How to influence voters and tamper with the German election | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.01.2017
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How to influence voters and tamper with the German election

Amid fears that Russia may try to influence Germany's election on September 24, DW explores the many ways Moscow could sway voters. Our analyst asks whether the fear itself, is perhaps Moscow's greatest weapon?

With eight months until Germans go to the polls, it seems not only politicians will be vying for voters' attention. The country's intelligence agencies believe foreign actors - namely Russia - may use similar tactics to those allegedly deployed during the US presidential election to divide public opinion and boost the fortunes of non-mainstream parties.

In a report late last year, the Atlantic Council think-tank warned that Moscow viewed what it said were "the West's best virtues - pluralism and openness - as vulnerabilities to be exploited."

It detailed a Kremlin "toolkit of influence," which sought to undermine healthy democracies in Europe and elsewhere, by using information warfare to undermine the public's trust in the political system.

DW spoke to Dr. Stefan Meister, a Russian foreign policy analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, and learned of six main tactics that the Kremlin appears to have already put in place.

1. Throw your weight behind populist parties

Unlike France's far-right National Front, there's no evidence that Russia is financially supporting the German anti-immigration party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has grown in popularity due to the migrant crisis.

But the AfD and other populist groups have forged closer ties with Moscow in recent months and their politicians are often cited by the likes of Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin-backed TV channel which has operated a German website for the past two years.

"Russia's foreign media and social media are giving the AfD a platform to criticize government policies and undermine the system. Also, the ultra-left wing party Die Linke's MPs are often interviewed," said Meister, who is the Head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia.

Meister pointed to the 3 million or so Russian speakers in Germany that are particularly vulnerable to influence from Russia's domestic and international press, who often portray the migrant crisis in a negative light.

"Plus the AfD has a quite high support among Russian-Germans, so that group is increasingly relevant."

2. Revelations about German leaders

During the US election campaign, Russia is alleged to have hacked Hillary Clinton's Democratic Party, which revealed an attempt to smear Clinton's main rival Bernie Sanders. Other hacking revelations ensured another scandal - over the vulnerability of Clinton's email server - dominated the election season.

Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel could be targeted

Similarly, German intelligence agencies have blamed Russia for cyber attacks on the Bundestag and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party offices over the past two years.

To date, few details have been made public about the harm caused, but intelligence officials fear potentially damaging information uncovered during the hack could be used to discredit politicians in the lead up to September's election.

"We don't know what information they got from the Bundestag (attack) and how it will be used against the parties," the longtime Russia specialist told DW.

"Maybe they'll use it against Angela Merkel. I don't think she's as vulnerable as Hillary Clinton, but we don't know how they might create a scandal from something that is not such a big issue," Meister said.

3. Spread fake news through social media

Germany has already witnessed how fake news stories can spread through social media before officials get the opportunity to uncover that they are false.

Last year, a 13-year-old German Russian-German girl admitted making up a story about being kidnapped and raped by migrants in Berlin. Her accusations were boosted by a furor in the Russian media, which accused Germany of covering up the case.

Dr Meister told DW that the rape allegations were "for a short moment a very successful fake story," before German authorities were able to refute the claims.

He said the social media strategy of Kremlin-backed media outlets, which regularly produce anti-German stories, has been "really quite successful."

"The content is also shared in left and right-ring populist networks and they get a much bigger audience by targeting special interest groups here in Germany, like peace movements," Meister said.

German authorities have studied the rise of social media bots - automated Twitter and Facebook accounts - that are used to share fake news to thousands of followers at a time.

Similarly, it's feared that Russia's infamous troll factories, where hundreds of bloggers are paid to flood forums and social media accounts with often hate-filled comments, have also been deployed to negatively influence the German election debate.

4. Play up the migrant crisis and terrorism

The AfD has ramped up fears linking the arrival of more than a million migrants over the past two years to terrorism and crime.

Pegida march

Anti-immigration Pegida protesters in Dresden

Despite support for Chancellor Angela Merkel falling after the Cologne New Year's Eve sex attacks and a handful of violent incidents involving refugees last summer, voter confidence appears to have returned in the wake of the Berlin Christmas market attack on December 19.

But most analysts believe the migrant crisis will continue to be played up during the election campaign, not just in domestic politics but also by foreign influencers.

"There are plenty of opportunities in the field of terrorism, refugees, criminality, and you can really target Merkel, that's her weakest flank," Meister warned.

5. Target specifically German fears

Following Britain's decision to leave the EU, Moscow may attempt to play up euro skepticism among some German voters, while ramping up conflict fears by continuing to accuse NATO of provoking Russia.

Dr Meister said there were several issues very specific to Germany that could be used to divide voters.

"Our guilt over World War II, our appreciation for the support of the Soviet Union for German reunification, and a sense that we have to compromise with Russia to ensure peace in Europe, these are all issues that can be leveraged," Meister told DW.

He said these topics are felt strongly, not just among left and right-wing voters, but also throughout mainstream German society.

6. Create the stimulus, wait for the response

Some experts caution that the high-profile media coverage highlighting Russia's influence is only fueling anxiety among the political classes. Although a proportion of voters will be easily influenced, a majority are still likely to vote along traditional party lines, they say.

"The fear of what Russia could do appears to me to be much more successful than what Russia is actually doing," said Meister.

He argued that Moscow's objective had been to discredit the US presidential election, while also showing the American people and its own population that Russia is able to achieve that level of influence.

Meister said after previously miscalculating the Russian threat, authorities were perhaps now overestimating Russia's ability to control how Germans vote.

"The threat is as big as we make it," he told DW.

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