outlet SNA.

Could Russian-sponsored propaganda and disinformation decide the election outcome? This time around, probably not. The German government has been actively attempting to counter disinformation by joining the International Partnership to Counter State-Sponsored Disinformation which shares intelligence about disinformation campaigns.

Fact-checking pages such as ‘Correctiv.Faktencheck’ and NewsGuard’s ‘Misinformation Monitor’ address popular pieces of mis- and disinformation. The challenge lies in piercing the information bubble of people who consume media from alternative platforms and who may not see attempts to counter the disinformation they take in.

Social media algorithms help to push information users agree with, making it difficult to present information outside a reader’s usual interests. The partisan media coverage of Kremlin-sponsored news outlets in Germany could help fuel Politiksverdrossenheit or political disillusionment, undermining people’s trust in government and democratic structures, and possibly elevating fringe political parties even further.