Attempted voter manipulation on Twitter on the day of the Bavarian state election

Fake accounts on Twitter called to vote for AfD

AfD supporter accounts tried to persuade Bavarian users to give their vote to Germany’s far-right party. Our Twitter analysis.

Research by the Bavarian public service broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) recently noted that while the political party AfD placed many Facebook ads in the weeks before the Bavarian state election on October 14, it has not invested in sponsored tweets.

The party received election campaign support on Twitter nonetheless: Many unofficial supporter accounts encouraged voting for AfD until shortly before the polling stations closed.

Among them were many accounts created only in October but whose Tweets – despite a low amount of followers – reached a substantial number of retweets and likes within a short amount of time. This phenomenon implies either automatisation or an orchestrated campaign.

Nazi resistance group members misused as campaigners for AfD

A fake account on Twitter calledMaisie Willians

ShalomKawaii uses a Halloween photo of the Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams as a profile picture.

An example of such an account is ShalomKawaii. Her very first tweet is from October 10, and she began heavily promoting AfD only a few days later:

‘It is not yet too late to vote today for #AfD in Bavaria. Go to the voting station! Dare to do it!’, she tweeted on the afternoon of election day.

Shortly after, the account published images of the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg and Hans and Sophie Scholl from the Nazi resistance group Weiße Rose emblazoned with the saying, ‘We would vote for AfD.’

‘Hans and Sophie Scholl would certainly also vote for AfD.’

Fake duchess retweets AfD politician Meuthen

Additionally, the Bavarian AfD supporter accounts identified in our previous analysis increased their Twitter activity shortly before the election. Particularly often, they reweeted content from official AfD accounts and added their own call for voting.

The account Sophie-Charlotte von Hohenstein, which has a profile picture of the Wittelsbach duchess Sophie Adelheid, deceased in 1957, pursues this strategy. ‘Sophie-Charlotte’ retweeted a call for vote from the AfD politician Jörg Meuthen and combined it with the request not to vote for the Green Party or for CSU.

‘Let’s cross our fingers for the AfD. And please, dear Bavarians, do not vote for the Greens or CSU. Vote for sanity – vote für AfD. We only have one homeland and it has to be protected.’ Prof. Dr. Jörg Meuthen: ‘Good morning! If you do not want to give your voice to Merkel, you only have one choice today. Make your cross for our citizens’ party.’

Trolls and bots not well versed in Bavaria

Our finding from August 2018 that Bavarian AfD supporter accounts hardly cover regional topics despite having Bavarian-seeming profile pictures can be reaffirmed for the days before the state election.

As in the weeks and months before, they often write about alleged or factual cases of refugee crime from all over Germany, or they question the credibility of established media regarding different national topics.

Issues that are only relevant for users from Bavaria do not play a major role, with a few exceptions. For example, since October, tweets containing incorrect numbers about refugee crimes in Bavaria appear repeatedly.

Bavarian voters shall be scared with wrong numbers about refugee crimes: ‘According to CSU Bavaria is secure: 2014-2017 the following developments regarding Bavarian refugee crimes: murder +485%, mayhem on the streets +574%; offences against sexual self-determination +739% (rape +820%)! Victims that were avoidable!’

The declared enemy of accounts close to AfD are the Greens

Just before October 14, verbal attacks against the Green Party intensified, and the Bavarian top candidate Katharina Schulze was the main target. For instance, AfD supporter accounts accused her of collaborating with ‘anticonstitutional extreme left organisations like the DKP’.

‘Green Party top candidate Katharina Schulze collaborates with anticonstitutional extreme left organisations like DKP or with the labourer’s union that aims to rebuild DKP.’

There is a clear attempt to create a narrative that links the Greens to criminal activities. Many tweets, for example, mistakenly accuse the party of aiming to legalise sex with minors. To convey the wrong message, the accounts often resort to pictures and memes.

