30 June 2023
By Elise Thomas
This Dispatch is available in German.
“How can you trust Scholz?” the German-language TikTok demands, showing a clip of the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, being questioned on his government’s decision to allow Leopard tanks to be given to Ukraine for its fight against the Russian invasion.
This video has been viewed over 3.6 million times, attracted over 317,000 likes and more than 10,500 comments. The question is, how many of those viewers realised they were watching Russian state propaganda?
Few if any, is the likely answer. As the war in Ukraine grinds on and entities like the European Union and social media platforms uphold restrictions on their content, Russian state media organisations are continuing their efforts to reach Western audiences via covert or semi-covert means. One of the latest operations to circumvent these restrictions is delivering propaganda to German audiences through a network of nine accounts producing carefully targeted short-form videos and podcasts across multiple platforms.
Bloß mit Biss (meaning “Just with a bite”) presents itself as a “biting look at the hot topics in German-speaking countries.” It focuses on German domestic politics, revolving around the themes of economic anxiety, energy politics, the impacts of sanctions on Russia for ordinary German citizens and attacks on the Greens party (part of the coalition government), who have strongly supported military aid to Ukraine. The outlets’ accounts have been active across multiple social media platforms, including TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, since at least October 2022, have racked up millions of views, and do not declare any affiliation to the Kremlin.
It is in fact, produced by SNA News, the German arm of banned Russian state media organisation Sputnik.
SNA, Satellit and Bloß mit Biss
In early March 2022, in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, YouTube announced that Russian state media channels such as RT and Sputnik would be banned, initially just in Europe but later worldwide.
Two days later, SNA posted on Telegram that “[f]or obvious reasons, we’ve renamed our old channel. But now we want to invite you to our new channel so that you can continue reading SNA content.” The post shared a link to a newly created Telegram channel with the handle @satellit_de and the name Satellit. 
In its early days, Satellit was not shy about its affiliation with SNA News, posting regular links to its pre-existing social media channels and at times posting videos with filenames which included ‘SNA’. German media and researchers were also reporting Satellit’s connections to SNA at this time.
However, in July, Satellit clearly began to distance itself from SNA by scrubbing mentions of the organisation from its channels. The outlet posted on Telegram that it was “time to expand the Satellit brand” and encouraged followers to subscribe to its new Odysee channel . Very shortly after, Satellit launched Bloß mit Biss (BmB) as a series of short-form videos featuring clips of German politicians and media figures. Like many successful Russian state media video shows, these clips were narrated by a female host who casts aspersions about the intentions of these figures, ridicules them and presents them as incompetent. These videos were published across Satellit’s Telegram, YouTube and Odysee channels.
By October, BmB podcasts were being published on multiple platforms including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Podcast.DE, Deezer, Mave and Castbox. While all of the content produced as part of the BmB podcasts is in German, the copyright notice (‘All rights reserved’) is in Russian. These podcast-hosting services do not provide data about the number of subscribers or downloads of the episodes, making it difficult to assess the impact of BmB’s audio-only content.
A second expansion of the BmB network occurred in December 2022 and January 2023, with BmB-branded accounts created on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook . None of BmB or Satellit’s accounts carry labels applied by social media platforms to inform audiences of their connection with the Russian state.
Short-form Video Success
BmB has achieved some notable successes with its short-form video content on multiple platforms. Across TikTok, the Satellit YouTube channel (including YouTube Shorts), and Instagram Reels, BmB has at least eight pieces of content with over a million views each as of 29 March 2023. Some of these have over three million views. Many other pieces of BmB content on these platforms have hundreds of thousands of views.
The short-form videos posted by BmB typically feature clips of German politicians and other high-profile figures taken from other media sources, with music and subtitles added and sometimes cut with other clips, memes and emojis. Some of these videos are narrated by a female voice – likely to be the same narrator of the BmB podcasts.
Narratives and Themes
BmB’s content centres around several recurring narratives and themes; economic anxiety in Germany, the government’s support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, and attacks on politicians and parties across the spectrum. Analysis of this content provides a useful window through which to understand how Russian propagandists are seeking to influence German audiences.
Economic pain for Germans driven by sanctions on Russia and clean energy transition
A central theme of much of BmB’s content is economic anxiety. The goal of this appears to be to stoke a sense of grievance among Germans towards their own government.
Specific narratives associated with this theme include that sanctions against Russia are doing unacceptable harms to Germans, and that the government is pursuing an energy transition away from fossil fuels without considering the struggle of ordinary people trying to make ends meet.
For example, a BmB episode published on 24 February 2023 – the first anniversary of the full-scale invasion – was entitled ‘Who Are the Sanctions Hurting?’ The episode claimed that while the Russian economy has been largely unharmed by German sanctions, Germans themselves are greatly suffering. “One is frustrated because while the government sees itself as a hero for Ukraine, its behaviour for its own people is anything but heroic, sending the citizens into the maelstrom of poverty,” the narrator says in the episode.
Another major preoccupation for BmB is Germany’s clean energy transition. This is connected to the issue of economic anxiety through the soaring energy prices which Germany (and the rest of Europe) faced in the immediate aftermath of its pivot away from dependence on Russian gas. The narrative presented by BmB is critical of the German government pursuing the energy transition despite the economic pain it causes and persistently attacks the Greens. The party is presented as pushing the energy transition for ideological reasons and on behalf of other climate protesters and activists.
