How Germany became ground zero for the COVID infodemic
Exclusive analysis by openDemocracy reveals how false claims and conspiracy theories gave rise to Europe’s largest anti-lockdown movement
The storming of the Reichstag
It was a warm evening in late summer last year when trouble began to brew in front of the Reichstag, the historic home of the German Parliament. A few hundred protesters had gathered there as part of wider demonstrations in Berlin against the government’s measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the day on 29 August, tens of thousands of people took over locations in the city centre, including the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate. They were a diverse lot – but the group that went to the Reichstag mostly comprised followers of esoteric conspiracy theories and fringe right-wing groups. There, at around 7pm, a woman with waist-length blonde dreadlocks called Tamara Kirschbaum took to the stage.
Kirschbaum, a naturopath (a health practitioner who applies natural therapies) from Aachen, in the far west of Germany, was until recently a significant figure within the country’s QAnon scene. Outside of the anglosphere, Germany is the biggest hotbed of QAnon, a cultish worldview centred on the conspiracy theory that a global elite of politicians, celebrities and governments is secretly trafficking children. Its followers also believe that a “deep state” has conspired against the former US president Donald Trump. Kirschbaum described herself on Facebook as a “freelance employee” at Qlobal Change, a German Qanon group.
According to Kirschbaum, shortly before she addressed the Reichstag crowd, someone informed her – wrongly, it turned out – that Trump was in Berlin. Many German conspiracy theorists believe that Trump will liberate Germany: either from child sex traffickers, or the Allied powers that won the Second World War, or other perceived oppressors, depending on who you speak to.
“Trump is in Berlin!” Kirschbaum screamed, as she took the microphone, urging her audience to send the then president a sign that Germans were ready for him to rescue the country. The scenes that followed eerily anticipated the riot at the US Capitol on 6 January. Up to 400 protesters overran police barriers and occupied the steps and entrance of the Reichstag, many waving the old imperial German flag, some with “Q” and “Trump” emblazoned on them. Then the police cleared them by force. Reports claim one man was arrested carrying a revolver.
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
Yet although the following day’s media coverage was dominated by the incident, it only told part of the story. These were the biggest protests of their kind in the world, with anywhere between 38,000 people (the authorities’ official estimate) and several hundred thousand (according to organisers) in attendance. Most people who protested that day did not follow far-Right or conspiracy theorist groups – yet here they all were, pulled into close proximity with one another.
Beyond the would-be insurrectionists at the Reichstag, the driving force behind the demonstrations was a group called Querdenken (‘lateral thinkers’). Launched a few months earlier in the southern German city of Stuttgart, its stated goal was to protect civil rights that were apparently threatened by the government’s response to the pandemic. But after starting local protest groups across the country, and absorbing others, Querdenken had become a full-blown anti-establishment movement.
To a certain extent, its followers are not the typical supporters of far-Right groups such as Pegida or the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Prominent figures in Querdenken include several economists, as well as many ordinary people who identify as left-wing or Green voters. Reporters who were present in Berlin on 29 August told openDemocracy that they did spot skinheads and supporters of far-Right groups in the crowd – but they were a small part of a more diverse group that included people meditating, playing guitar and walking barefoot. One reporter described it as a cross-section of the German population.
David Claudio Siber, a Green politician who fell out with his party after he attended the protests, described them as “like Woodstock”. People looked as if they were there to party, he told openDemocracy. “They were dressed with flower wreaths, had flowers in their hair, and they danced and listened to music.”
What, then, drew these people to a rally that ended in such a shocking manner?
Up to 400 protesters overran police to occupy the Reichstag entrance, some waving the old imperial German flag
The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by an explosion of inaccurate or misleading information. Around the world, conspiracy theories have gone viral, spreading claims that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory, that it’s part of a sinister economic plan, or that lockdowns are merely an excuse for governments to crush civil liberties.
