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AfD eyes young voters in Germany for EU election boost

Stephanie Höppner
March 3, 2024

German 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections. As a result, campaigners are increasingly turning to video-sharing platform TikTok.

A girl wearing red watches TikTok on her phone, laying on the ground
This year, young Germans will be able to take part in the European Parliament election for the first timeImage: Robin Utrecht/picture alliance

In Germany, turning 16 comes with many new privileges, such as the right to buy beer, to drive a scooter or to buy a phone. But until now, young Germans were not allowed to vote, except in a few communal or state elections. That's about to change.

In the upcoming European Parliament election in June, following lengthy debates in Germany on lowering the voting age for EU elections, 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to cast their ballots for the first time. Young citizens of Belgium, Austria, Greece and Malta will also be eligible to vote this year.

Educators and foundations are therefore advocating for workshops and information sessions to prepare young Germans for the European election. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is associated with Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party, has called it "training up" the youth on its website.

Fears of populist surge ahead of 2024 EU elections

And it's a reasonable goal. Many young people are likely to be uncertain about who they're allowed to vote for, and what effect a small "x" on their ballot can have on their lives.

AfD canvassing on TikTok

Most young people, however, would probably prioritize social media platforms over foundations to get their information. The far-right, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has been targeting young voters with aggressive campaigns on the video-sharing platform TikTok.

There, Maximilian Krah, a right-wing extremist and the AfD's lead candidate in the European election, has cast himself not only as a politician but also as a dating expert, doling out love advice to young men.

"Real men are right-wing, real men have ideals, real men are patriots," he says in a video that so far has garnered over 1 million views. "Then you'll get a girlfriend."

AfD lead candidate Maximilian Krah
The AfD's Maximilian Krah is a right-wing extremist who has been doling out dating advice to young men on TikTokImage: MAX SLOVENCIK/picturedesk.com/APA/picture alliance

In other videos, he warns viewers that "your mother will be poor when she's old," or that "the government hates you."

Krah seems to have struck a nerve. An analysis by political consultant Johannes Hillje, which was provided to Germany's ZDF public broadcaster, found that TikTok videos posted by the AfD parliamentary faction reached about 10 times more viewers than videos posted by other parties. And accounts belonging to local AfD representatives and right-wing influencers are peddling similar content.

Reductive messaging takes advantage of TikTok algorithm

"It's a mystery to me why other parties do so little by comparison," Klaus Hurrelmann, an education expert, told DW. "This young generation grew up online, it communicates exclusively through digital channels, and it basically only registers political information on these channels."

One of the reasons TikTok is so successful is the way its algorithm operates — the crasser the content, the more attention is guaranteed. Other political parties in Germany are far behind in the race of garnering online attention, and it's unclear whether they'll manage to close the gap.

An image of the TikTok app
TikTok's algorithm rewards posters who are early to create content on new topics, and who post crass messagesImage: Marijan Murat/dpa/picture alliance

Many platforms reward so-called first movers with a wider audience, the online tech reporting page Social Media Watchblog wrote in an article discussing the reasons behind the AfD's success on TikTok. That means whoever arrives first is recommended to other viewers more frequently than users who create their accounts later in the game.

"Their messages are mostly simple and emotional, and often heavily abridged and misleading," the Watchblog authors wrote to describe the AfD's social media content. "In other words, they match the operating logic of social media perfectly."

COVID, climate crisis influencing young voters

Hurrelmann said he wasn't surprised the AfD had such success with young people. Above all, he believed that young first-time voters felt insecure. School closures and lockdowns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have shaken youth to their core, he explained.

"It was a watershed moment for so many youth, right after puberty at 12 or 13, to see that they were no longer in control of their lives," he said.

A young pupil wearing a surgical mask stands alone at a window
Government-mandated lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic meant schools remained shut throughout Germany, keeping young teens from socializing with friendsImage: Fleig Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

Young people are also anxious about the climate crisis, dwindling living space and facing poverty in old age, Hurrelmann added. "That's a perfect fit for a party like the AfD," he said, "because it's a party that can point out that governments have so far failed to address these concerns."

The effects of these messages became clear last fall, following the election in the western state of Hesse. There, the AfD ranked second among young voters between 18 and 24.

A generation divided

The results were likely driven by young men. "When you look at the AfD, the case is clear: This is a party dominated by men. It's mostly voted for and supported by men, and the same goes for young men," said Hurrelmann.

The allure right-wing parties have for men is not a strictly German phenomenon. Studies have shown that worldwide, Gen Z men and women are increasingly drifting apart in their political views. An analysis by the Financial Times newspaper found that young men either remained immobile or gravitated toward political conservatism, while young women were becoming more progressive.

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Hurrelmann believes the AfD have a good shot at the upcoming European election.

"Young people vote based on topics. Here, too, a party like the AfD has good chances," he said. "Young people don't care as much if topics are related to Europe or not."

This article was originally written in German.

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