19th August 2021
By Chloe Colliver, Jiore Craig & Julia Smirnova
The prevalence and dangers of COVID-19 disinformation – whether to public health, public safety, or individual wellbeing – are well documented and clear to see. However, one target of COVID-19 disinformation has been less obviously clear: elections.
In a time of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, voting by mail is enabling millions around the world to remain involved in their democratic systems and ensures the continuation of democratic elections, even at enormous scale as was seen in the US Presidential Election in 2020. At the same time, while postal voting raises new logistical and conceptual challenges about electoral processes, it too often falls prey to false stories of fraud and corruption, driven by those seeking to undermine trust in the democratic process and its outcomes.
The pandemic saw the spread of manipulated, unfounded and factually incorrect claims of voter fraud, unrepresentative of the real and valid debates around alternative voting methods. In the US in 2020, ISD’s research exposed how false claims of fraud relating to postal voting reached millions online via mainstream platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and fringe sites like 4Chan. The research revealed how such claims were frequently allowed to spread unchecked by platforms, despite new policies being established by companies to counter election-related disinformation. The real-world threat this posed materialised on 6 January 2021, when the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement in the US morphed into an all-out assault on the nation’s Capitol and the Members of Congress inside.
The efforts and tactics that were used to promote electoral disinformation in US – and ultimately radicalised people to take extreme action against the electoral outcome – are not confined to the US. In the lead-up to the 6 June 2021 Saxony Anhalt German state election, false claims about election fraud were promoted online by far-right politicians and influencers, potentially reaching millions on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Telegram. Within 24 hours of the June 6 election, ISD analysts identified almost 5,000 uses of the hashtag ‘Wahlbetrug’ (‘election fraud’) on Twitter alone, reiterating previous ISD research which found similar efforts launched in the 2018 Bavarian State Elections and the 2017 German Federal Election by far-right groups and supporters online. No evidence of voting irregularities was identified in any one of these cases to legitimise the false claims being made.
Tactics to undermine trust in the postal vote
Amid this threat, and ahead of the German Federal Election in September, ISD analysts have monitored a range of social media platforms – including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Telegram and VK – to identify organised efforts designed to undermine trust in the upcoming Federal Election.
Analysts observed that the majority of disinformation claims alleging and predicting electoral fraud via postal vote remain in online far-right groups and communication channels. However, they also found that German far-right politicians and influencers are mimicking the narratives and tactics used by their counterparts across the Atlantic in 2020 to undermine faith in the both the vote and its results.
1 – The use of false stories from the US to validate claims.
ISD analysts identified German right-wing media outlets creating German-language content based on misinformation from a US-based right-wing sponsored page masquerading as a local news outlet. The US article falsely claims that an e-mail proved that election fraud took place in Wisconsin. The German outlets Die Freie Welt and Journalistenwatch covered this story in German, and their articles were used online to bolster claims of impending voter fraud in Germany. Links to their articles have been shared on Facebook and VK, including in several Alternative for Germany (AfD) supporter groups where users have expressed concerns that Germany would see “Soros-dependent Lefties” influencing the upcoming election. This also serves to demonstrate the transatlantic nature of election disinformation efforts.
2 – Politicians fomenting distrust in postal voting using social media posts and paid advertisements.
Analysts observed AfD groups and politicians sharing an official AfD video which calls for electoral voting to only be permitted in person, claiming that postal voting “undermines a basic principle of our democracy – free and secret election”. On August 16, the same day that postal voting officially started in Germany, the video was shared by several regional AfD branches. At the time of writing, the video has received more than 150K views on Facebook and more than 16K views on YouTube.
While the video itself does not contain any false information, its promotion of the traditional and “proven” ballot box over allegedly risky postal voting served to generate a hotbed of disinformation in the comments. Here, users express doubts about the legitimacy of the election overall, discussing concerns that the election will be manipulated and making unsubstantiated claims that non-vaccinated people will not be allowed to vote.
The official AfD Facebook account has also been running ads featuring the video, and which advocate for voting in person, since August 3. Regional branches of AfD also ran similar ads earlier in the year. During the US election, Facebook had policies in place that would apply penalties to paid or organic content making false claims about elections and processes, and while the company has vowed to protect the German elections, it is unclear what policies they will carry over and enforce. As a result, the AfD ads – promoting electoral-disinformation – have run uninterrupted for weeks, with Facebook’s Ad Library recording at least 160,000 user impressions to date.
The campaign is also supported by prominent AfD politicians. Bjorn Höcke, one of the leaders of the far-right “Der Flügel” faction within the AfD, called on his supporters to promote voting in person and to get active as election observers on his official Facebook page. In the post, he shared a link to a website about “election observation”, which is run by the German far-right organisation ‘EinProzent’. The organisation has been running campaigns to undermine trust in the integrity of the election for several years.
Additionally, the Facebook pages of regional AfD branches in Leipzig and Bitterfeld-Wolfen shared a post on Facebook calling for voting in person rather than voting by mail “to prevent fraud”. This narrative is not new: in November 2020, AfD politician Torben Braga publicly claimed that the US election proved that postal voting is associated with a higher risk of manipulation.
3- The use of Facebook groups to host voter disinformation.
AfD groups on Facebook are increasingly becoming home to unfounded claims of postal vote fraud and attempts to undermine the integrity of the election before votes have even been cast. The AfD Münster page on Facebook, along with several other groups, plays host to a recently published article by an Austrian website, Report24, that misleadingly claims that “systematic ” election fraud has been already taking place in Germany. The article speculates that only postal voting will be permitted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This type of activity by the party, which targets German voters online with unfounded and speculative claims, could be prevented through social media platforms enacting policies which require political parties to make clear and accountable commitments to the principles of a fair digital election campaign.
Platform challenges and risks
It required immense pressure from campaigners and researchers before major platforms like Facebook and Twitter took action to protect the US elections from disinformation campaigns like those outlined above – despite companies having policies in place to supposedly prevent them. Yet the insurrection in the US on January 6 showed how election disinformation can radicalise people to take extreme action, with poor policy enforcement and slow action from major social media companies such as Facebook contributing to election-disinformation reaching more people in the US.
In the German context, social media companies’ commitments to safeguard German voters and the vote itself have been minimal. With election-related disinformation starting to spread online in Germany, concerns around whether platforms will robustly and transparently enforce their election-related policies in time to protect the German election from the type of harms witnessed in the US are well-founded. Given the potency of election-disinformation, more expansive, urgent, proactive policy changes may be in order. For example, Facebook could adjust its NEQ scores to give credible news sources a higher weight in advance of the German elections – something the company did only after election disinformation was flooding US Facebook feeds following the election.
Chloe Colliver is Head of Digital Policy and Strategy at ISD, where she leads a global team of analysts studying disinformation and extremism online, including programmes of work focusing on the German, European Parliamentary, UK, Swedish and US Elections.
Jiore Craig is Head of Political Integrity and Digital Communication at ISD, where she leads global work focused on tactics and digital platforms used in elections informed by her background in political and election work across the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Julia Smirnova is an Analyst at ISD, currently focusing on disinformation and extremism ahead of the Federal Election in Germany. Prior to joining ISD, Julia worked as a journalist for German publications such as Die Welt and Der Spiegel.