War in Ukraine
German support for Ukraine in its fight against the Russian military offensive is a core theme of the outlet’s content. Key narratives include framing material support for the Ukrainians as money not being spent on Germans and their needs; portraying Germany’s own military as underfunded and equipped with outdated technology; the negative impacts of the war on Germany’s own economy; and the prevarications and duplicitousness of German politicians over whether or not to allow Ukraine access to specific weapons systems.
BmB’s single most viewed piece of content, the TikTok described at the beginning of this article with over 3.6 million views, focuses on this theme of duplicitousness in Scholz’s decision to ultimately allow the Leopard tanks to be given to Ukraine.
Notably, BmB does not express overt support for the Russian ground war – in fact, it barely mentions Russia at all in these pieces of content. Instead, it focuses on chipping away at German support for Ukraine by appealing to Germans’ self-interest as well as the apprehension which some Germans feel about the possibility of escalation and about the re-militarisation of Germany itself. This strategy of undermining the credibility of democratic nations, rather than presenting Russia as the ideal alternative, is consistent with other Kremlin propaganda campaigns targeted at audiences abroad.
Attacks on the Greens, support for far-right and far-left politicians
BmB’s content features more clips of Greens politicians than any other party or group. These clips are always presented in an unflattering way, for example to portray the politicians, and the party as a whole, as out of touch, out of their depth, malicious and/or simply incompetent. The Greens are the only party to have had multiple podcast episodes dedicated to criticising their purported failures.
BmB’s interest in targeting the Greens is likely to be linked to the party’s stance on the war in Ukraine; the Greens have emerged as some of the strongest supporters of German military aid.
Germany’s current foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, is a member of the Greens and a frequent target of BmB’s content. Baerbock is no stranger to this activity, however, having also been targeted by a suspected Russian-led cyber campaign during the 2021 German federal election period.
Greens co-leader Ricarda Lang is also an extremely regular target of videos criticising her as inexperienced, unqualified and foolish. Other Greens politicians, and particularly female politicians, have also been the subject of BmB content.
For example, Satellit’s most viewed YouTube Shorts clip features talk show host Sandra Maischberger telling Ricarda Lang that the Greens have thrown their own principles overboard in their support for military aid to Ukraine, their deals with Qatar, and their agreement to keep coal-fired power stations running for longer to help compensate for the impacts of sanctions on Russian gas.
The clip has amassed over 3.2 million views and more than 9,000 comments. These comments are overwhelmingly negative, both in relation to the Greens’ policies and in personal attacks on Lang’s appearance, intelligence and qualifications. Some of these comments have received thousands of likes.
BmB appears to at least implicitly encourage the misogynistic commentary of some of its viewers directed specifically at female Greens politicians. For example, a TikTok featuring Katrin Göring-Eckardt (Vice President of the Bundestag – German Federal Parliament) observed that she had once worked as a kitchen hand before going into politics and suggested that perhaps there was still time for her ‘to go back to the kitchen’.
Although negative portrayals of the Greens are by far the most common, BmB does also feature some positive content about German politicians. Multiple politicians from the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party such as Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla who serve leadership roles, or AfD’s extreme-right Markus Frohnmaier, as well as populist left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht have featured in BmB content and are portrayed as clear-sighted voices of reason in the debate over the invasion of Ukraine.
Russian government documents leaked to the Washington Post in May 2023 detail a scheme by the Kremlin to build and boost a coalition from both far-right and far-left elements in Germany to oppose ongoing military support for Ukraine. Boosting positive perceptions of relevant political figures on social media could be useful in support of that broader goal.
Evolving Strategies of Russian State Propagandists
This operation highlights several developments in the evolution of Russian state propaganda in the face of restrictions imposed after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Firstly, it demonstrates how simple it is for Russian state-linked actors, even one as well-known as Sputnik, to evade platform bans on Kremlin content by simply picking a new name and a new logo. SNA responded to its YouTube ban by waiting, creating a new channel, giving it the notably unsubtle name of ‘Satellit’ (the German translation of ‘Sputnik’), and then posting publicly encouraging their audience to follow them to the new channel – and it worked.
The subsequent creation of BmB as a sub-outlet allows SNA to distance the operation further from the Sputnik brand and its affiliation with the Russian state. These permutations are not difficult to follow, but they require a level of vigilance and sustained commitment by social media platforms to actually enforce the bans they put in place, which does not currently seem to be being applied.
Secondly, it demonstrates the relative successes Russian propagandists can achieve with the short-form video format. Across YouTube Shorts, Instagram and TikTok, BmB and Satellit have both gathered tens of millions of views. BmB is not the only network of its kind; this pivot to short-form video appears to be a broad strategy employed by state actors, rather than a one-off.
Even despite the relatively limited access researchers have to algorithmic data, it is clear that TikTok and YouTube Shorts are driven by particularly aggressive recommendation algorithms. This makes it likely that users engaging with BmB’s content will have then been recommended similar videos repeating the same themes, for example anti-Greens or pro-Kremlin content. This creates a form of indirect potential influence which extends beyond engagement with the initial state-sponsored operation.
Finally, the study of these outlets offers a useful window into the narratives and tactics Russia is seeking to use to influence German audiences. Fundamentally, the goal appears to be to undermine support for the German coalition government in general, and the Greens in particular, as a response to their economic and material support to Ukraine. As these campaigns continue to target European populations, it is imperative that social media platforms commit to enforcing their existing restrictions on Russian state propaganda and disinformation.