Social Media in the German Elections | Issue 1, by Ray Serrato, Senior Programme Officer and Governance and Innovation Expert
- Accounts that support the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party were among the most active tweeters using the leading hashtags related to the federal elections. A few of the most active accounts also appear to be anti-AfD in stance.
- Overall, accounts using #BTW17 shared links to mainstream news outlets and political content, with only a few instances of spam. Social media was the most shared form of media, particularly links to Facebook and YouTube, where the AfD and its candidates were often featured.
- The CDU's official social media accounts remained largely silent during some of the most salient political events, such as the G20 protests in Hamburg and the vote on marriage equality.
In six weeks, Germans will head to the polls to vote for members of the 19th Bundestag. Election posters and billboards have sprung up in German cities and political parties have hit the pavement in door-to-door campaigning. And last Saturday, Angela Merkel held her first re-election rally in the city of Dortmund, where she made the case for a fourth term. Campaigning, it seems, is now in full swing. But in social media the fight for Germany's parliament, and the next chancellor, has been well underway since early this year.
As a follow up to our analysis of social media during the state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, we are monitoring the federal election campaign on social media, in particular on Twitter. Between 7 June - 9 August, we collected 134,752 tweets associated with the hashtags #BTW17 and #BTW2017, which are the primary hashtags dealing with the elections.
In general, there has been an increase in the daily number of tweets related to the elections, with one abnormal spike on 28 July. This was due to the news that state electoral committees had approved election lists earlier that day; the majority of tweets were by parties, candidates, or supporters - mainly from the AfD or the Left - celebrating the inclusion of their party on state lists.
#BTW17: Who was tweeting the most?
Nearly all of the top tweeters of #BTW17 are accounts that support the AfD or tweet anti-CDU or anti-refugee and anti-migrant messages. We previously identified a number of these accounts, which may be automated or semi-automated accounts. A few of the top tweeting accounts were also anti-AfD in stance. This includes one account, @Gottfri54836346, that was created in February 2017 and has already tweeted 7,276 times, with 1,104 tweets - or around 15% of all tweets thus far - using the #BTW17 hashtag. Combined, the top 25 tweeters of #BTW17 have a reach of 140,999 followers.
We identified 23,276 unique accounts tweeting about #BTW17. Around 80% of these accounts have set German for their language in Twitter. Another 14% of these accounts use English. The remaining accounts include languages set for Dutch, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, and Polish, among others. News media were among the top 20 most influential accounts using #BTW17.
#Hashtags: What were people talking about?
There were 9,330 unique hashtags used alongside #BTW17. References to political parties were among the top hashtags, with the #AfD leading by a large margin. Some of the most frequently used hashtags were also about events salient to the elections, such as #G20, #EheFuerAlle, and #NetzDG (referring to the G20 protests in Hamburg, and the passage of a law on marriage equality, as well as another law regulating social media). Among these hashtags, #EheFeurAlle and #G20 occurred at about the same amount.
In our data, we found 3,003 tweets related to #G20 and other hashtags relevant to the event. Among these tweets, retweets by the AfD were the most popular.
Nearly every political party commented on the G20 protests in Twitter with the exception of the CDU who only commented on the G20 summit itself. In Facebook, the CDU's only reference to the G20 protests was to thank police in Hamburg for keeping “security” and “order.”
#Ehefueralle also garnered attention alongside #BTW17 and there were 1,782 tweets where the hashtag or related words co-occurred. The top retweets came from a mix, including accounts like Christian Lindner (@c_lindner) and the official account of the AfD in North-Rhine Westphalia (@AlternativeNRW).
Most of the political parties mentioned marriage equality in social media except for the CSU and CDU, who remained silent in Twitter and Facebook. The FDP, the Left, and the Greens all expressed support for the law, though with some scepticism about Merkel bringing it to a vote prior to the elections. The AfD shared a message from the AfD’s top candidate, Alexander Gauland, that opposed the law and called for traditional families. In other Facebook posts, the AfD dismissed the marriage equality debate as unimportant compared to illegal immigration and the social media regulation law.
Other top hashtags related to #BTW17 included campaign slogans such as the AfD’s #TrauDichDeutschland and the CDU’s #fedidwgugl (Für ein Deutschland, in dem wir gut und gerne leben); opposition to political parties or candidates (#noafd, #grueneversenken, or #merkelmussweg); and other issues that could be relevant to voters (#flüchtlinge, #fakenews, or #digitalisierung).
Traditional media remains the most shared content in Twitter
In our analysis of the state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, links to traditional media were shared more often in Twitter than other forms of content, such as junk news. Our look at #BTW17 has similar results and is based on 22,840 unique URLs coming from 1,396 unique domains.
Users mainly shared links to social media and news media. Among the top 20 links to news media, the conservative Die Welt topped the list. There were a few instances of spam content and one widely publicized instance of fake news. On 10 July, the Junge Union shared an image on Facebook that was a composite of screenshots of two tweets allegedly made by Martin Schulz. The text from one tweet was real, but the other tweet was confirmed as a fake, and attempted to cast Martin Schulz as sympathetic to left-wing extremism. A court order forced the Junge Union to delete their post.
Links to social media, such as Facebook or YouTube, often directed users to content created by a political party or candidate. Links to social media posts by the AfD dominated #BTW17, with the top 10 Facebook links redirecting to status updates by the AfD or its candidates, such as the posts below:
Videos produced by the AfD or Bundestag candidates also made up the majority of the top 10 links to YouTube videos shared alongside #BTW17. There were also a few videos by the Left, and one video by the “Der Fehlende Part,” (The Missing Part), a talk show on Russia Today. We have compiled these videos into a playlist below.
Instagram and the elections
Instagram’s popularity among youth – 60% of the German audience is between 18-34 years old – has also made it an attractive platform for political parties seeking to woo new voters. At the time of our analysis, there were 4,530 posts in Instagram that used #BTW17, with 1,114 accounts posting, an average of 4 posts per account. The top users of the hashtag were more varied than those in Twitter.
#Hashtags in Instagram
The top hashtags associated with #BTW17 differ significantly from those in Twitter. After the top hashtag, #CDU, both #conenct17 and #jungeunion are CSU/CDU campaigns targeted at youth and social media savvy voters.
Mapping Instagrammers using #BTW17
Of the 4,530 posts that used #BTW17 in Instagram, we were able to geocode 2,127 posts and found that the majority of these posts came from within Germany, with posts concentrated in major cities.
The German elections take place amid heightened worry about foreign interference, especially after allegations of Russian meddling in the US and French elections. Researchers and experts have highlighted social media as one avenue through which disinformation campaigns - the spread of junk news, leaking of real or fake information, etc. - can have an impact on voter opinion and the electoral process. In Twitter, our analysis finds that misinformation and junk news has not yet played a substantial role in the conversation about the elections. German Twitter users largely share traditional news media and social media sources, as well as other political content.
Social media remains a powerful tool to spread information, real or imagined. As the elections inch closer, the opportunity still exists for political parties, foreign actors, and others to capitalize on an event like a terrorist attack or leaked information. The significance of such events will be in part measured by who interacts with this information in social media, and how it influences voters in the booth.
 Analysis is based on a review of the official social media accounts, Facebook and Twitter, of the main parties and not the accounts of their candidates or members.