This year, as part of the Social Science Works project Deliberation gegen Populismus[1] we have been monitoring right-wing populist Facebook pages associated with Brandenburg. The project was financed by Tolerantes Brandenburg and included work from a group of students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule in Berlin. This led to the collection of more than 1000 public Facebook profiles of individuals which had expressed far-right opinions or had otherwise expressed their dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties. In the following, I will offer an overview of methods behind this analysis, the themes, topics and problems that came up most regularly across the profiles and pages viewed in this time as well as a preliminary analysis of some of the roots than underpin these things, informed in part via conversations with some of these individuals in person and online. Finally, I will outline the beginnings of an extension of this as a research project on the role of echo chambers online in Germany.
 

Finding Resentment Online

In order to undertake this task, it was first necessary to find potential Facebook pages where the target group would likely access. Facebook was the preferred method for attempting this monitoring because of its relative openness as compared with other social channels and because of its reach (38.98 million Germans count as ‘regular’ users of Facebook – that is they login to Facebook at least once per month[2], and approximately 82.5% of internet users in Germany have a Facebook account) which compares favourably to other sites like Twitter (which counts only 21% of internet users in Germany as members[3]). YouTube, the second most popular social media channel in Germany, with approximately 50% of internet users visiting its pages regularly was also considered as a monitoring platform. However, because the content there is arranged mostly as individual videos, or at best as a ‘channel’ without connecting with other sources, and because contacting individual users is more difficult on this platform, Facebook was the obvious choice for this project.

In this project, the first step was to locate Facebook pages which posted content most likely to attract the kinds of individuals we wanted to get into contact with. Having identified our target group as individuals living in Brandenburg which might vote for populist right-wing parties in the upcoming election, populist party Facebook pages were a good place to start. From there, we followed the network of connected pages of various sizes, including: Zukunft Heimat Brandenburg (3,098 Facebook fans), Identitäre Bewegung Berlin-Brandenburg (9,259 Facebook fans) and Ein Prozent für unser Land (62,468 Facebook fans). The next step was to find truly local pages where we could find individuals to invite to our workshops. We decided to host events in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder on the basis of the polling showing a strong preference for populist parties; this decision was later vindicated in the election results which showed the populist parties polling 25.3% and 21.9%, the first and third best showing for the party respectively in Brandenburg, both ahead of the Brandenburg average of 19.4%[4]. For this purpose we focused on local sites like Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich (3,604 Facebook fans) and Bürgerforum Südbrandenburg (365 Facebook fans). On these pages, we looked for individuals commenting, liking and sharing posts that indicated that they felt resentment to the political establishment or expressed views which could be understood to be extreme[5]. For example, a recent post commenting on the election that typifies the kinds of individuals we were targeting reads:

 

„Pffft nothing happens. 1. the election is manipulated, CDU, Greens, FDP, The Left, would all be thrown out of the Bundestag and AfD would have ruled alone. 2. AfD will not sit in the government, only in the opposition, so they do not get anything! Everything will be manipulated, as planned and Germany will be destroyed, step by step!”[6]

 (Comment from 26.9.17 on Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich’s Facebook page)

 

The individual above demonstrates the lack of trust in the mainstream political establishment as well as a distrust of the political processes. Individuals expressing views like those above were contacted directly over Facebook messenger and were invited to the events in either Cottbus or Frankfurt Oder.

 

A Comment on Gender, Privacy & Accessibility

The majority of the people that interact with these pages are men. Indeed, for the first few months, as we collected profiles, nearly 70% of the profiles we collected were of men. In a bid to redress this, we focused on collecting more women’s profiles in an attempt to keep the gender balance of the workshops more or less equal, and succeeded to that end. This is not to suggest that men are inherently more likely to vote for populist parties than women (initial calculations suggest that around 9% of women and 16% of men voted for populist parties in the 2017 Bundeswahl[7]), only to say that there is something about these online spaces that means women are less inclined to participate in them.

