On 21 September 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made an announcement about what the social media giant would be doing in the near future to counter future attempts to subvert democratic elections using social media after Russia — now infamously — attempted to meddle in the 2016 United States presidential election. In that announcement, Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook had taken actions against “thousands of fake accounts” in the lead-up to the German federal election:
We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend, from taking actions against thousands of fake accounts, to partnering with public authorities like the Federal Office for Information Security, to sharing security practices with the candidates and parties. We’re also examining the activity of accounts we’ve removed and have not yet found a similar type of effort in Germany. This is incredibly important and we have been focused on this for a while.
Germany, too, has been taking precautions in the weeks leading up to its 24 September 2017 federal election in which Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term — but there has been no evidence that Russian hackers have made any effective efforts to implement “active measures” or influence operations there.
Russia experts have noted that key European countries like France and Germany could be targets in the Kremlin’s campaign to disrupt the current global order by surreptitiously advancing anti-EU candidates like Marine Le Pen in France and isolationists like President Donald Trump in the U.S., with stated foreign policy goals, as the Russia propaganda tracking tool Hamilton68 says, of:
…the break up of the European Union, the dissolution of NATO and the failure of democratic governance in the United States specifically and in the West broadly.
But it’s no surprise that Russian hackers, bots and trolls didn’t make a showing in Germany, said Simon Hegelich, a political science professor at the Technical University of Munich. To put it simply, after the high-profile cyber operation in the United States and an attempted run at France, the jig is up:
In my opinion, the most effective step in Germany has been to engage in an open debate about risks of manipulation. If you are aware that things like this might happen it is very unlikely that you become manipulated.
Germans, like the French, are less susceptible to what has been broadly called “fake news” in the United States — a term that was coined to refer to waves of disinformation that littered social media in the months leading up to the November 2016 elections. A September 2017 study by Oxford University found that although the far right in Germany did employ automated Twitter profiles known as “bots”, traffic from those accounts was relatively low and ineffective — and Germans have a higher likelihood of sharing links to credible news sources than people in the U.S. or the United Kingdom. The study concluded:
We find that in Germany, conversation about politics on Twitter does not mirror the current polls. The right-wing opposition party [Alternative for Germany] AfD is dominant on Twitter, with most of the bots in our sample working in their favor. Social media users in Germany have shared many links to political news and information, but links to professional news have outnumbered those to junk news by a ratio of four to one.
Researchers in Germany noted a significant presence of online election activity originating with the American alt-right, a far-right umbrella term for an anti-immigrant, white supremacist movement credited in part with helping President Trump win the 2016 election. Hegelich told us:
[T]here are many Russian accounts — official like @de_sputnik and private ones — discussing the German election. But in our data we could not find a significant amount of hyperactive accounts or social bots that could be connected to Russia with our methods. Instead we find a lot of right wing social bots, retweeting also tweets from [Kremlin-funded news outlets] RT and Sputnik, but with a clear focus to support right wing groups like AfD, PEGIDA and Identitäre Bewegung. These accounts are using hashtags like altright and MAGA and are often directly connected to [the alternative social media platform] gab.ai. All this data is about Twitter, not Facebook. Facebook is very active at the moment to suspend offensive accounts or fake accounts in Germany.
A similar dynamic, in which far-right activists associated with the American alt-right tried to export their movement overseas, played out in the days leading up to the May 2017 French election. As with Democratic National Committee emails leaked to and published by document-dumping site WikiLeaks, the alt-right tried to push out a leak campaign using the hashtag #MacronLeaks.
Although the hashtag made its way deep in the night across the Atlantic Ocean to francophone social media users, it didn’t take root, in part because the alt-right failed to consider that their far-right counterparts in France traditionally resent the dominance of both the United States as a geopolitical superpower and the English language as an international tongue, said Ben Nimmo, information defense fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Case in point, he said: The #MacronLeaks hashtag itself was in English. Nimmo also pointed to the problematic paradox of an anti-globalist movement gone global. Ultimately, that effort fell flat and Le Pen lost to her moderate rival.
Efforts that were effective in the U.S. election have failed to take root in other parts of Europe as multiple resulting investigations are underway, but a study authored by Emilio Ferrara, a researcher with the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, seems to indicate the potential for it to happen again with more advanced technology. His study uncovered “the possible existence of a black market for reusable political disinformation bots”.
Ferrara’s data shows many of the bot accounts that kicked into high gear about a week before the 8 November 2016 U.S. election went dormant, then fired up again and started tweeting disparaging messages about Macron (the moderate candidate, and the eventual winner, in the French runoff vote). In a July 2017 phone interview, Ferrara cautioned about new technology that creates fake videos, making it appear, for example, that former President Barack Obama had given a speech he never gave. And once a person becomes familiar with social media bots, it may not be a challenge to spot them now. In the future, he said, that might change:
There’s mounting evidence that there are very, very sophisticated bots fueled by advanced [artificial intelligence] that can create credible human-like content.