Two recent studies have found that right-wing internet trolls set up dozens of fake user accounts in different social media platforms so that they can manipulate Germany’s political debate ahead of federal elections in September last year, reports Deutsche Welle.
One study, carried out by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the group Alt Right Leaks, revealed how some 5,000 users on the "Reconquista Germanica" (Germany's recapture) platform planned their social media campaigns.
The research revealed that the group launched a daily election countdown just three weeks before the vote, which included daily attacks on Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats/Bavaria-based Christian Social Union alliance (CDU/CSU), the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Left Party.
The trolls were given guidance to post, comment, retweet about political issues on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts, with strict instructions to denigrate the main political parties and candidates, talk up the far-right Alternative für Germany (AfD), and put down Germany’s refugee policy.
In one instance, the group took over the discussion about the TV debate between Merkel and challenger Martin Schulz, and then created hashtags such as #notmychancellor, which they then helped become trending topics.
Germany's traditional media outlets, such as ARD and ZDF, and their news programs and political talk shows also became targets in the trolls' attacks on social media platforms.
The second study, also carried out by the ISD, found that just a small minority of internet users were responsible for much of the hate speech online.
Some 3,000 posts and 18,000 comments were examined, with contributions from several major German news publications.
Researchers of the study revealed that about half of the likes on hate speech comments on Facebook were generated by about 5% of users, while 25% of the likes came from just 1% of the users. The users were noticeably absent from any other discussion, except where hate speech was involved.
Over the past three years, Facebook and Twitter have found themselves accused of aiding political groups and foreign powers who sought to influence elections worldwide.
In the United States, Special Counsel in charge of investigating Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election, Robert S Mueller III, issued an indictment last Friday against Internet Research Agency (IRA), a state-sponsored “troll factory” in St Petersburg, Russia.
A Russian business magazine, RBC published an article last October titled “How the 'troll factory' worked the US elections,” which offered the most comprehensive picture yet of how the “American department” of the IRA used Facebook, Twitter and other tactics to inflame tensions ahead of the 2016 vote. The article also looked at the staffing structure of the organization and revealed details about its budget and salaries.
The same underhanded methods used by trolls and social bots led Germany in January to introduce a crackdown on online hate speech, with huge fines for social media companies who refuse to remove offensive content.
Germany's election saw support for the governing parties drop markedly, while the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland won enough seats to enter parliament for the first time.