Furthermore, as a new field, the ethical implications of this kind of project do not have a long-established ethical code on which to rely on. There are considerations about privacy and the rights of academics and civil society to publish research relating to individual’s behaviour on social media channels. Although for some users, Facebook is a kind of public platform, for many users, it is used mostly to keep in touch with family and friends. However, our target group do not neatly fit into the latter category, insofar as they use Facebook to discuss politics and vent their frustrations with likeminded strangers. Hence, the Facebook users targeted for this project should be understood as using the site as a semi-public platform. As such, all participants’ names, identifying details and posts have been anonymised and the project relied only on information and content that is available to all Facebook users (‘semi-public’). In instances where we have posted content from personal conversations or interactions, the language has been either edited or paraphrased to preserve participants’ anonymity[8].

 

Analysis: Status Quo: Merkel, The Media & Political Elites

Merkel muss weg!” (‘Merkel must go!’) is a familiar slogan. Indeed, it appears on posts and comments we have seen throughout this process. The Chancellor is singled out as a ‘traitor’ for her stance towards refugees in 2015 and her handling of the ‘crisis’ since then. Likewise, there is a strong sense that the media is biased towards the political mainstream, the so-called Lügenpresse theme is very much in evidence across these pages. Across on Twitter, the handle @einzelfallinfos (currently 3,208 followers, after its temporary ban in 2015[9]) demonstrates this clearly. The handle is dedicating to sharing reports of crimes committed by refugees in Germany, the handle itself satirising what many on the right see as the tendency of the German media to describe such events as ‘isolated cases’.

 

“If something is “more precious than gold” right now, then its the experiences of the past election campaign. We have gained a new self-confidence! And an inkling of our own strength! Against mainstream politics and mainstream media, we have set mass immigration and its consequences as the No. 1 theme and reject the lie of Merkel’s popularity. We have achieved this with an anger and force that has not been seen since 1989, but always peacefully. We objected to Merkel and the elites loudly and openly. Repeatedly Merkel was judged at public events by citizens. We have begun to vent our outrage. And we understand how good we are!”[10]

(Translated post from 26.9.17 Zukunft Heimat’s Facebook page)

 

 

This of course should come as no surprise to anyone that has paid attention to the reporting around the rise of populist parties in recent years; Chancellor Merkel’s stance on refugees and distrust of the media has been widely reported and the Chancellor is regularly referred to among this group as the ‘Volksverräter’ (traitor of the people) In fact, for a group of those commenting on these pages, they take a certain pride in being called out in the mainstream media and by mainstream political politicians. In part, it is the view that mentions in the media should be seen as a victory insofar as they own the political agenda, and in part the view is that it is absurd that the mainstream describes citizens like this as ‘extremists’ or ‘far right’. The view instead is that they are simply giving voice to what many others feel but are too afraid to say for fear of repercussions.

Perhaps more interesting is the resentment felt towards the political establishment in general and towards the SPD in particular. The SPD doesn’t often feature in these kinds of online spaces, but when it does its appearance is entirely negative. The SPD are held responsible for the reforms to Hartz IV and are seen as an ineffective opposition. Likewise, as the long-standing party of power in Brandenburg, frustrations with the SPD on a local level are also high.

(Post from 22.9.17 Frankfurt/Oder Wehrt sich)

 

Similarly, in the run up to the election, for many populist party supporters, the weakness of the SPD was seen simultaneously as a clear sign of the party’s failure to engage with its core vote and as an opportunity for the AFD to win voters.

“The AfD is on the way to a safe third place. The SPD could land under 20% and would thus only be 8% in front of the AfD. We are looking forward to the election evening!”[11]

(Translated post 14.9.17 Junge Alternative Brandenburg)

 

Refugees, Migrants, Criminality & Islamification

An inescapable theme we have seen across the accounts and pages monitored for this project is the role of refugees, migration and the supposed link between the two and criminality as a driving motivation for many of the individuals to vote for extremist parties. This too is often coupled with fears relating to the supposed Islamification of Germany. For example, one useful source for this research, the Facebook page Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich features as its description: “Schluss mit dem Asylmissbrauch!” (‘End Aslyum Abuse!’) and includes as its cover photo the words “Asylflut Stoppen” (Stop Asylum). This is a typical for many of the pages monitored.

