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Channelling Protests: How Anti-Democratic Actors in Germany Mobilise via Telegram

Channelling Protests: How Anti-Democratic Actors in Germany Mobilise via Telegram
12th January 2024 Maik Fielitz
In Insights


March 2020 was a watershed moment for the protest scene in Germany. A dizzying array of actors mobilised in Berlin to participate in the first ‘Hygiene Demonstration’, which would become a precursor for the Querdenken (lateral thinking) movement. In its wake, the movement unleashed onto the streets pent-up anger against the government’s COVID-19 policies held by many across Germany, including strong sentiments against vaccinations. The protests in large cities were also followed by manifestations in more rural areas colloquially referred to as Spaziergänge (strolls). These developments inspired far-right actors to take advantage of the protest potential offered by the transpiring COVID-19 context. More recently, at the end of 2022, far-right actors (unsuccessfully) attempted to convert this potential into what they called the ‘Hot Autumn’ or ‘Winter of Rage aiming to denounce the German government’s stance towards Russia and its energy policies in the context of a surge in energy costs after the invasion of Ukraine. Taken together, this protest cycle leaned heavily to the right and was, in scope and endurance, a novelty in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany as protest politics has long been the domain of the (radical) left.

For many years, German far-right groups have organised street policies through events and campaigns. The anti-democratic movement finally managed to take centre stage in 2014 with the emergence of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident), rising through the use of online channels to mobilise while establishing weekly demonstrations against immigration and Islam every Monday. In October 2023, the movement celebrated its ninth anniversary, organising over 2540 in-person demonstrations in Dresden in those years.

Despite the formation of various offshoot groups in other parts of the country, PEGIDA largely remained a phenomenon relegated to Dresden. This geographic limitation has, however, until the protest cycle of 2020. After that, the country witnessed waves of protests characterised by a high degree of territorial dispersion made possible by the spread of digital communication. Nowadays, it is rare to find activists handing out fliers or placing posters in pedestrian areas – which requires activists to be available on the ground locally. Instead, calls for offline protests are primarily taking place online

A mixture between a messaging service and a social media platform, Telegram has become a particularly effective machine for far-right mobilisation. Ever since the pandemic, groupings such as Querdenken, conspiracy theorists, esotericists and neo-Nazis have all increasingly used Telegram to call for and organise protests. Given these developments, digital data collection and analysis have become crucial for researchers, practitioners and policymakers to maintain an overview of their dynamics. This Insight seeks to understand the dynamics behind anti-democratic street protests by capturing the digital mobilisation efforts of a burgeoning field of actors calling for ‘resistance’.

Waves of Mobilisation 

In a study for our online magazine Machine Against the Rage, we analysed around 10 million messages sent across 1,503 far-right and conspiracist Telegram channels. We trained a classifier to detect calls for offline mobilisation, which we defined through connecting a call for action and a location (see our method chapter for more details). We found that around 95,000 messages sent via Telegram contained calls for offline protest. The results allow us, for the very first time, to conclude when and where exactly in Germany protest calls took place between April 2020 and November 2022. Our analysis sheds light on one of the most critical dimensions of these protests: the willingness to mobilise offline. We should note that this does not necessarily tell us anything about the groups’ ability to mobilise or the ultimate scale of the protests themselves. Nevertheless, with this data, we can discern the networks that exist across these channels and identify how protests are ‘channelled’ digitally, so to speak. The following graph shows the development of protest calls in absolute numbers contextualised with relevant events (in red). Extra information on the top five cities where actors mobilised is displayed when hovering over the graph.

Figure 1: The evolution of far-right and conspiracist protest calls in Germany

The intensity of calls for protest tends to fluctuate over time. We find the first peak in August 2020 when protesters stormed the parliamentary steps of the Reichstag during a Querdenken demonstration. Around this time, protests against measures aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19 hit an all-time high, with far-right actors from across the nation mobilising in Berlin. These mobilisations soon receded because of internal disputes about finances and leadership that plagued the movement. Shortly thereafter, talk of a renewed lockdown in the autumn of 2020 led to a revival of activities, with organisers taking this as an opportunity to protest against an alleged ‘Corona dictatorship’.