While this has happened across Europe, Germany stands out for the sheer number of people who have embraced such theories, attending a series of huge protests. Some of these protests appear to have ended up as super-spreader events – two Querdenken rallies in November resulted in up to 21,000 new infections, according to a study – while false information may have contributed to the slow uptake of people in Germany getting vaccinated.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has described the global wave of inaccurate claims about COVID-19 as an “infodemic”. But how much of this is organic – misinformation, in other words – and how much qualifies as disinformation: the deliberate spreading of falsehoods for political ends? Through dozens of interviews with Germany’s COVID-sceptic movement, plus analysis of information shared on social media, openDemocracy has spent the past few months sketching the anatomy of an infodemic. What we found suggests that disinformation, particularly from outlets linked to the Russian state, played a crucial role – but just as important is the relationship between homegrown sources and malicious foreign actors. We also found a striking process of radicalisation, with the initially diverse movement shifting towards far-Right ideas.
What follows is the anatomy of an infodemic.
The delivery system
Michael Ballweg isn’t exactly who you’d imagine as the founder of an anti-establishment movement. A 50-something entrepreneur and owner of a Stuttgart-based software company, Ballweg is a laid-back meditation enthusiast who talks a lot about “energies”. He was originally planning to travel during 2020 and spend time at a Yoga school in India.
When the pandemic began, however, Ballweg started to worry that his basic constitutional rights were under threat – namely, freedom of speech and of assembly. “This will be an interesting time for democracy,” he recalled saying to himself. “Where will this lead?”
At the start of April 2020, Ballweg made a post on Facebook that offered €25,000 to anyone who would help him file a complaint in Germany’s constitutional court against the new restrictions on gatherings. Ballweg found a lawyer and the case was heard on 17 April. They won, and held their first demonstration in Stuttgart the very next day. Nearly 200 people showed up, Ballweg said. The next week there were 500. Soon thousands were showing up to protests: encouraged, Ballweg said, by hostile German media coverage of “crazy Corona demos”.
As other protest groups started to crop up elsewhere, with many gathering online in a large Facebook group called Corona Rebellen, Ballweg offered to provide his business and IT experience, under the banner of Querdenken. During April 2020, as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube started to remove false information on COVID-19, many people in the nascent movement switched to the encrypted messaging and social networking app Telegram. In recent years, Telegram has helped pro-democracy movements in countries such as Belarus, Hong Kong and Iran sidestep official crackdowns on communication – as well as providing a haven for far-Right groups and, in the past, ISIS.
Ballweg calls Telegram, which was previously little-used in Germany, “one of the key success factors” of the movement. Unlike WhatsApp, which restricts group chat size to 256 users, Telegram groups can have up to 200,000 members, while public channels can have unlimited subscribers. Its bots also automate much of the tedious work of managing a digital movement.
The official Querdenken Telegram channel would go on to amass some 70,000 followers, spawning more than 1,200 local channels and groups. The individual channels of several key Querdenken figures would grow larger still.
Markus Haintz, a lawyer who set up a Querdenken chapter in the southern city of Ulm and helped to organise the Berlin protests, currently has nearly 115,000 followers on Telegram. Samuel Eckert, a Querdenken blogger and former preacher who has met up with far-Right extremists since the protests in Berlin on 29 August, has around 130,000. So does Bodo Schiffmann, a doctor who studies vertigo and has been an outspoken critic of both social distancing rules, which he has compared to the 1933 Enabling Act that helped Hitler seize power, and vaccinations, which he compared to the Holocaust.
Our analysis found that the Querdenken Telegram groups and their associated channels grew steadily throughout last summer. The main Querdenken channel reached around 15,000 followers by 1 August, then grew exponentially towards the end of the month. On 29 August, the channel hit nearly 50,000 followers, and shot to more than 60,000 just a few days later.
One of the main things that unites the protesters across Querdenken’s channels and groups is a distrust of traditional media. Ballweg told openDemocracy that he has followed the commentary of Oliver Janich since the start of the pandemic. Janich is a former financial journalist and a spreader of conspiracy theories including some associated with QAnon. His Telegram channel is the second-most followed of those we tracked, with more than 166,000 followers. (First is Eva Herman, a former news anchor who was fired from the public broadcaster ARD in 2007, after she praised the Nazis’ family policies.)
Querdenken did not start out as a far-Right or extremist organisation. “A big success factor of our demonstrations is also that they all stay peaceful,” Ballweg said. Even so, the movement has attracted less moderate voices as it has grown. Increasingly supporters have slid towards conspiracy theories like that of the Reichsbürger movement, which claims that Germany is still under Allied control. Anti-vaxxer theories are ubiquitous. And ahead of the US presidential election in November, many followers embraced the QAnon-adjacent beliefs that the vote was stolen and that Trump had a secret plan to regain power. This shift is in part fuelled by the ‘alternative media’ that our interviewees praised.
As an example of alternative media, Ballweg named KenFM, a website and YouTube channel run by Ken Jebsen, as a “good source” of information. Jebsen is a half-Iranian radio presenter (real name Kayvan Soufi Siavash), who was fired from public broadcaster RBB after suggesting the Holocaust was a PR stunt. Ballweg also mentioned Rubikon, a German magazine read by many others we spoke to.
What’s really important, however, is where these homegrown sources get their information from.
On 18 September 2020, the international TV network Russia Today, controlled by the Russian state and known in Germany as RT DE, posted a 36-minute video interview on YouTube. In the video, Dr Claus Köhnlein, a soft-spoken, grizzled man in a white coat, accused the WHO of running “fatal experiments” on COVID patients that increased the virus’s mortality rate.
It wasn’t the first time that Köhnlein had spoken to RT DE about COVID-19: on 20 March, he described it as “the epidemic that was never there” in an interview that gathered close to a million views on YouTube. The new video by RT DE quickly went viral on Telegram, where links were shared hundreds of times in the channels and groups we analysed. It racked up more than 1.5 million YouTube views in six months and is still available on the platform.
This was one of many examples of disinformation in the Telegram channels and groups that we tracked. Working with Josef Holnburger, a political data scientist, openDemocracy analysed more than 20 million messages from a total of nearly 2,000 public channels and groups, which Holnburger has been tracking since the start of the pandemic. Some of the most widely shared articles and videos tended to quote studies and experts that question the scientific consensus on COVID-19, including the efficacy of vaccines and masks. Others questioned the lethality of the virus or suggested a wider conspiracy was at work.
A post linking to an article by the Austrian Right-leaning weekly, Wochenblick, under the title ‘Horror risks: after the coronavirus vaccine, the body fights its own cells’, was viewed nearly 200,000 times. Another, from the German newspaper HNA.de, titled ‘Coronavirus masks recalled: highly toxic substance discovered – there is a mortal danger!’, received 85,000 views after it was posted by Schiffmann, the vertigo specialist.
Many of the links shared on the most popular COVID-sceptic and conspiracy theory channels on German Telegram come from domestic influencers and alternative media. However, the list of the most-viewed domains is dominated by foreign media outlets. Outside of YouTube and the big social media platforms, the top website was Epoch Times, a publication associated with the dissident Chinese religious movement Falun Gong.
Epoch Times has set up shop in countries around the globe, with an office in Berlin. It publishes more than 50 articles a day in German and dozens of YouTube videos a week. Articles can be accurate and informative, but there is plenty of disinformation too, especially around Trump – whom Epoch Times has thrown its support behind – and China, as well as COVID-19. On 7 January 2021, Epoch Times’s German edition falsely reported that “hundreds” of people were in emergency rooms in the US after receiving the coronavirus vaccine.
Russian state media is the next-largest presence after Epoch Times, and in competition with some traditional German press, through three principal outlets: RT DE, the Sputnik news agency (recently rebranded as SNA in Germany) and the long-running newspaper Pravda. Throughout the pandemic, Russian media regularly interviewed protesters and fringe voices critical of the German state, allowing them to speculate about COVID-19 while presenting them as neutral experts.
RT DE and other Russian outlets attended and live-streamed Querdenken’s protests, with links widely posted on Telegram. They also amplified conspiracy theories that first appeared in fringe German publications. Sometimes their pieces went viral and spilled over into the mainstream.