Very often the most popular content featured on these pages (as measured by number of likes, comments and shares) was content that related to crime, and especially violent crime, committed by refugees. For example, on one page we monitored over a one week period, an article relating to a knife crime committed by a refugee received five times the number of likes, comments and shares as the other content shared by the same page over the week[12]. Likewise, comments on an article about the role of Islam in Germany[13] provoked many responses including:

 

“The Muslims came over 30 years ago, and you did not do anything about it. For the next 30 years on, thousands are coming and you have done nothing about it, and now you choose Merkel again in Sept.”[14]

(Translated comment from 12.9.17 Frankfurt/Oder Wehrt sich)

 

This combination of fear relating to refugees and the belief that refugees‘ presence in Germany will lead to a rise in criminality and the ‘Islamification‘ of Germany, is something we heard in our conversations with participants. One individual wrote that:

 

“Only a very small percentage of the refugees are criminal, but, if for example, 2% of 1,000,000 are a whole lot. Here the German legal system is overstretched. In the countries where the refugees come from, there are tougher and, above all, faster penalties. If there is a trial here it is only after the 20th offense, it is perceived as a weakness and it is continued (see crime statistics). Things here need to be redressed… Wearing the headscarf, etc. should be prohibited in public. Mosques should be banned. Try to build a church in Saudi Arabia! Our country, our values ​​our rules … whoever does not want to stick to this can gladly go away again. Parallel societies and large families are to be eliminated. Equal rights e.g. law enforcement and tax recovery for all. Understanding of Turkish influence in Germany.”[15] 

(Written correspondence with a participant)

 

These responses are representative of the kinds of comments and responses we have seen most often throughout this project. The refugee situation remains the most important contemporary political topic for almost all individuals interacting on these pages. Indeed, this trend was no less pronounced in areas with fewer overall numbers of refugees. In fact, the inverse is true, the fewer the total number of foreign nationals living in the area, the more prevalent the topic became.

 

Ostalgie & Inequality in the East

Beyond the themes that stood out in the comments and shared content monitored for this project, there were subtler elements that require comment in order to develop a fuller understanding of the individuals that are likely to vote for far right populist parties. One of the key themes that came out, first online and later in discussion with participants is a nostalgia for life in the DDR, and a pride in the individual’s Prussian origins. A familiar refrain heard from many of the participants at the workshops themselves was “In der DDR Zeit” (‘In the GDR times’), a comment that was typically followed by a favourable comparison with their lives in the DDR and now. One participant at the workshop in Cottbus put it even more bluntly:

 

“In the DDR, I made 500 Marks a month, and paid 60 Marks in rent. Now I make 1000€ a month, but rent is 600€ – so where is the progress?”

(Participant in the workshop in Cottbus)

 

For the most part, this sense of inequality is only expressed online via comparisons to the supposedly favourable conditions of refugees living in Germany. A popular type of content would post the benefits available to refugees and contrast them with the benefits available to an unemployed German native, or a German pensioner. Naturally, the numbers featured are wildly exaggerated,[16] often suggesting that individual refugees are in receipt of  thousands of Euros in benefits monthly.

There are a number of other ways that this feeling of being ‘left behind’ is communicated online however. A number of individuals monitored for this project proudly displayed their fondness of their history by changing their Facebook surnames to ‘Prussian’, and a number featured Prussian iconography prominently on their pages. Similarly, a very large number of participants (nearly 100) listed their education on Facebook as either “The School of Life” or “The School of Hard Knocks”. Taken together, it is clear that this kind of signalling demonstrates a simultaneous distaste for the elite and a feeling of inferiority relating to their status.

The feeling of being ‘left behind’ should be understood in the broadest possible terms, and is coupled with the growing distrust towards the mainstream media. For many of the participants we spoke to there was a real disconnect between what they read in newspapers, visited online and heard from the news and their lived realities; that many return to an idealised past in the GDR should not come as a complete surprise in this context. Over the course of this project, while the participants were expressing difficulties with low-wage work and making rent payments, the German national press was as likely to run front pages proclaiming the success of the German economy and that the country is the power-house of Europe. For example, on the 9th July 2017 more or less in the middle of this project, the Süddeutsche Zeitung ran an article ‘The World & Its Germany Problem’ which proclaimed that the Germany economy is so strong that it was causing problems worldwide:

“Yes, unemployment has halved, employment is higher than ever, the state has as much money as ever, and the Confederation has no new debt. Many companies do well, the export industry is setting one record after another. Germany is so well represented in the world that the colleagues of the internationally renowned magazine The Economist illustrated the current issue with a Bundesadler black on gold and the headline: “The German problem”. “[17]

For the participants we met in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder, this kind of reporting seems very alien. It is not difficult, therefore, to see how the distrust seeps in. When citizens feel so far removed from a country’s own image of itself, it breeds distrust in the establishment that oversees it. How can it be the case that Germany is so successful when participants in Frankfurt an der Oder, for example, have to travel hours on the train every day to Potsdam find low paying work experience in retail, as one of our participants had to? This kind of fundamental disconnect between citizens and the establishment can only be fostered via stark inequalities of opportunity both for individuals and for regions, as we see clearly in the former East Germany.

 

Digital Echo Chambers

 

For anyone that has been paying attention to the questions relating to how social media can shape a person’s political preferences, the idea that an individual’s social media feed is an ‘echo chamber’ of their own opinions is nothing new. These echo chambers, formed by the collective voices of friends and acquaintances that typically share social and political positions, the repetition of content that aligns with their beliefs through the pages they follow and reinforced by algorithms that seek to target content based on pre-established interest and opinions mean that digital spaces typically reflect back one’s own opinions very strongly. This is to say that contacting someone ‘cold’ online, and especially someone from the opposite side of the political divide, is very contentious and is treated with extreme suspicion.

Perhaps the most common response to outreach from Social Science Work (save from being ignored altogether, by far the most popular response of all) was to ask ‘how did you find me’? Some responded with hostility, including blocking and swearing at Social Science Works’ team, and others opted to make aggressively sexual comments, probably with an aim to make me block them. Even for those willing to engage in real conversation, distrust was extremely high. One example of this is the woman that left me a two-minute voice message where she demanded to know where I had found her profile, what I wanted with her and why were we interested in her at all. Similarly, one participant objected to the location of the workshop because the hotel we met in was next to the local state administration, and he mistook the location as part of the state’s apparatus.

Part of the reason for this, as outlined above, is undoubtedly that digital echo chambers are mostly impenetrable and the intrusion of outside voices is unwelcome. However, given the opinions examined above, especially those relating to distrust of the ‘establishment’ this should only be understood as a partial answer. It seems likely, therefore, that part of the problem with reaching people online in this way is that is allows distrust to breed. At the workshops, the first item on the agenda was to make clear that Social Science Works is not part of the government, and everything participants shared would be treated with total anonymity which went a long way towards creating a more accepting and trusting environment.

 

Next Steps Towards Understanding Segregation Online in Brandenburg

This project has made clear that the problems of digital echo chambers persists among those likely to vote for populist parties in Brandenburg. Although there is much discussion surrounding the prevalence and problems of online echo chambers, there have been only a few attempts made to measure the phenomenon close up, still fewer in the German context. The work of Flaxman, Goel and Rao (2016), which relies on Groseclose and Milyo’s (2006) categories of media bias, represents a replicable model in the German context, however. In these studies, the degree to which an individual user or a Facebook page is ‘informationally segregated’ is measured.

In their work, Flaxman et al. examined 50,000 Facebook pages. The posted content on each page was ranked according to the publisher’s political leanings (for example, crudely, posts from the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post were ranked as left-leaning, while posts from Fox News, NBC and the Daily Mail were ranked as right-leaning). Using data made available from the Bing Toolbar, they accessed more than a billion individual data points. They conclude:

“We find that individuals generally read publications that are ideologically quite similar, and moreover, users that regularly read partisan articles are almost exclusively exposed to only one side of the political spectrum. In this sense, many— indeed nearly all—users exist in so-called echo chambers.” (Flaxman, Goel and Rao, 2016:317).

