Changing tides: Discourse towards migrants and asylum seekers on Facebook and X in Germany in 2023

18 April 2024

By: Michel Seibriger

Germany is debating its asylum and migration policy again. Following rising asylum numbers and concerns about the economic outlook of the country, the debate about tightened asylum policies and expedited removals of rejected asylum seekers gained significant traction in 2023. Throughout that year, migrants and asylum seekers were often treated as violent criminals who had triggered the country’s economic ills. The debate was only halted following an investigation by the journalistic collective Correctiv into a “secret meeting” of far-right figures and members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). In it, they were found to have discussed the mass removal of asylum seekers and German citizens of foreign descent.

This analysis takes stock of German online discourse towards migrants and asylum seekers in 2023 against the backdrop of the public debate on asylum and migration policy. Building on previous ISD research analysing networks of disinformation targeting refugees in Europe, this Dispatch demonstrates overwhelming negative sentiment towards migrants and asylum seekers, and the heavy use of inflammatory or misleading language. By depicting these groups as an ‘invading force’, these narratives contribute to the mainstreaming of harmful conspiracy theories, particularly the ‘Great Replacement’. 

Politicians from the far-right AfD dominated discussions on Facebook while X (formerly Twitter) was more varied, divided between influencers, right-wing politicians and public figures. These accounts discussed politics including calls for tighter asylum policies and stricter enforcement of measures to remove rejected asylum seekers; these were partly implemented by the Federal government through policy changes in Autumn 2023.   


Social listening tools Crowdtangle and Brandwatch were used to identify the top ten most shared German-language posts with keywords related to migrants and asylum seekers each month in 2023. [1] In total, 240 posts were collected, half each from Facebook and X, allowing us to analyse quantitative peaks in discourse as well as qualitatively assess sentiments expressed towards migrants and identify the most common topics discussed and the most active accounts in the conversation. Posts were then coded for their sentiment towards migrants, using the following parameters: 

  • Positive sentiment was ascribed to posts which denoted/stressed positive effects from migration, portrayed it as helping the economy or maintained migrants are welcome in Germany; 
  • Neutral sentiment was ascribed where no explicit value judgment was made; 
  • “Neutral, leaning negative” posts lacked explicitly negative value judgments but strongly implied negative effects from migration outweighed the positive; 
  • Negative sentiment was coded in two cases: firstly, when explicit value judgments were made regarding migrants (e.g. referring to them as a “wave” or criminals); secondly, if they were explicitly blamed for economic/socio-political strains associated with their arrival in Germany or when a single case was used to make value judgments about all migrants. 

Figure 1: Examples of posts coded as positive (top left), neutral (bottom left) and neutral, leaning negative (right). All further examples of posts in this Dispatch are coded as negative.

Besides sentiment, posts were thematically coded to show the most talked-about topics and frames. Lastly, we coded each account from the sample into one of seven categories: politicians/elected officials, public figures (including former politicians), influencers (accounts with more than 5k followers on X/Facebook), journalists, institutional accounts, bloggers/fringe journalists, and other (all accounts beyond these categories).  

Sentiment analysis: Overwhelmingly negative sentiment towards migrants on both platforms and across the German migration policy debate

Across both platforms, the most reshared posts showed overwhelmingly negative sentiments towards migrants, while less than five percent of posts expressed positive views. This is in line with recent studies of Germans’ concern about immigration policy. The corresponding rise of the far-right AfD increased pressure on the federal government to toughen its migration and asylum policies. In late 2023, it held “migration/refugee summits with the Länder (states); following these debates, Home Secretary Nancy Faeser announced physical checks on the Polish and Czech borders in September and expedited asylum processes and strengthened removal policies in October. 

On both Facebook and X, more than 60 percent of posts expressed overtly negative sentiments towards migrants, portraying them as a strain on the welfare system, a threat to German safety and security, or an ‘invading force’ aiming to take over. Negative sentiments on X were highest in May, July, September, November and December, largely coinciding with the top-six overall mentions of migrant-related keywords. This suggests negative comments proliferated when debates about migration and asylum policies gained traction. Nearly one fifth of posts also implied a negative stance towards migrants through their language or the issue they addressed (e.g. crime). 

