6th July 2021
By Lea Gerster
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the topic of vaccines to the centre of public life and discourse in Germany. Debates on how necessary and effective vaccines really are have gained importance, fuelled by the unprecedented speed with which the vaccines against the novel coronavirus have been developed and certified for use. At the same time, the emergence of movements opposing public health measures in Germany have come to receive widespread media attention.
However, while much media attention has focused on prominent German conspiracy theorists and the effects of disinformation in Germany, there has been less focus on the international anti-vax networks and influences that exist within the wider German-speaking world. This dispatch looks at the most widely shared internet domains amongst anti-vaccination communities in Germany. It highlights that although Austria and Switzerland each have a fraction of Germany’s population, Austrian and Swiss disinformation outlets appear to yield a high level of influence in the German-speaking online sphere of conspiracy narratives.
In a study of over 400,000 posts by more than 1,000 users across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram collected between 21 December 2020 to 5 April 2021, analysts found that attempts to influence the public vaccine debate are succeeding, at least in part, in Germany. As part of the research, analysts aggregated and analysed all of the links that appeared in the dataset to identify what types of websites featured most prominently in online discussion and were therefore influential in debate.
Analysts found that Austrian and Swiss disinformation outlets were cited remarkably frequently by online vaccine sceptic and anti-vax communities in Germany. Of the top 50 most cited domains, 22 were disinformation outlets, with 11 originating in Germany, 6 in Switzerland, 4 in Austria and one of unknown origin. By comparison, of the 16 of the domains that belonged to reputable news outlets, 14 were German, 2 were Austrian and none were Swiss. A further four domains belonged to foreign media entities who have been known to publish misleading articles, such as the Russian broadcaster RT and the US-based Epoch Times.
Three of the four Austrian domains have either been linked through staff, funding or political activism to the far-right populist party, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Prior to attacking national governments over their handling of the pandemic and producing sensationalist reports about vaccines, these sites often focused on anti-migrant and anti-EU themes as well as offering favourable coverage of the FPÖ.
By contrast, none of the six Swiss domains had clear political affiliation. Rather, they all originated in various “truther” networks involved with pseudoscience, esoteric ideologies and conspiracy theories about world events (both past and present). Each domain had a history of publishing conspiracy narratives ranging from debunked theories about 9/11 to Chemtrails, reptilians or an ominous system supposedly enslaving humanity. Some have also published content favourable towards the Kremlin. Only one of the Swiss domains was created to specifically discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit founded by a Swiss publisher who has been active in the anti-5G conspiracy community.
The popularity of these Austrian and Swiss sites amongst vaccine-sceptic German audiences online does not mirror similar levels of popularity amongst their domestic audiences. According to the web analytics tool SimilarWeb, the majority of site visits from all but one of the Austrian and Swiss domains come from users based in Germany. The reason for this is twofold: first, that German conspiracy communities find support for their beliefs in foreign German-language sites; second, these sites may be cognisant of a larger audience pool in Germany and tailor content to them in order to maintain and increase traffic to their sites.
For example, the fourth most shared domain in the dataset (after Facebook, YouTube and Telegram) was the Austrian far-right website “Wochenblick.at”, which has promoted the Alternative for Germany party for a number of years. 58% of the visitors to this site – which also has links to the FPÖ – are based in Germany. Links to this website were shared nearly 10,000 times in the dataset, which made it more than twice as popular as the most widely shared German disinformation outlet in the dataset.
A separate website which regularly posts highly sententious content – run by a Swiss national living in Austria – tailors its content to German audiences through predominantly reports on German news stories in its sections on politics, economics and law. Additionally, in a widely shared Facebook video posted by a Swiss conspiracy channel, the organisation’s founder seemingly tries to appeal to a German audience by referring to public broadcasters as “our expensively funded GEZ media”, an explicit reference to the German funding system for public broadcasters.
Previous ISD research has shown that online German-language conspiracy channels experienced a boom in followership during the pandemic, particularly on Telegram, where channels promoting conspiratorial COVID-19 narratives became increasingly considered as reliable sources of information. These channels operate as gateways for disinformation and are one means through which online vaccine-sceptic communities in Germany are potentially exposed to Austrian and Swiss disinformation sites.
Such transnational connections in the German-speaking world are not new. Many of the most active proponents of disinformation about the pandemic have a past in conspiracist or alternative medicine circles. For years, people in this milieu have offered each other platforms for their ideas and fostered networks which did not stop at national borders. As these circles exist on the fringes of the media and publishing industry, especially prior to the pandemic, it makes sense for them to maximise their pool of potential readers and customers.
However, the effects of the pandemic have been similar in Germany, Austria and Switzerland alike. All three countries have witnessed widespread insecurity over the future, resentment against the government over public health measures and anxiety about the new vaccines. Conspiracy communities have become transnational in nature and as Germany, Austria and Switzerland will eventually overcome the pandemic, their communities of conspiracy thinkers will likely remain connected.
As such, the German online disinformation space should be understood as a part of a wider German-speaking network. Austrian and Swiss conspiracist ideologues have built up a significant audience of German users and ISD’s research suggests that their influence in this sphere might be disproportionate. Through shared language, it remains possible that actors and audiences from Liechtenstein, South Tyrol, Luxembourg and Belgium may also tap into this network. This shows the need for greater international cooperation when approaching regulatory responses to these kinds of online harms. Additionally, it highlights the need for more research into how – and to what extent – German-speaking conspiracy communities connect with each other and spread their ideas across national borders, as well as how such actors might be targeting audiences from other countries.
Lea Gerster is an Analyst at ISD Germany, where she focuses on the spread of extremist ideologies, disinformation and conspiracy myths in German and English-speaking countries.