The Salience of Climate Issues in the German State Elections

1st April 2021

By Christian Schwieter and Nicolás Heyden

In the two weeks prior to the 14 March 2021 German state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz, ISD analysts examined climate-related discussion on social media. The goal was to interrogate how social media drives climate-related debate during an election period, and to test methodological techniques that could be used to monitor online activity in the lead up to the German Federal Elections later this year.

This article looks at the key findings from this analysis. The methodology used is outlined at the end of the article.

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Key Findings

➜ Transportation, climate activists and renewable energy were the most prevalent topics identified, both for political parties, general online commentators and external articles cited on social media. Analysts also found that the content of political adverts generally reflected the overall climate debate.

➜ Discussing climate issues tended to gain a higher number of shares and retweets than other policy issues on social media. At the national level, posts over-performed by up to 36% compared with non climate-related posts, and in BaWü by as much as 133% depending on the party. This suggests that climate issues are not only high on the agenda for electoral campaigning, but also that such issues resonate strongly with constituencies online. Only in Rheinland-Pfalz did climate-related posts underperform on average, suggesting climate policy was deemed less important by the social media audience in this state.

➜ The three most popular posts on a national level framed climate policies and the sector negatively. The primary angles of these posts were to criticise the CO2 tax as an unnecessary financial burden, and to claim that the Green Party caused “sad climate results”.

➜ External URLs that were shared by accounts in the dataset predominantly framed climate policies and the sector negatively. Popular content included criticism of the CO2 tax, the German exit from nuclear energy, and climate activists such as the party Klimaliste, as well as denial of anthropogenic climate change.

➜ Most climate-related content in Baden-Württemberg, RheinlandPfalz and within national party leadership related to transportation. Prevalent issues were the potential of hydrogen fuels for cars (promoted by CDU/CSU and FDP), and the “mobility transition” towards more public transport (promoted by Die Grünen and Die Linke). Interestingly, CDU’s national leadership criticised other parties for focusing on selected new fuels while ‘ignoring’ others. This tactic was predominantly used by FDP to target e-mobility. Transportation was also among the most prevalent themes in paid political ads on Facebook, especially in Baden-Württemberg.

➜ Fossil fuels were the second most prevalent narrative within the national leadership and in Baden-Württemberg. Topics included the promotion of hydrogen and synthetic fuels, nuclear energy and natural gas. AfD accounts demanded a return to nuclear energy by downplaying the death toll from the Fukushima catastrophe, as well as criticising wind parks in Rheinland-Pfalz. Die Grünen highlighted the risks of nuclear energy and called for more renewable options. SPD’s national leadership paid for a Facebook ad which cited Fukushima and highlighted the “uncontrollable risks” of nuclear energy.

➜ Renewable energy was the second most prevalent narrative in Rheinland-Pfalz and third in Baden-Württemberg. The debate was led in both states by Die Grüne, which promoted renewables in general and solar in particular. Renewables were also the second most prevalent theme within paid political ads on Facebook in BaWü: SPD’s national leadership spent the highest amount within our dataset, on an ad promoting solar and wind energy in Germany.

➜ Overall, Die Linke was most impactful with its climate-related posts, measured by average increase in number of shares compared to non-climate content. AfD, SPD and particularly FDP performed worse on climate posts, suggesting that such issues do not resonate as well with their constituencies. However, regional differences were notable; it seems beneficial for all parties to post on climate issues at the national level, but not in Rheinland-Pfalz.

➜ Local party offices were more likely to spread disinformation targeting the climate sector, compared to leadership accounts. For instance, analysts identified a paid political ad from AfD MarburgBiedenkopf (Hessen) which named “Infraschall” [infrasound] as a side effect of wind parks. FDP Wehrheim (Hessen) not only paid for a Facebook ad targeting wind energy, but was also called out for distributing flyers which reinforced the infrasound claim.

➜ In Baden-Württemberg, analysts observed similar framing around unfavourable climate policies among both CDU and AfD accounts. The most popular post in BaWü, created by the AfD’s regional party account, criticised the CO2 tax for being a (green) ideologically-driven decision. Meanwhile, CDU accounts in the State contrasted maintaining prosperity with climate and environmental protection “shaped by ideology and prohibitions”. This could indicate that CDU accounts started to adopt AfD’s tactics to discredit certain policies.

Methodology

As a baseline, analysts collected all Facebook posts and tweets made by the party leadership accounts of CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, Die Grünen, Die Linke and AfD at both the national and regional levels. In total, analysts monitored 86 different Twitter accounts and 143 Facebook pages and collected a total of 8,586 Facebook posts and tweets in the two weeks leading up to the elections.

This dataset was complemented with an additional 73,471 posts and tweets that matched an election keyword list and were published in the seven days prior to the elections. The keyword list included words and hashtags such as #landtagswahlen2021, #ltwrlp21, #ltbw21, #klimawahl, and #klimaliste.

In addition to manual and automated analysis, analysts conducted a top-line review of climate related Facebook adverts paid for by political parties and major German entities during the election period.

 

Christian Schwieter  is an Analyst at ISD Germany, working across projects in the research and policy division. Christian focuses on the quantitative analysis of online political communication, with an emphasis on the effect of online regulation on far-right actors.

Nicolás Heyden is a Research Associate at ISD Germany where he investigates malign influence activities and online extremism in Europe.

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