Sarah Pagung, a political analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, believes there are several reasons why sources of foreign disinformation, such as Russian media and Epoch Times, have been so successful. Despite not being household names, they are large media organisations that look professional. “It's not like you're sharing some super creepy-looking blog,” she said. The groups sharing their content have also lost trust in the German political system and traditional media.
Katharina Bader, a professor of journalism at the Stuttgart Media University who studies disinformation, told openDemocracy that foreign disinformation fills a gap in the German-language market. “The disinformation business in the German-speaking market is not very professional, there’s not a lot of money in it,” she said. That opens the door for international outlets with more resources to reach a wide potential audience.
Other organisations with links to the Russian state may also play a role in amplifying COVID-sceptics. Until January, KenFM’s English-language Telegram channel claimed to be “powered” by the Strategic Culture Foundation, an organisation accused of being a Russian state front group by the US State Department. (Jebsen, who runs KenFM, did not respond to several interview requests to clarify his relationship with the Strategic Culture Foundation.) Links from the sites News Front and Global Research, which the US also believes to be Kremlin proxies, are frequently shared by COVID-sceptic groups.
German alternative media outlets also overlap with Russia-affiliated organisations. Rubikon, the online magazine mentioned by Querdenken’s Ballweg, features RT journalists on its advisory board, while several of its authors also write regularly for RT. Rubikon’s articles have questioned the existence of COVID-19 and warned that lockdowns are leading to the end of democracy. The RT DE website consistently amplifies Rubikon’s most controversial takes, sometimes branding them as “guest contributions”.
Another outlet that sits among the top ten most shared titles in the channels and groups we tracked, is Compact, a German far-Right magazine that has aligned itself closely with the opposition AfD party. Verfassungsschutz, the country’s domestic security agency, which keeps tabs on groups that it believes to pose a threat to the German constitution, has said it considers Compact a “suspected case”, which allows the agency to investigate it.
Here, too, there are connections to Russian state-affiliated groups. Jürgen Elsässer, Compact’s editor-in-chief, has previously organised events and conferences with the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a Russian-funded think tank based in Paris. One of these events’ guests was Vladimir Yakunin, a former KGB agent widely believed to be part of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. In 2014, Compact published a special edition devoted to Putin. The magazine’s production values have become much slicker in recent years, said Pagung, leading many observers to speculate where their funding comes from.
Elsässer told openDemocracy via email that Compact was financed through sales, subscriptions and a small number of donations: “We do not receive funding from outside … Yakunin was invited to our 2014 conference via the IDC [Institute for Democracy and Cooperation],” though Elsässer confirmed that “we have organised some conferences, the last one in 2015 or 2016, at which the IDC paid the expenses for the speakers it brought, nothing else.”
Described by German weekly Der Spiegel as a “German Steve Bannon”, Elsässer is a well-groomed 60-something with floppy silver hair and an intense gaze. Suave and controlled in most interviews, he was staunchly pro-Soviet in the 1980s and opposed German reunification, before moving to the far Right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Die Zeit, the German paper of record, describes him as a Kremlin propagandist, while in 2016, the German public broadcaster ZDF detailed financial and ideological ties between Russia and Germany’s far Right, identifying Elsässer as a key node in the network.
Take a forest in the summer... Russia Today and Sputnik are the cigarette that starts the fire
COVID disinformation doesn’t necessarily begin with Russian-backed media, said Nathalie Vogel, a senior fellow at Kremlin Watch, a programme run by the European Values Center for Security Policy, and a reserve officer of the German Air Force trained in the detection of psychological operations. Vogel, who has been monitoring influence campaigns in Germany since 2007, told openDemocracy that the Kremlin seeks to lean on and exacerbate divisions that already exist.
“The fragmentation in our Western societies was already there, because of plenty of things – because of the role of social media, because of the way democracy and open societies work, because of demographics,” Vogel said. In her view, hostile actors detect, cultivate and aggravate these domestic lines of fragmentation.
The European Values Center for Security Policy takes a hawkish position towards Russia, and openDemocracy’s analysis of information shared on Telegram does not find that Germany’s COVID-sceptic movement is solely the product of activity linked to Russia. But media outlets backed by the Kremlin have nevertheless played a vital role in amplifying COVID-sceptic voices, live-streaming protests and providing a steady diet of content for the movement. Other outlets, like Epoch Times, play an important role, but lack Russia’s long history of targeting Germany with information warfare tactics and of amplifying anti-establishment voices in the country.