Figure 2: Share of negative and “neutral, leaning negative” posts over time on X.

Figure 3: Sentiments towards migrants in 2023 on Facebook, by type.

Mainstreaming of extremist conspiracy theories

Some posts portrayed migrants and asylum seekers as a violent, existential threat to Germany’s welfare system and its citizens. Dystopian language included an “army of millions” (a quote from Rüdiger Lucassen, AfD defence policy spokesperson) and a cataclysmic “final crossroads”. There were also comparisons to a “tsunami” (two mentions) or “flood” (three mentions), echoing German debates on tightened asylum policies in the 1990s at a time when physical violence against asylum centres spiked. Some posts describe a “migration weapon”, taking language from the Identitarian Movement, itself classified as “right-wing extremist” by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).   

Several posts claimed that the government was consciously ‘importing’ migrants and asylums seekers to ensure (ethnic) Germans “becom[e] a minority” or are “pushed out”. This claim seeks to mainstream the harmful ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory.

Figure 4: Discourse on migrants in 2023 on X by topic, share of total.

Most active account types: diverse distribution on X while AfD MPs and institutional accounts dominate on Facebook

The largest proportion of the most-shared posts on Facebook (48%) came from AfD politicians. Another 38 percent came from institutional accounts, with 85 percent of these from federal and statelevel AfD accounts.  

On X, influencers made up nearly a third of the most active accounts behind the top posts. A quarter of these were authored by Anabel Schunke, a model and writer affiliated with Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche and the right-wing blog “Die Achse des Guten” (“the axis of good”). Her posts were seen up to 300k times and shared up to 3.4k times each. Other major influencers used pseudonyms and espoused talking points including anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, xenophobia and harsh criticism of “wokeism”.  

Politicians made up 26 percent of accounts; more than 60 percent of these posts came from AfD co-chairwoman Alice Weidel alone. The only politicians’ posts not coming from AfD politicians were written by Bavaria’s co-governor Hubert Aiwanger, Turkish chair of the “Victory Party” and Armin Laschet, a CDU MP who ran for Chancellor in 2021. The latter criticised the AfD for “abusing tensions in France for its agitation against people with migration background” in a tweet that was shared 4,600 times on X.  Finally, 23 percent of posts came from public figures, with more than half of these coming from Georg Pazderski, former Berlin state parliament member for the AfD. An additional fifth of these posts came from Hans-Georg Maaßen, the former BfV President recently categorised as far-right extremist by that same office and who, in February 2024, founded his own party, the WerteUnion (“values union”). [2]

Figure 5: Most reshared posts on X, by account type.

Figure 6: Image under a Facebook post by the AfD that claims only the AfD would “break the migration wave” shows a road with a sign of a “closed border”.

Posts about the political discourse: #DeshalbAFD and “remigration”

30 percent of the most shared posts on X and 23 percent of posts on Facebook addressed political demands about migration policy. Among these, posts by the AfD and political influencers frequently referred to “mass migration”, invoking images of an invading force that had to be stopped.  

Five posts on Facebook and three on X explicitly demanded “remigration”, a term borrowed from the Identitarian Movement that has been classified as “right-wing extremist” by the BfV. These posts euphemistically describe mass deportations based on ethnicity, not nationality, as explained by ISD analysts. Demands for remigration that were shared over 10k times across both platforms throw into sharp relief the plan uncovered by the Correctiv investigation to deport asylum seekers and German nationals of foreign descent under the same term. 

Figure 7: A Facebook post by the AfD claims most Germans would demand an “end to mass migration”.

