Alarming disinformation trends ahead of German federal elections

Websites increasingly sow doubts about the integrity of the electoral process, while Green party remains main target of disinformation 

By Roberta Schmid, Katharina Stahlhofen, and Marie Richter

With just a few days left before the German federal election, false claims circulating on untrustworthy websites are increasingly aimed not at political parties or individual candidates, but at discrediting the election process itself, an analysis by NewsGuard found.

These claims include some that are unique to Germany, such as the false assertion that German’s entire political system is illegitimate. Others mirror false election claims that have gained prominence in the U.S, notably assertions that postal voting is rife with fraud.

An article published on the conspiratorial website, which spreads false narratives about the election. The site’s owner Nikolas Pravda has in the past spread other political and health myths – including that members of the British royal family are actually reptiles. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Misinformation directed against the election process itself has been spread primarily by right-leaning sites, NewsGuard found; all six websites catalogued in NewsGuard’s tracker as having published claims targeting the election process fall into this ideological category. For example, in early September, the website, rated Red by NewsGuard — meaning the site is generally unreliable ⁠— claimed  that “no valid electoral law exists in Germany” and that no institution has the right to hold elections. 

  • In the summer of 2012, the Federal Constitutional Court did indeed overturn an amendment to the electoral law planned by the CDU and FDP. However, Pravda-TV’s report was baseless. In its September 2021 article, the site wrote:
    • “The president of the court explicitly emphasised in his statement that the old electoral law was no longer valid, it was clear that all elections since at least 1956 were invalid. […] For this reason, too, the upcoming election on 26 September is invalid even before it begins.” (Emphasis added).
    • “No city council, municipal administration, or district administration has any legitimacy to send out election notices, let alone hold elections. They are all companies and have no official status or sovereign rights.” (Emphasis added).

According to CrowdTangle, a web metrics company, the article reached nearly 10,000 people on Facebook.

  • This narrative leans on existing false claims by members of Germany’s Reichsbürger movement. Its adherents claim that Germany is not sovereign, but has been secretly occupied by the United States since the end of World War II. Therefore, they reject the political system of Germany and say the current government is illegitimate.
  • In fact, the court never said that all elections since 1956 had been invalid or that upcoming elections would be invalid. There is no evidence to support those claims. (Read the full debunk in the German Election Misinformation Tracker on our website). 

Attacking mail-in ballots

Many of the conspiracy theories about the election process have been circulating for months and even years.  Most prominent is the claim that mail-in ballots are instruments for election fraud. This claim has been spread by right-wing parties in Germany for years, but has gained momentum in the month ahead of the federal elections.

  • For example, on Sept. 21, 2021 ⁠— just five days before the election ⁠— right-wing news website, rated Red by NewsGuard, ran an article headlined “Bundestag elections: Postal voting opens the door to manipulation”.
    • The article stated that “More and more Germans are voting by mail-in ballot. But this undermines the uninfluenced vote and the secrecy of the ballot.”
    • “Whether the SPD or the Green party are just ahead of the Union, whether smaller parties enter the Bundestag or stay out – all this is also a result of the manipulation of the will of the voters with the de facto abolition of the free, equal and secret ballot that comes with postal voting. Do we really want that?” (Emphasis added.)
    • The article reached more than 5,000 people on Twitter, according to CrowdTangle.
An article questioning the legitimacy of mail-in ballots on (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Similar claims have been circulating on social media. (NewsGuard also catalogs false election claims on social platforms.) In September, the claim spread on Telegram and Facebook that one corner of some mail-in ballots were cut off or perforated, in order to make them invalid from the outset. Here, too, there are parallels with the U.S., where baseless claims of widespread fraud involving mail-in ballots continue to circulate widely, more than 10 months after the November 2020 election. Followers of the QAnon movement, for example, spread the false claim that then President Donald Trump had watermarked mail-in ballots to prove that Democrats had committed election fraud by printing their own, illegitimate ballots. (Federal officials and ballot printers have confirmed to multiple factchecking organizations that this would be impossible.)

Union Parties Targeted, Too

Meanwhile, although the Green party remains a main target of disinformation campaigns,  

false claims are increasingly targeting the Union parties (comprised of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, CDU and CSU) and Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), according to NewsGuard’s analysis. 

In numbers: NewsGuard’s German Election Misinformation Tracker now documents more than 60 false claims surrounding the election — 22 of them targeting the Green party and their candidate for chancellor, and 17 about the CDU/CSU and their politicians. One month ago, the ratio was 16 claims about the Green party compared to 12 about the CDU/CSU. 

The SPD got off relatively easy: NewsGuard catalogued eight false claims circulating about the party. None of these were explicitly directed against their candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, but rather, were aimed at other party politicians. NewsGuard has not found any false claims about Die Linke, the center-right Free Democratic Party (FDP), or the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD).

The purveyors of false claims have gotten adept at adjusting to the news. For example, in July 2021, NewsGuard reported on how many false claims about the upcoming elections were spurred by the floods that ravaged parts of the country. Among them were articles on right-leaning websites that claimed that the floods had been deliberately engineered to manipulate poll numbers ahead of the election. 

In August and September 2021, NewsGuard found, the government’s COVID-19 regulations and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan provided the most fertile ground for election-related disinformation.

  • For example, the radical right-wing news website claimed in an August 2021 article that Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder (CDU) was deliberately obstructing access to an upcoming referendum. According to the site, Söder made the previously free COVID-19 tests subject to a fee, starting on the very day of the referendum. (The referendum calls for the dissolution of the Bavarian state government and was initiated by critics of the state’s COVID-19 regulations.) 
  • In fact, although it is true that COVID-19 tests will no longer be available free of charge in Germany as of Oct. 11, 2021, a negative test is not required to participate in the referendum. Therefore, the possible inability to pay for a test does not obstruct anyone from voting in the referendum. 

A similar claim was circulating on social media with regard to the federal election, stating that people were only allowed to go to the polling station if they had been vaccinated, recovered from a COVID-19 infection, or showed a negative test result. In fact, only the wearing of a mask is required at polling stations.

Regarding the crisis in Afghanistan, reported that the government was taking advantage of the chaotic situation in the country to bring hundreds of criminal Afghans to Germany.

  • A September 2021 article on the website stated that “the German government spares no effort to smuggle as many foreigners as possible into Germany (including hundreds of criminals, as has now happened in the case of the ‘local forces’ from Afghanistan).”
  • However, as reported by Tagesschau, only approximately 20 people known to the security authorities for previous criminal offenses have entered the country inadvertently, according to officials. Due to the emergency situation in Afghanistan, the authorities could not conduct security checks on all evacuees, officials said. 

In addition, a fabricated quote from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas went viral on Facebook.  According to these posts, Maas supposedly had said: “We will offer Afghan refugees in Germany a better Afghanistan they’ve ever had.” However, According to the AFP, there is no evidence that Maas ever said such a thing. 

Why we should care: Especially in the days leading up to the federal election, misinformation threatens voters’ trust in the democratic electoral process. False and misleading claims spread by websites on topics such as COVID-19 and  immigration, coupled with an increase in false claims about the election process itself, could dampen turnout and even change the election’s outcome.

– Release date: September 24, 2021