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How Germany's Far-Right Party Targeted Russian Speakers And Benefitted From Russian State Media Coverage

The AfD's message was promoted by Russian media and hackers, and the party also targeted Russian speakers with ads and flyers.

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For the first time in 60 years, a far-right party, the AfD, has won seats in German Parliament. From the start of the election campaign, the AfD benefited from copious airtime and coverage from Russian state media, as well as a push from Russian hackers running Twitter bots.

Here's how AfD's message was promoted by Russian media, and how the AfD itself targeted Russian speakers in Germany.

Leading up to the election, Kremlin-funded and affiliated outlets posted uncritical stories about the AfD. One report from Ria.ru, a news agency that's part of the Russia Today network, got picked up across the country.

ria.ru

The headline says, "'Born Kremlin spies': Germany rigidly pacifies 'Russian Germans.'" The article goes on to say Russians in Germany are seen as "second-class citizens" and that they will be "blamed" for the success of the AfD and told that Russian Germans will be seen as "influenced by the soft power of the Kremlin."

The post got just over 300 shares, likes, and comments on Facebook, according to social share tracking tool BuzzSumo. The low number of shares was offset by over a dozen other outlets picking up the story.

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The party also targeted Facebook ads at Russian speakers (though the ad's language was a bit stilted).

Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev

"With valor for Germany and our children

An uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar

Protect our borders, deport the Islamists!"

Russian-language newspapers also ran advertisements for the AfD, according to Coda Story social media editor Katrin Sheib.

The #AfD ad now takes up most of the front page - and there are still no ads from any other party inside. I rest my… https://t.co/ri9p3mom5w

While pro-AfD messages flowed on Russian TV, websites, and newspapers, Twitter bots controlled by hackers in Russia were also hard at work promoting the party. One hacker told BuzzFeed News they used bots to spread pro-AfD messages because it was of "mutual benefit." He didn't explain what that meant.

twitter.com

The botnet routinely spread pro-AfD messages and retweeted an official AfD tweet on the day of the election. After BuzzFeed News sent him a pro-AfD message, the botnet operator agreed to give BuzzFeed News a 50% discount on his services because we "share an ideology." (BuzzFeed News did not complete the purchase.)

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During election night coverage, the Kremlin-funded RT channel heavily promoted the AfD. The only guest on the broadcast was Maximillian Krah, a member of the party. Throughout the hourlong broadcast the focus was squarely on AfD.

The host didn't always ask softball questions, but there was little follow-up on Krah's responses. AfD's campaign largely focused on anti-migrant messaging, but on RT Krah pivoted to say its number one issue was jobs. He said "controversial" comments by candidates had been taken out of context and chalked them up to inexperience.

Krah was asked to analyze election results, and to talk about mistakes other parties potentially made. There were no representatives from other parties on the broadcast, though it's unclear if they declined to participate or if they were not invited.

RT's broadcast also puzzlingly featured a video of memes YouTuber Forbiddennickname created of socialist candidate Martin Schulz.

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As of now, the Kremlin has not issued an official comment on the AfD's strong showing. Kremlin press secretary Dmitriy Peskov said the results are being analyzed. Regarding the AfD, he said the party's gains are "an absolutely internal matter of Germany."

Jane Lytvynenko is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto, Canada. PGP fingerprint: A088 89E6 2500 AD3C 8081 BAFB 23BA 21F3 81E0 101C.

Contact Jane Lytvynenko at jane.lytvynenko@buzzfeed.com.

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