This method could be carried over to our research in Germany. As a first step, it would be necessary to develop an ideological categorisation of the major news outlets in Germany (Die Zeit, Bild etc.) as Groseclose and Milyo have for the US press[18]. From there, it would be useful to rank the content shared on some of the major Facebook pages that are used by those likely to vote for extremist parties. In order to measure the degree to which this differs from more mainstream pages, it would also be useful to measure the kinds of content shared on other citizens’ group pages.

Hence, an examination of 100 extremist pages and 100 mainstream pages would be a first step towards systematically understanding the degree to which information segregation, or digital echo chambers, exist in these formats in Germany. This project could also include an attempt to measure the effects of following certain types of Facebook pages by analysing the kinds of ‘suggested content’ Facebook sends to the Newsfeed for users following different pages. This would involve creating new ‘blank’ profiles specifically to follow certain Facebook pages to measure the political slant of the suggested content. It would offer an insight into the influence of these kinds of groups to the kinds of content that appears in an individual’s Newsfeed and provide a deeper understanding of the echo chamber effect[19].  This project would offer valuable insights for policy makers hoping to get a better understanding of the current digital landscape of citizens in Brandenburg and the scale of the problem.

 

Conclusion

Key throughout this project has been the need to get a complete understanding of both the kinds of online spaces occupied by those likely to vote for right wing populist parties, and the need to understand the problems and concerns they have that have led them to potentially vote for populist parties. It comes as no surprise that much of the problems initially appear to stem from the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, but is perhaps more interesting to focus on the details on display here. Very often what typifies this kind of content is demonstrably false misinformation and half facts which are deliberately misleading. The example mentioned above about the value of benefits available to refugees as compared to an unemployed German native is just one example for this.

It seems that media literacy, and especially social media literacy is lacking among this demographic. While the world, and the internet, has taken the concept of ‘fake news’ to heart, many among this group are extremely distrusting of the mainstream media, and I would argue in part this is because the reporting of the quality press directly contradicts the information they receive via their social feeds. The longer this goes on, the more it reinforces their echo chamber and the more that their distrust of the quality press and the establishment grows. This problem needs to be urgently addressed.

 

Notes

[1] See: http://socialscienceworks.org/2017/10/deliberation-against-populism-reconnecting-radicalizing-citizens-in-east-germany-elsewhere/ for a comprehensive overview of the project.

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/568790/forecast-of-facebook-user-numbers-in-germany/

[3] http://www.adweek.com/digital/germany-social-media/

[4] https://www.wahlergebnisse.brandenburg.de/wahlen/BU2017/ergebnis/karten/erststimmen/erst_bwkr_karte_html5.asp?sel1=2156&sel2=0658

[5] All of the content monitored for the purposes of this project was available to anyone with a Facebook account, no private content was included unless with was directly shared by the individual themselves with me and names have been omitted.

[6] Original German: “Pffft da passiert gar nichts. 1. die Wahl ist manipuliert, CDU, Grüne, FDP, Linke, wären alle aus dem Bundestag geflogen und AfD hätte allein regiert. 2. AfD wird nicht in der Regierung sitzen, nur in der Opposition, damit erreichen sie gar nichts! Alles wird durchgepeitscht werden, wie geplant und Deutschland zerstört, Schritt für Schritt!“

[7] https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.welt.de%2Fpolitik%2Fdeutschland%2Farticle168986852%2FAeltere-Frauen-retten-Merkels-vierte-Kanzlerschaft.html&h=ATPl_K45tEjwHsTcyGlfckvBG6SvGAw8EXAqaM1YjBKUaUnWhIlNNBzkI8RyrJU0vhsauFzZIyFodCjlJL2uQD2pNHnAowPtnzY1WQ-978ugrVJZYhou0dCt_mONtFwbmHMyZ8ppbHHmBsDeLrd_hu4duA

[8] These standards were also applied in the formal reporting we completed for Tolerantes Brandenburg.

[9] The handle @einzelfallinfos was banned from appearing in German newsfeeds in 2015 following a decision by Twitter which ruled that it propagated hate. Its followers responded to the ruling by sharing similar content with the English-language hashtag #withheldingermany – a comment on freedom of expression.