Support for AfD has been coordinated in right-wing Internet forums

One of the more harmless examples for a Twitter attack on the Greens in a visual format: ‘The green poison snatches at Bavaria. It’s a shame to let these green grumblers in power! You will have to pay the piper and then you Bavarians will need to give up your luxurious BMWs.’

An article by the newspaper taz from October 8 presented the on-going research by the London Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) about the Bavarian state election.

The first results show that, in the run-up to the elections in Bavaria and Hesse (October 28), right-wing groups gathered in international Internet forums where they planned to produce memes in support of AfD.

In his BR research about election advertising of the Bavarian parties on social media, Max Muth also concludes that official AfD advertising relied on attacks on their political opponents, the green party and CSU, and on the topics of migration and crime.

The accusation of electoral fraud

Both the unofficial AfD supporter accounts and the party itself also focus on another topic: The accusation of electoral fraud.

‘AfD Bavaria: Call for Sunday, October 14, from 18 p.m. on. Please exercise your right to observe the counting of the votes and make it ‘your own duty’. Let’s prevent electoral fraud to the disadvantage of AfD. Each vote for the state election counts for Bavaria, for our homeland and for AfD.’

On October 8, the official AfD Twitter account encouraged its supporters to go to the polling stations to ‘observe’ the election count.

According to them, this was necessary to prevent ‘electoral fraud to the disadvantage of AfD’. The party’s website contains a form which allows users to submit election-related ‘observations’ or ‘irregularities’.

Shortly after, the anonymous AfD supporter accounts took up the topic. User Daniel Kreidling, for instance, claimed that students in Munich planned to volunteer as polling clerks in order to manipulate the vote counts.

‘Dear followers, who of you goes as a polling clerk to a Bavarian polling station on Sunday? Students of the University of Munich are recruiting other students as polling clerks ‘to strengthen democracy’. Upon request, they explained that it means to invalidate ballot papers!’

The automated account ‘Aimee’ wrote about an alleged ‘obstruction as election observer in (the Munich city quarter) Untergiesing’ on the election day.

‘PLEASE RETWEET! Massive obstruction as election observer in UNTERGIESING. I was nearly thrown out three times although I did not impede the polling clerks nor did I interfere with anything. Only after I threatened to report their wrongdoing and to induce/start a scandal, they finally left me alone.’

In addition, there are false reports about ‘central computers’ that had putatively determined the election result long before the election day.

Are voters convinced by fake accounts?

Most Bavarian Twitter users have most likely not come into contact with tweets of AfD supporter accounts.

One reason for this is that, until now, the anonymous accounts mainly retweeted each other and only very rarely interacted with real users.

During discussions, AfD supporter accounts mainly communicate among themselves. An example of such a Twitter conversation: ‘It’s even more wicked if one is aware of the agitation by Katharina Schulze against white men. Greens, you are nothing than a bunch of hypocrites.’ ‘The entire green crowd is a fake.’ ‘Bomb the green bastards to where they are landed in Austria: 3.8%!’

The existence of bot and troll networks nevertheless indicates risks. In particular, users who are unaware of such Internet phenomena might be impressed by the apparent popularity of AfD on social media.

For example, they may think, ‘If their positions get so many likes, there might be something to it.’ In contrast, political parties without anonymous supporter networks cannot hope for such an effect.

Account operators adapt quickly

Even more problematic is the fact that automated accounts and troll campaigns develop continuously from the technical and strategic angles.

‘IMPORTANT: Make your cross only with a ballpoint pen! Sometimes you will only find pencils or colouring pencils at the polling station. Bring your own ballpoint pen! State election Hesse.’

This time, the tweets of AfD supporter accounts did not succeed since – among other aspects – they looked and behaved unnaturally. Furthermore, they failed to address Bavarian topics. In the future, however, this might change.

The focus on state elections is a new development, and, over time, the string-pullers behind such accounts will learn to better adapt their strategies to regional target groups.

Just after the Bavarian state election, many of the Bavarian AfD supporter accounts quickly changed focus to the election campaign in Hesse, their next practical field test.

This article was originally published in German. Please find the German version here.