The climax of this second wave was a mobilisation in Leipzig, where riots broke out in November 2020 when the police tried to stop a Querdenken demonstration due to pandemic regulations. The protests subsided after this, presumably because of mobility restrictions due to the national lockdown. This would once again change in early 2021 when COVID-19 demonstrations occurred across large cities in Germany. The local government’s moratorium on protesting ended up inciting mass demonstrations in the summer of 2021. The following November, the protests reached an all-new dimension: following the introduction of the ‘3G rule – the requirement to be either vaccinated, recovered or tested (geimpft, genesen oder getestet) at the workplace – the Spaziergänge also reemerged in small cities. Mobilisations in the winter of 2021/2022 in response to debates of a possible law implementing mandatory vaccinations marked the climax of this protest cycle. During the Christmas period, we found up to 3,000 calls for protest per week all over Germany, with far-right actors leading protests in East Germany in particular. 

(Figure 2): Mobilisation calls according to degree of urbanisation (in %)

After the eventual lapse of the anti-COVID-19 measures, and with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the focus of mobilisations shifted to the topic of energy. While the spring was marked by far-right protests in support of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in Ukraine, the late summer saw rising heating and electricity prices, fueling fears about the cost of living and sowing doubt about support for Russia. The peak was the demonstration in Leipzig in early September 2022, where several thousand far-right protestors gathered for a ‘hot autumn’ anti-government demonstration. 

Ideological Geo-mapping

How are calls for protests distributed across Germany? In absolute terms, they tend to be more concentrated in large cities and metropolitan regions that have historically been popular locations for demonstrations. At the regional level, in the federal state of Saxony, mass mobilisations took place in mid-sized cities and smaller towns, illustrating the potential for protests to spread to less urban areas. 

When considering the ideological differences driving protest movements, it was evident that Saxony hosted the most far-right mobilisations, while the Querdenken movement is more pronounced in Baden-Württemberg. Saxony also exhibited the highest intensity of mobilisations throughout early 2022. This contrast is notable, as other regions experienced a significant decline in protest activities during this period. The spectrum of ideological milieus analysed in our research generally did not conflict with one another. We can, however, identify a regional division of labour among them in which certain types of actors dominate particular issues, be it COVID-19 measures or energy policies.

(Figure 3): Regional distribution of protest calls by ideology over time

One noteworthy observation is that many calls for protest originated from people or groups that only started to become active with the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Some online activists without any links to a particular organisation could quickly amass a group of followers, from which they even generated revenue. This sort of political entrepreneurship prevalent among the upper echelons of the Querdenken movement takes advantage of the fact that Telegram has turned protest communications into a part of everyday life, functioning as a social bonding agent across different political lines.

Querdenken has been plagued by a lack of cohesive leadership and clear political vision. The decentralised nature of the movement meant that local spokespeople set their own agendas, resulting in a patchwork of political positions and public appearances. To address this fragility, the extremist group Freie Sachsen (Free Saxons) successfully established itself as a central actor in Saxony, and assumed a key role nationwide. One key aspect has been the professional usage of Telegram as an organising and mobilising tool. With over 150,000 followers, the Freie Sachsen Telegram channel has become an important hub for linking together local protests and creating a platform for low-threshold activism. However, the group also drained resources from other organisations, taking over protests in regions initially aligned under the Querdenken banner.

Conclusion: The Delusion of the Digital Masses

The case of the Freie Sachsen shows how easy it is to translate the impression of mass support into successful mobilisation on the streets. In various regions of Saxony, this group was able to channel unrest over government policies on COVID, energy and Russian aggression in a far-right direction. A strong Telegram presence is the key to popularity in far-right networks. The means used are a successful model that other groups have imitated, but the digital strength is hardly translated into an offline presence. Nevertheless, we cannot exclude the possibility that the ‘digital simulation’ practised by a movement (‘astroturfing) may actually promote this movement. 

Our long-term study of far-right and conspiratorial online mobilisation in Germany indicates the key actors behind the recent cycle of protests, which have repeatedly changed themes but whose organisers have remained stable. However, our research only shows the willingness to protest, not the actual level of protest. This complex relationship between online staging strategies and real-life relevance needs to be addressed further. All too often, public relevance is amplified by excessive media attention. Given that certain far-right campaigns in a digitally mediated mediascape are hard to imagine without the (involuntary) amplification of media outlets, there is a future need for a standardised way of combining different data sets on mobilisation, as well as academic and practical knowledge, to better assess the online-offline nexus. This question is crucial to capture the level of far-right pressure from the streets and the real threats to democracy behind it.

This article is an abridged version of the topic focus from Machine Against the Rage, no. 1 (Winter 2023). The original study was conducted and co-authored with Hendrik Bitzmann, Pablo Jost and Harald Sick.

Holger Marcks and Maik Fielitz are heading the research unit of the Federal Association for Countering Online Hate based in Berlin, Germany: