Germany’s politics are being manipulated online. But the perpetrators aren’t the much-talked-about Russian trolls accused of meddling in U.S. elections. They aren’t bot accounts, either. They’re conspiracy theorists riding on an American hoax.
The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory falsely accuses virtually all President Donald Trump’s foes of being involved in a Satanic pedophilia and cannibalism ring. Its nebulous nature, branches of which include belief in time travel and reptilians, makes it a prime conspiracy theory for paranoid Americans. But the German far right—or at least people who support it—are jumping on the U.S.-based theory, according to a new study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an anti-extremism think tank. Now those troll armies are using QAnon as a megaphone for their own causes.
“We came across new international far-right networks that are active in Germany, promoting the far right’s political and cultural agenda and attacking the AfD’s [far-right party Alternative for Germany] political opponents,” the ISD study’s authors wrote. “The US-based conspiracy network QAnon has emboldened a German version, linking violent and anti-democratic conspiracy theories across the Atlantic.”
The study tracked down German QAnon groups on messaging apps like Discord, where conspiracy theorists made memes calling for people to vote for far-right parties in Bavaria’s 2018 elections, or abstain from voting altogether. The tactic is similar to the voter suppression efforts allegedly used by Kremlin-backed trolls during the 2016 presidential election, where Russian accounts targeted American (and especially African-American) Facebook users with memes discouraging them from voting. But these users weren’t Russian.
In the run-up to the Bavarian election in October 2018, ISD traced hashtags that supported the AfD. Eighty-three percent of those tweets were traced back to Germany, suggesting a local campaign instead of foreign interference. Of those tweets, 1.7 percent also used the hashtag #QAnon, while another 1.3 percent used the hashtag #Q. Other posts used hashtags with German translations of popular QAnon slogans. One of the most prolific accounts using pro-AfD hashtags had a QAnon reference in their username, the study found.
“Accounts spreading QAnon conspiracy theory content boosted pro-AfD campaign hashtags simultaneously,” the study found. “For example, some accounts using hashtags such as #DrainTheSwamp, #HillaryForPrison and #DrainTheDeepState were also found to systematically boost pro-AfD hashtags such as #linksliegenlassen, #MerkelMussWeg, #AfD and #AfDwirkt – often in the same tweet.”
While the overlap of pro-AfD and QAnon hashtags might seem small, it doesn’t account for the coordinated trolling campaigns popular in QAnon circles. German Q fans worked in private chat groups to roll out memes that could be bulk-posted on Facebook and Twitter.
American QAnon fans use similar spam campaigns. Researcher Erin Gallagher has charted the conspiracy theory’s most active tweeters, some of whom tweeted more than 500 times a day in spring 2018. These Twitter users aren’t “bots,” a common term for an account that tweets automatically. Instead, they’re humans coordinating timed campaigns to flood Twitter with messages and share them across tens of thousands of newsfeeds.
Gallagher used a data visualization program to “graph” the accounts’ activity, which led her to suspect real people were behind the tweets.
“I suspected there were a lot of real people in the QAnon networks because graphs of their hashtags looked unusual,” Gallagher told The Daily Beast.
“Some of the QAnon'ers I spoke with after I published told me they are older retired people with a lot of free time,” she continued. “They follow and retweet everyone and everything in their communities indiscriminately. They participate in ‘follow trains’ which is how they build up such large accounts. They're in DM groups, some of which are dedicated solely to retweeting so you may have up to 50 people in one DM group and they automatically retweet every tweet that gets dropped into the group. The people I talked to were in several DM groups, not just one, so in the aggregate, these DM groups are powerful hubs of activity.”
In September, some QAnon-themed accounts were active in promoting hashtags in support of far-right rallies in Chemnitz, Germany, Gallagher found. Although most of the accounts she observed appeared to be German QAnon fans, a few seemed to be American. One of the most shared tweets under the hashtag “ChemnitzIstDerAnfang” (German for “Chemnitz is the beginning”) came from a prominent U.S. QAnon account, she said.
It’s not just Germany. Right-wingers in Canada and the U.K. have added QAnon to a swamp of protest movements co-opted from other countries, The Daily Beast previously reported. Canadian and British racist groups have rallied in yellow vests, a look borrowed from a complex, bipartisan protest movement originally from France. Some of the ralliers wrote QAnon slogans on their vests, or on posters. The combined effect is a transatlantic protest movement of fringe right-wingers drawing on the public’s favorable perception of Yellow Vest protests, and the digital militancy of the QAnon crowd.
American QAnon fans have also amplified far-right European propaganda. Yellow Vest posts with a right-wing slant are popular in QAnon groups. Last month, a Yellow Vest video from the European anti-immigrant group Pegida spread rapidly through QAnon groups.
The crossover between QAnon and far-right German movements like the Chemnitz riots makes sense. Both movements are aggressively anti-Muslim and anti-refugee. And both make vague gestures toward a right-wing revolution.
“At the time I got the impression that some people thought Chemnitz was going to be ‘Germany's great awakening,’” Gallagher said, referencing QAnon’s promise of a “great awakening” in America.
It’s a trend she’s previously observed, as America’s alt-right moved on to trolling on behalf of their counterparts in Europe after Trump’s victory in 2016.
“I've noticed crossover of US alt-right networks with European alt-right for a long time,” she said. “How QAnon fits into all that is a great question, but the international alt-right coordinated swarms—QAnon related or not—do not surprise me.”