It isn’t just Facebook where the AfD has performed well, either. This year, a report from Süddeutsche Zeitung and AlgorithmWatch
that relied on data from hundreds of users showed how Facebook-owned Instagram seemed to favor right-wing content, with posts from the AfD tending to appear higher up in users’ feeds.
While it’s difficult to say how social media popularity translates to votes, many observers have attributed the AfD’s growth, at least partially, to its social media strategy.
“They managed to use social media to explode and find people and citizens that weren’t interested in politics before,” said Juan Carlos Medina Serrano, a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Munich who has studied the AfD’s use of social media and is now heading data operations for Germany’s Christian Social Union party.
In past elections, researchers and journalists have tried to measure how well the AfD has reached users on Facebook compared to other political parties. Like The Markup, they also found that the AfD has been able to use Facebook to find a large online audience.
After the 2017 national election, a Washington Post analysis
noted that AfD posts had been shared more than 800,000 times that year, far outpacing all other major parties put together.
In 2019, one report found that AfD posts on Facebook accounted for about 85 percent of shared content from German political parties, according to Der Spiegel
. A researcher told the outlet at the time that the AfD had become “the country’s first Facebook party.”
Facebook has highlighted its efforts to combat misinformation in past German elections. In 2017, after the last German federal election, the company said it had removed tens of thousands of suspicious accounts
to clamp down on the spread of false information.
Facebook also announced earlier this month that it had removed a network of pages
associated with Germany’s anti-lockdown Querdenken movement that promoted violent content and health misinformation. The movement is not directly aligned with a political party, although it shares its COVID-skeptical perspective with the AfD.
This month’s vote may present new challenges for the social network. In June, Politico reported
that there had been a spike in election-related misinformation as far-right social media users appeared to be laying the groundwork to make claims of election fraud after the vote.
What’s Driving the AfD’s Success on Facebook?
Experts point to several factors that have contributed to the AfD’s Facebook presence.
As the Citizen Browser data shows, the AfD and its supporters tend to run more active pages in general than their rivals, setting up relatively small, localized pages that garner support across the country.
The AfD, researchers say, also relies more on sensational, aggravating content, which is a perspective Facebook rewards with greater reach. “They trigger anger, fear—I would say anarchic or basic emotions,” Borucki said. “Those trigger people and affect people more than bare facts.” One recent AfD post found in our dataset bemoaning “climate hysteria,” for example, led to more than 5,000 “angry” reactions on Facebook.
This strategy seems to be catching on with other political groups. The Wall Street Journal reported last week
that some European parties had shifted policy positions to align with what performs well on Facebook, including more negative content.
The CDU didn’t respond to The Markup’s requests for comment, and the SPD declined to comment.
Like many conservative politicians in the United States, the AfD has been eager to court voters skeptical of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines, leaning into a populist stance against preventative COVID-19 measures.
Facebook says it attempts to automatically tag any content related to COVID-19
with a flag sending users to reliable information. The Citizen Browser data shows that, of the posts shown to our panelists, posts from the AfD were by far the most likely to be tagged by Facebook as being related to COVID-19. Our panelists were shown AfD posts tagged by Facebook for being COVID-related more than 250 times. In contrast, our panelists were shown posts from the SPD with tags related to COVID-19 fewer than 15 times, and this was the second most tagged in our dataset.
Many of the AfD posts inveigh against lockdown measures and suggest that the vaccines may not be as effective as health officials claim. A post about infections spread in a club that required proof of vaccination, for example, called vaccine-related restrictions quatsch, or nonsense.
The group’s posts remain popular, but it’s also not clear whether those posts are leading to new votes. The party is projected to end up in fourth or fifth place in the upcoming election.
Since the 2017 election, Medina Serrano said, the AfD’s explosive growth on Facebook seems to have leveled off. Now, he said, the party has gone from a strategy of looking to pull in new voters to one of cementing its base in German politics through Facebook.
“It’s more about maintaining the base than growing—it’s already capped, in my opinion,” Medina Serrano said. “But we’ll see the results on election night.”