The German political establishment and intelligence agencies are all but certain that Russia will try to influence the elections that will be called next year. There are a few reasons, though, why Germany has a greater resistance to the methods the Kremlin is alleged to have used in the United States’ presidential election. Germany would require a different approach from Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the most active proponent of sanctions against Russia after its aggression in Ukraine, giving President Vladimir Putin a score to settle. Throughout Europe, Russia has backed nationalist and populist parties that aim to weaken the European Union (EU). In Germany, the far-right, Eurosceptic party AfD, or Alternative for Germany, could use help fighting establishment political forces. So Merkel has reason to worry.
In a speech to parliament last month, Merkel spoke about the changed media landscape. “Fake pages, bots, trolls can distort views,” she said. “Today, self-regenerating opinions can reinforce themselves through certain algorithms. We must learn to deal with this.” Merkel’s warning didn’t mention Russia, but last week, a communication from Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence service, left no doubt about where he believed the threat lay.
Maassen wrote of the likelihood of a Russian disinformation campaign to “introduce insecurity to German society, weaken and destabilise the Federal Republic”. He also warned of cyberattacks by a group known as Advanced Persistent Threat 28, or Fancy Bear — a hacking team accused of breaking into the US Democratic National Committee. Maassen said spear-phishing activity aimed at parties and parliamentary factions has been on the rise and will probably increase as the election draws closer.
Germans already have an inkling of what a propaganda and disinformation campaign looks like. Last year, Russian media made a cause celebre of the alleged rape of a teenage girl from a Russian emigre family in Berlin. Middle Eastern refugees were falsely blamed, and part of the Russian-speaking community in Germany was up in arms. The six million “Russians” (or, rather, former Soviets) are the biggest immigrant group in Germany, concentrated in the major cities. They’ve been politically passive, but are mostly conservative, distrustful of Muslims and unimpressed with the progressivism of Germany’s education system. If the Kremlin manages to get them fired up, their anger can affect the election. Maassen warned that community would be one of the targets of a disinformation campaign.
Recently, pro-Kremlin Russian media have started reporting on a little-known organisation in Germany, Besorgte Eltern, or Concerned Parents. The group, which appears to include many former Soviet emigres, opposes sexual education in schools. It’s easy to make this sort of protest political: AfD stands for “classical family values” in the schools.
Merkel has never developed a message for the Russian-speaking community. There’s still plenty of time, though, and even if she fails and the entire diaspora votes for AfD — an unlikely scenario — that still won’t carry the day for the nationalists. Germany doesn’t have a two-party system, and opinion polls show AfD getting into parliament with a sizeable faction, but not even coming close to a plurality and a chance to govern.
Although it has been bumpy, Putin has a better relationship with Merkel than he had with Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the US. He has spent nights negotiating various Ukraine ceasefires with her and they speak regularly on the phone. But she is still an open adversary. So Russia may try the kind of operation against her that apparently worked against Clinton — what’s known in Russia as ‘kompromat’, or compromising materials. In the US, it is alleged that WikiLeaks received the content of Russian hacks against the Democrats.
It doesn’t matter that Germany has advance warning about hackers on the prowl for such data. People click on links in spear-phishing e-mails no matter how many times they’re told to be careful. In the case of Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, a tech support worker failed to identify a phishing message, allowing hackers to access Podesta’s emails. Unlike Clinton, Merkel lives modestly on her government salary and is known for her moderation and common touch. Putin’s hackers probably won’t dig up anything comparable to the “Clinton, Inc” memo — or anything that would justify her rivals calling her corrupt, as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump did with Clinton. Earlier this month, WikiLeaks gave Germans a glimpse of what its contribution to the campaign might be by publishing a trove of documents from a parliamentary inquiry into the collaboration between Germany’s BND foreign intelligence and the US National Security Agency (NSA). Merkel’s close relationship with the US and the intelligence-sharing between two countries are promising targets for attacks: Germans don’t want their government to be Washington’s puppet, and they’re fiercely protective of their privacy. The US is viewed less favourably in Germany than in most big European countries.
Nonetheless, it is easier to fight off accusations of being a US puppet — Germany, after all, is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — than to deflect allegations of corruption. Merkel’s popularity didn’t drop dramatically in 2014, when the NSA leaker Edward Snowden first revealed the extent of Germany’s intelligence cooperation with the US, and this line of attack probably won’t derail her now.
Merkel’s Achilles heel in this election is the refugee crisis of 2015. I doubt, however, that much unpublished kompromat exists on that: Merkel’s mistakes in handling the crisis were extensively covered by the German press. And unlike Americans, whose trust in the media is at a historic low, Germans still trust traditional media.
There’s a notable difference between the ways relatively conservative Germans and tech-crazy Americans get their news. Only 20 per cent of Americans find it in newspapers; 57 per cent of Germans still read a newspaper or a magazine every day. That means the effectiveness of fake news campaigns and social network echo chambers won’t be as high in Germany as it was in the US.
Besides, Germans are far more amenable to speech restrictions than Americans. Germany has hate speech laws that would be impossible under the First Amendment. Calls to outlaw fake news or prosecute those who spread it are coming from many quarters, especially from Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, and the other centrist political force — its coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party. Unlike in the US, the government in Germany has the ability to go after those who knowingly publish disinformation. A Russian TV journalist who reported on the fake rape earlier this year was briefly under investigation, though he wasn’t convicted.
On Tuesday, the leader of the Social Democrats, Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, posted a photo of a handwritten message on Twitter: “A fair fight! That’s how we must fight the 2017 election — not like in the US! No fake news, no bashing, no insults.” Gabriel wrote “fake news” and “bashing” in English. Germany doesn’t even have the kind of echo chambers of anti-establishment opinion that amplified the anti-Clinton line in the US, where a propaganda effort could just use the existing channel that gorged on the additional content. In Germany, the channel itself would need to be built.
Putin’s propaganda machine is sophisticated and creative and it probably has some surprises in store for Germany’s establishment parties. Yet, even despite likely Russian interference, Germany’s healthier political system, less disparaged media and a more conservative information culture should stop the 2017 elections from turning into the kind of painful spectacle the US presented this year.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.