German Far-right AfD’s Digital Artillery

Published: 23 March 2018

Country: Germany

By Angelo Boccato

German_PressSocial media had played a big role in the success of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party that won 13% in elections in September 2017. AfD also had an assistance of Harris Media, a Texas-based advertizing agency whose clients include the British party UKIP and Donald Trump. Their work could be recognised in an advertising campaign featuring an image of bloody tire tracks criss-crossing European cities, from Berlin to Manchester and Barcelona saying “The tracks left by the world chancellor of Europe”. That was a clear reference to the German chancellor Angela Merkel and her decision to open the country’s borders in 2015.

After Merkel’s political move, many German media have been accused of being uncritical and one-sided in their coverage of the refugee crisis, finds a report commissioned by the Otto Brenner Stiftung in Frankfurt. According to a study led by Thomas Hestermann, Macromedia School journalism professor, the German media’s focus has shifted towards alleged non-German crime suspects, despite the increase of attacks against migrants. For example, the German Interior Ministry claimed in February 2017 that nearly ten attacks against migrants have been made every day in 2016.

In a series of articles ahead of the panel “Fascism is back. Is journalism part of the problem or of a solution?”, the Media Diversity Institute (MDI) is questioning the role of the media in the rise of far-right. In Germany one of the questions is how much social media platforms supported hate speech, anti-migrants and another form of discriminatory language.

A focus of a paper “Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and hate crime”written by Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz, investigates the link between social media and hate crime, by considering hand-collected data from Facebook in relation to the social media presence of AfD. The findings of the paper point out that “social media has not only become a fertile soil for the spread of hateful ideas but also motivates a real-life action”.

Miro Dittrich, a media monitor with Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, a MDI partner on the Get the Trolls Out project, says: “The social media channels have definitely fuelled fear about migrants and refugees. The over-inflation of the crimes committed by members of these groups push a narrative of an invasion of barbaric people. This can lead to people thinking that they have to defend their country and families, which can end up in violence.”

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) published in May 2017 the report “Concept of the Enemy- Lying Press and Journalist Self-Assertion”, a study which analyses not only the violent attacks that have been perpetrated in 2015 and 2016 mostly by PEGIDA and AfD supporters, but also the use of labels such as “Lying Press” and “Pinocchio Press” during their rallies, in order to delegitimise the media.

“On one hand, the language used by members of the party, such as the former leader Frauke Petry had the effect of alienating the media, while afterwards this could have allowed them to criticise them for not offering enough space, in comparison to other forces, even if that was not true,” Martin Hoffmann, a researcher at the ECPMF explained to MDI.

“Also, by using the Lying Press and Pinocchio Press labels, forces such as PEGIDA and AfD are able to both label journalists as enemies and undermine their category as a whole,” says Hoffmann.

The label Lying Press, as the ECPMF research points out has been used in the past, in the 20s and 30s of the last century against the press that was considered hostile in the country. In German case, it might be said that social media have proved to be a more powerful tool for right-wing agendas than the traditional ones.

The fact that thea AfD’s leader Alice Widel has received advice from Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s  former chief strategist and fomer executive chairman of Breibart News in the wake of the launch of the party’s TV newsroom in April is also worth mentioning. The AfD has proved that far-right parties can bypass the media and be successful in terms of electoral gains.