In late June German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived to Washington - it was her last official visit to the United States before the termination of her 16-years chancellorship. The forthcoming elections is uncommon event for political life of the country as the change of chancellor may have implications for Germany as well as for the whole region in terms of stability – especially considering the role Berlin plays in many European and global organizations.
On Sunday, September 26, the Germans will decide their future - they will elect new Bundestag of the 20th session. Following the elections, German chancellor Angela Merkel resigns. Once she has claimed her decision to quit politics, it became clear that the political image of the country will change.
Understanding the importance of September elections, German authorities aware of foreign meddling, especially the ‘participation’ of Russia and the influence it may have on the results of the elections. Moscow, in its turn, clearly realizes that the replacement of loyal Merkel to another Chancellor may spoil Russia’s game in the security and economic field, especially taking into account a good chance of Annalena Baerbock, a candidate from the Greens, to become new German Chancellor.
And the issue of meddling is a matter of concern for Berlin: the European External Action Service (EEAS) published a report naming Germany the main target in Europe for Russian disinformation campaigns and cyber activities. As of the end of 2015, more than 700 cases of spreading misinformation by Russian media have been registered in Germany, compared to similar 300 cases in France. The report specifies that such cases intensified after Russia accused Germany of pushing forth sanctions against the Kremlin during its EU presidency from July to December 2020.
The conclusions drawn by EEAS were supported by a number of German politicians. Wolfgang Schäuble, the President of the German parliament, the former Minister of the Interior in Germany, in his comment to the news outlet dpa has identified the danger of foreign meddling as “relatively high”. The politician says it is often difficult to name the initiators of disinformation campaigns, but he mentioned “usual suspects” which, according to him, “will always deny accusations despite of being traced”. Schäuble said he is particularly concerned with the fact that a large part of Russian-speaking citizens in Germany, while generally being well integrated into German society, get information from foreign media outlets. He added that such an outlet as Russia Today – the former name of pro-Kremlin RT – is “quite obviously not a broadcaster that even comes close to the principles of freedom of the press.” However, RT and the outlets similar to it, no doubt, will broadcast the run-up to the elections and the election campaign in Germany.
Head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) Thomas Haldenwang warned on high possibility of meddling by foreign special services. As of February this year, BfV has registered “intensive attacks” performed by the “Ghostwriter” cyber group that appeared to be associated with Russia’s military intelligence service. Yet in March the attacks affected seven Bundestag members and 31 state parliamentarians. According to German media outlet Der Spiegel, the targeted politicians belonged to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Stolen data, according to the authorities, could be used and leaked on the web yet at the end of this year. One more cyberattack occured in January when CDU held online meeting in order to elect new leadership. Hackers made a number of massive attacks to sabotage the meeting.
Since April when Alliance 90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) nominated Annalena Baerbock as the candidate at the forthcoming elections, the politician has become a victim of fake news and the target of sexist attacks. There were conspiracy theories about her links to George Soros, about her alleged plans to have compulsory study of the Koran in all German schools, to ban pets, etc. There were published photos of allegedly naked Ms. Baerbock – as it turned out later, these were edited photos of a Russian porn actress.
The Alliance 90/The Greens said that a targeted disinformation campaign was being waged against its candidate. Viorela Dan, an expert in communication, is struck by the rage and scale of the fake news about the Chancellor candidate and says there is a political interest in it: people who want to prevent Annalena Baerbock from being elected as Chancellor are spreading information that makes her especially inappropriate for this positions. So, for example, the Russian media does not get tired of repeating that the Greens mistakenly made a bet on Annalena Baerbock and it would be better to replace her with Green party co-chair Robert Habeck.
The goal of the campaign is obvious – to discredit Annalena Baerbock. She is an ardent opponent of the construction of Nord Stream 2, for the completion of which Russia has been fighting desperately for several years. Ms. Baerbock is considered the only candidate for the post of the Chancellor who actively advocates tougher policy towards the Kremlin as a whole, and is able to achieve her goals. She has repeatedly stated that Germany needs a clear foreign policy position towards the Russian regime.
“What kind of foreign policy is this that, on the one hand, calls to the toughening of sanctions, and on the other hand, undermines them by maintaining the pipeline? Moreover, Nord Stream 2 contradicts European climate targets and goes against the EU’s energy policy and geostrategic interests,” she said in an interview with ZDFheute.
The disinformation campaign against Annalena Baerbock yielded results: after the publication of fake photos, accusations of plagiarism (although it should be noted that plagiarism experts did not see any real grounds in the charges against Berbock) and in the submission of incorrect biographical data, the ratings of the Greens fell (from 28% in spring to 21.5% in summer).
Speaking about the forms of manipulation on the eve of the elections, the president of the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) Arne Schönbohm noted that not only parties and individual politicians can suffer from hacker attacks, as in the case of Annalena Baerbock, but other possible targets are data that campaign offices collect, such as email addresses and voters’ political preferences. Given the extent and risks posed by disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks, it is essential that the German government, ahead of the elections, develops and implements a strategy to counter hybrid forms of interference, with a particular focus on public awareness, building trust within society and critical debate around issues of importance to Germany.