Migrant crime and allegedly hamstrung courts

Posts expressly portraying migrants or asylum seekers as criminals often used inflammatory language, omitted crucial context or made misleading claims about their alleged impunity. In January 2023, four of the most reshared posts on X and six on Facebook directly referenced violence committed by migrants and asylum seekers against emergency services on the preceding New Year’s Eve. The AfD drew comparisons to clashes on New Year’s Eve 2016 in Cologne which they blamed on “mass migration, not fireworks”. On X, anti-Islam influencer Ali Utlu implied in a post with more than 180k views that migrants accepted by the German government would hate democracy  

Other popular posts amplified violent crimes committed by migrants and asylum seekers. The AfD published an Einzelfallticker (“isolated incident ticker”) mapping violent incidents across Germany. However, half the cases cited did not mention the perpetrator’s nationality. The image of knife-wielding criminal migrants evoked in many posts is inflammatory and not statistically corroborated.  

Figure 8: A post on X by Ali Utlu claims the German government’s alleged plans to take in some 7m more migrants by 2030 would mean people like the Islamist protestors depicted.

Several posts also painted courts and judges overseeing trials of violent migrants and asylum seekers as hamstrung. A post on X from 25 May by right-wing fringe magazine Junge Freiheit (“Young Freedom”) that was shared more than 1.1k times addresses the alleged “acquittal” of a migrant who stabbed two people in Ludwigshafen without mentioning that the perpetrator was found criminally insane and sent to a psychiatric facility. Another post coded under this narrative focused on the defendants’ demeanour while omitting their sentencing, crafting a misleading image of impunity. 

Financial concerns and injustice of alleged double standards

30 percent of the posts on X and 38 percent of the Facebook posts emphasised the financial strain from mass migration at the federal, state and local (“Kommunen”) level, often mentioning alleged double standards favouring migrants and asylum seekers. 

Frequent complaints included the economic strain inflicted on German taxpayers by asylum seekers receiving unemployment benefits. These claims ignore that they cannot work for three months after arrival and even after that period, there are enormous bureaucratic hurdles to securing work permits. One post on X with a positive sentiment towards asylum seekers directly addressed this, receiving 2.2k shares. 

The ‘double standard’ narrative is evident in a post on X from February 2023 with 881 shares. It juxtaposed an elderly lady in jail for repeated fare evasion with “migrant rapists and offenders that roam free”. A similar AfD Facebook post with 4.75k shares features an AI-generated image of a scared elderly woman and the caption “hands off our elderly!”. It claimed that a nursing home in Berlin was vacated to make space for incoming refugees while in fact its lease agreement fell through. 

Figure 9: A Facebook post by an AfD member of the Bavarian state parliament that uses an AI-generated image of an apparent migrant family makes the misleading claims that more migrants receive unemployment money than Germans.


This analysis provides an in-depth look at discourse targeting migrants and asylum seekers on German social media in 2023. The most reshared posts on X and Facebook highlight that sentiment was overwhelmingly negative, with far-right influencers and political parties on X and Facebook exploiting isolated cases of violence or economic uncertainties to spread misleading or incendiary claims against them, often omitting crucial details. The language of an “invading force” in particular alludes to and mainstreams the racist ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory.  

The AfD proved the most pervasive force on Facebook while influencers and public figures also played a major role on X. The dominance of these actors on major social media platforms drove political discourse to the right. Ahead of European elections in June 2024, these findings show populists on social media can potentially impact policy at a broad scale. 


[1] The keywords searched were the following: Migrant, Migrantin, migrantisch, Einwanderer/Einwanderin, Asylsuchende/Asylsuchender/Asylsuchenden, Ausländer/Ausländerin/Ausländerin/Ausländerinnen, Asylant/Asylantin/Asylanten, Neuankömmling/Neuankömmlinge, Massenmigration.


[2] The WerteUnion was founded in 2017 as a registered association and understood itself as the more conservative branch of the centre-right CDU, while never being a formal party organ of the CDU. In January 2024, Hans-Georg Maaßen announced he would leave the CDU to transform the WerteUnion into an outright political party. The party was founded on 17 February 2024.