How Germany’s far right took over Twitter – and tilted the election

A sophisticated and tightly organised troll army has spent the last three months championing a ‘patriotic revolution’. Boosting the AfD’s power is just the start.

“You are vetted,” IdentitasTH writes after testing my knowledge on “alt-right” counterculture, verifying my connections to the Austrian extreme right and checking the timelines of my avatar social media accounts. It was a few weeks ago that I first entered the virtual world of Infokrieg (Infowar), a closed online community run by Identitarians whose primary goal was to manipulate the German election.

Mobilisation efforts started in early July, when the Austrian Identitarian leader Martin Sellner opened an information warfare channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. His declared goal was to create a patriotic digital revolution; tilting the German election in favour of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) would only be the beginning. The extreme-right activists had even drafted a comprehensive handbook on media guerrillas that included instructions on “shitposting”, open-source meme warfare and social networking raids.

With 13.3% of the vote, AfD achieved everything the Identitarians could hope for: the far-right party tripled its vote from the last general election in 2013, comfortably took third place and becomes the first openly nationalist party to enter the German parliament since the second world war.

Users of Infokrieg and Reconquista Germania, a YouTube channel led by the far-right online celebrity Nikolai Alexander, posted triumphant messages. “We are getting stronger and stronger. Praise Kek! Party time!” wrote one, in reference to the fictional far-right land of “Kekistan”.

Reconquista Germania gave rise to a bigger, more extreme group, who convened over the gaming app Discord to form a community where neo-Nazi symbols and Holocaust-denying literature are found next to pro-AfD and anti-Merkel memes. In preparation for “Day X”, its members share comprehensive survival guides that include emergency stock lists, instructions on where to buy knives, how to build electroshockers and how to use weapons such as the FG-42, a Nazi-era gun originally used by paratroopers.

Over Discord, those committed to Reconquista’s endeavour, were set targets, provided with instructions and equipped with an arsenal of memes glorifying Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the AfD and denouncing Islam, the EU and the “old parties”. This massive, tightly organised troll army was then released into the depths of social media, where the perks of online anonymity allowed them to be as shameless as possible and as merciless as necessary. In targeted bullying campaigns they attempted to shut up their foremost critics; in large-scale Twitter and YouTube raids they sought to discredit and mock their political opponents.

If the tone was that of a game, the impact was emphatically real: AfD’s massive vote gains reflect the extreme right’s ability to conquer online space and win the information war with sophisticated obfuscation and disruption tactics. By scheduling a time each evening and agreeing on hashtags, they forced the Twitter algorithms to prioritise their posts. It was thanks to this tactic that they managed to catapult #Schicksalswahl, # TrauDichdeutschland, #NichtmeineKanzlerin and #MerkelMussWeg into the top Twitter trends in Germany. In the two-week run-up to the election, not a single day passed when #AfD was not in the top two trending hashtags in Germany.

The extreme right’s creation of strategic information networks, often using fake and parody accounts, served to widen their reach and penetrate new audiences. An Infokrieg activist even recommended setting up left-leaning accounts to “infiltrate the opposing filter bubble”. This tactic mirrors AfD Bavaria’s Facebook campaigns, which actively targeted people with an interest in Merkel and the FDP with messages specifically tailored to their grievances.

Exactly how much does AfD know about these extreme rightwing operations launched in its name? Considering that many regional factions and leading party members hold accounts on the far-right Twitter equivalent Gab and the Russian Facebook equivalent VK, it is hard to imagine it did not see the calls for participation. Some AfD party members even endorsed and supported the activities: a few weeks prior to the election, the AfD-Television YouTube channel, which is managed by a member of AfD Bavaria and counts more than 16,000 subscribers, shared a video of Sellner that included links to the Discord channels Infokrieg and Reconquista Germania.

Our research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue shows that the weaponisation of internet culture to bring about change is a growing tactic of the extreme right. Higher levels of international information exchange and cross-ideological collaboration have allowed rightwing extremists to develop more sophisticated tactics and increased their chances of reaching common goals.

Pandora’s box is open; even in Germany it is too late to simply ignore the extreme right. They have a voice now and one that resonates with more people than we thought was possible. But we have not yet reached the point of no return, we can still prevent the Overton window – of what makes up acceptable discourse – from shifting further to the right.

The next government will need to openly address the many uncomfortable questions surrounding German identity, in particular historic divisions between east and west; left and right; and native and immigrant Germans. More importantly, however, it is up to all of us to make a convincing case for a pluralistic, open and democratic society.