[10] Original German: “Wenn zu dieser Zeit etwas” kostbarer als Gold “ist, dann die Erfahrungen des vergangenen Wahlkampfes. Wir haben ein neues Selbstvertrauen gewonnen! Und eine Ahnung von unserer eigenen Stärke! Gegen die Mainstream-Politik und Mainstream-Medien haben wir die Masseneinwanderung und ihre Konsequenzen als Thema Nr. 1 gesetzt und die Lüge von Merkels Popularität abgelehnt. Wir haben dies mit einer Wut und Gewalt erreicht, die seit 1989 nicht mehr gesehen wurde, aber immer friedlich. Wir protestierten gegen Merkel und die Eliten laut und mit offenem Visier. Immer wieder wurde Merkel bei öffentlichen Veranstaltungen von Bürgern gemessen. Wir haben angefangen zu empören. Und wir machen die Erfahrung, wie gut wir sind!”

[11] Original German: “Die AfD ist auf dem Weg zu einem sicheren dritten Platz. Die SPD könnte unter 20% landen und wäre damit nur 8% vor der AfD. Wir freuen uns auf den Wahlabend! “

[12] In the week between 22.5.17-29.5.17 the article relating to knife crime received 93 likes, 104 shares and 124 comments a total of 321 interactions (correct at time of writing). The other content from the same week averaged 67 interactions on page – nearly five times less.

[13] http://www.moz.de/artikel-ansicht/dg/0/1/1603437/

[14] Original German: “schon vor zweitausendfünfzehn kamen die Muslime und ihr habt nix dagegen getan, ab Zweitausendfünfzehn kommen tausende und ihr habt nix dagegen getan und nun im Sept. wählt ihr erneut Merkel, also was regt ihr Euch auf”

[15] Original German: “Nur ein sehr kleiner Prozentsatz der Flüchtlinge ist kriminell aber z.B. 2% von 1.000.000 sind eine ganze Menge. Hier ist das deutsche Rechtssystem überfordert. In den Ländern, wo die Flüchtlinge herkommen, gibt es härtere und vor allem schnellere Strafen. Wenn bei uns erst nach der 20. Straftat der Prozess kommt, wird das als Schwäche empfunden und es wird weiter gemacht(siehe Kriminalitätsstatistik). Hier muss sofort nachgesteuert werden… Das Kopftuchtragen usw. ist in der Öffentlichkeit zu verbieten. Moscheebauten sind einzustellen. Versuchen Sie in Saudi- Arabien eine Kirche zu bauen. Unser Land, unsere Werte unsere Regeln…wer sich nicht daran halten will, kann gern wieder gehen. Parallelgesellschaft, Großfamilien sind zu beseitigen. Gleiche Rechte z.B. bei Strafverfolgung und Steuererhebung für alle. Unterbindung des türkischen Einflusses in Deutschland.”

[16] The most up to date numbers available at the time of writing suggest that a single jobseeker in Germany receives 409€/monthly plus housing cost, and a single asylum seeker in Germany receives 392€/monthly plus housing costs.

[17] Original German: “Ja, die Arbeitslosigkeit hat sich halbiert, die Erwerbstätigkeit liegt so hoch wie nie, der Staat hat so viel Geld wie nie, der Bund kommt ohne neue Schulden aus. Viele Unternehmen verdienen gut, die Exportindustrie fährt einen Rekord nach dem anderen ein. Deutschland steht in der Welt so gut da, dass die Kollegen des international angesehenen Magazins The Economist das aktuelle Heft mit einem Bundesadler schwarz auf gold illustriert haben und der Schlagzeile: “The German problem”.

[18] See: A Measure of Media Bias, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 120, No. 4 (Nov., 2005), pp. 1191-1237

Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, And Online News Consumption, Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, Justin M. Rao, Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 80, Special Issue, 2016, pp. 298–320

[19] This approach was based on the work from Data for Democracy, who trialled something similar using Pinterest, with amusing results. See: https://medium.com/data-for-democracy/crafting-projects-islam-and-russian-propaganda-ccba9a409fb5