2020 has been the year in which Germany achieved infamous standing as the country with the biggest QAnon community outside the English-speaking world. Since we know that QAnon is eclectic thematically and relatively arcane organisationally, the increase in QAnon supporters in Germany cannot be explained as an entirely new phenomenon but rather constitutes the fusion of long-running with newly emerged factors, such as a persistent sympathy for right-wing propaganda against elites and the unfolding of a global pandemic.
Following the US election on 3 November 2020 and its tumultuous aftermath, including the repeated claims of a “stolen election” and violent storm of the US Capitol on 6 January up until the inauguration of Joe Biden on 20 January, the various QAnon Telegram groups were frantically active. At the same time, the most engaging content on Facebook around these peak events portrayed relatively little content that resembled QAnon or similar conspiracy theories, but instead was overshadowed by mainstream news outlets.
While QAnon, as well as other right-wing groups, are trying to establish a foothold on mainstream platforms such as Facebook in order to reach a broad audience, the following question emerges: If groups peddling conspiracy theories decreased in popularity and moved onto private messaging channels such as Telegram, would they be considered less of a threat in Germany?
In this Insight, the core point I would like to make is two-fold: first, the content moderation of German Facebook pages, groups, and publicly verified accounts has led to this outcome; and second, the potential threats from advocates of these ideas, however, has not vanished. They simply adapted their content on Facebook. However, the continuous invoking of the “threat of the deep state” carries resemblance to long-lived narratives of the far-right. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s national domestic intelligence service, believes these narratives “can develop into a danger” when used to legitimise violence against political officials. Admittedly, the attempt to storm the Reichstag, the building that is home to the German parliament, in August 2020 is already a case in point (just before the attempt, a woman was giving a speech at the preceding demonstration invoking the need to “take back our house”).
This section takes a closer look at how the most engaged content on Facebook around previously mentioned peak events (surprisingly) portrays relatively little content that resembles QAnon or similar conspiracy theories. For this snapshot, I employed CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, which covers public pages, public groups and verified profiles on the platform. For the purpose of this blog, this limitation is apt as I am interested in acquiring a snapshot of the most popular content with regard to certain events, which are widely visible public spaces, rather than in the more minor flows that may branch off from this stream. However, other research needs to be consulted when trying to track further reactions and/or engagements through closed groups, private profiles, direct messaging or, of course, other platforms. Over the last 24 hours (captured between 19- 20 January) as well as the last thirty days (22 December 2020 – 21 January 2021), I searched CrowdTangle using one singular and one combined word query around Trump. This identified any posts on public groups, pages and verified profiles that contained any of the applied words or word stems.
In the analysis, I applied an internal CrowdTangle feature that shows overperforming content as well as screened the most influential content simply by date (without the “overperforming” filter added; overperforming means it’s doing better than the average activity on that page). Significantly, the first fifty “overperforming posts” in the last 24 hours (which covers the inauguration) are all from mainstream newspapers, and some advocacy groups (“Nein zur AfD” [No to AfD]), with only one journalist, Roger Köppel, pitying Trump for what he and his family went through in the last four years.
For the overperforming posts in the last thirty days (which includes the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January), the first post is from a page called “German Chemtrail Watchers”. This one far outweighs the others as it is doing 73,19 times better than is expected and was shared 699 times. Following this post, two other posts that both feature critical discussions on social media platforms barring Trump follow (from “Zuerst denken – dann handeln” [Think first – then act] and “mimikama” [synthetic word], which are both part of an association aimed at combatting misuse of the Internet). While Chemtrails outweighs them in performance, the reactions with 1.5k comments are much higher.
In addition, content from the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was now featured within the first twenty posts. Joana Cotar, the speaker for digital policies of the AfD faction in German parliament, attacked tech firms in the aftermath of banning Trump and reproached them for “digital censoring (…) officially called de-platforming,” that “always targets conservative voices.” Together with another AfD politician Florian Jäger and the local AfD group Gießen they were the only politicians/political party and that were featured in the first fifty posts, the rest were, again, mostly mainstream news outlets.
In sum, this query conveys an optimistic image with regard to the most engaging content on German public Facebook during the examined peak events. While these events triggered hate speech and incitement to violence on other social media channels, such as Telegram, Facebook’s most engaged posts were dominated by mainstream news channels.
At the same time, it also makes it clear that Facebook is heavily moderating and deleting content. For instance, Xavier Naidoo, a well-known singer turned right-wing propagandist and QAnon supporter, still has a Facebook page but connected Telegram channels feature much more radical content. Other QAnon-linked groups, such as the Querdenker, which have proven crucial in organising massive anti-lockdown demonstrations all over Germany and according to the BfV are “infiltrated by extremists” are also still on Facebook – concentrating their efforts on conspiracies surrounding COVID-19.
Finally, in the above-mentioned examples from far-right pages and profiles, namely Chemtrails and the AfD, one theme is prevalent: the threat of the ‘deep state’. Even in Germany with its relatively strict regulatory framework, the NetzDG’s lying and spreading of conspiracy theories cannot be outlawed; the threat of the ‘deep state’ has been and continues to be a prominent theme. In research conducted for VOX-Pol’s annual conference, I coded all Twitter data from two leading AfD politicians in the 12 months running up to the German National Election in 2017: the theme of “Criticising the Ruling Elite/Deep State” was quantitatively outperforming all other themes, such as “Threat of Immigration” or “Law and Order”.
To conclude, this Insight highlights the importance of monitoring the spread of content connected to the far-right on social media, while at the same time acknowledging the immense powers applied by mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. 2021 is a pivotal year for Germany with national elections, and in times of uncertainty, the intelligence services are coming to the realisation that presumably harmless content like the criticism of ruling elites can fuel violent action.