“Take a forest in the summer,” Vogel said. Everything is dry, the sun is shining, and a fire seems impossible – but a single unextinguished cigarette can be catastrophic. “Russia Today and Sputnik are the cigarette.”
After the Reichstag incident in August, Tamara Kirschbaum, its instigator, was accused of being an “agent provocateur” by her fellow conspiracy theorists and was forced out of the German QAnon group. Support, however, came from Elsässer, who interviewed her on Compact’s YouTube channel, suggesting that “infiltrators” had been in the crowd on the day of the protest. By the time openDemocracy spoke to Kirschbaum, she had decided that the person who told her Trump was in Berlin must have been a German state infiltrator.
Elsässer has extended his support to the wider COVID-sceptic movement, recently devoting an entire issue of Compact to Querdenken, including interviews with some of the movement’s key figures, such as Samuel Eckert, Bodo Schiffmann and Oliver Janich.
Other Querdenken organisers are keen to disavow the connection between their movement and the extremists who gathered at the Reichstag. Markus Haintz, the lawyer involved with Querdenken, told us that the latter was “obviously a false flag operation”, claiming that the police presence around the Reichstag was deliberately thin, even though hundreds of officers were suddenly on hand to clear demonstrators away once they reached the building. “It's pretty obvious that the media wanted to have their narrative,” he said.
Nevertheless, there is an overlap online between COVID sceptics and the conspiracy theorist scene. Among the groups and channels we tracked on Telegram, the QAnon group Qlobal Change was the third-largest channel spreading misinformation about COVID-19. As the US elections approached, our analysis showed that the Telegram groups became obsessed with Trump and his claims of election fraud. Haintz himself posted links on his Telegram channel to a conspiracy theory that antifa were behind the Jan 6 riots at Capitol Hill. Like Ballweg, Haintz follows KenFM and Rubikon – and told openDemocracy that he had been reading Compact for years.
On 9 December 2020, the regional branch of the Verfassungsschutz in Baden-Württemberg, the south-western state where Querdenken was founded, began to officially monitor the movement.
“At the beginning of the demonstrations, Querdenken’s focus was on criticising the government measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic,” a Verfassungsschutz spokesperson told openDemocracy in an email. But over the summer, the office said, conspiracy theorists and hostile narratives became more prevalent in the movement, which developed “an increasing, fundamental hostility towards the state”.
According to the Verfassungsschutz, Querdenken has paved the way for the radicalisation of COVID sceptics. “Extremist actors seem to have managed to spread their anti-constitutional messages to large parts of the non-extremist protesters through Querdenken,” the spokesperson said, adding that some of these messages were spread by the organisers of Querdenken themselves.
Although Querdenken stems partly from a collapse in trust of Germany’s politicians, one party does stand to benefit: the AfD. At the start of the pandemic, the far-Right party argued for harder restrictions, but switched to a COVID-sceptic position in the wake of the protests. Now, according to a study by the University of Basel in Switzerland, many of those who took part in the protests have drifted towards the party.
Some 23% of the study’s respondents said they had voted for the Greens in the 2017 federal election, but only 1% said they intended to do so now. Conversely, the share of respondents who said they would vote for the AfD nearly doubled. In March this year, German media reported that the Verfassungsschutz had decided to monitor the AfD. It is currently the biggest opposition party in the German Parliament.
Does anyone else benefit from these developments? The Russian government might think so, insofar as it serves its geopolitical objectives. In the Telegram channels and groups tracked, there were frequent references to Putin and the Russian government, often cast in a positive light. As we have seen, Russian state media and proxies are one of the main sources of information for the COVID-sceptic movement, while the Kremlin’s years-long contact with the German far Right suggests a role in the movement’s radicalisation. With Querdenken’s followers warming to QAnon, it’s also worth noting that Kremlin-backed social media accounts also nurtured that conspiracy ideology in its infancy.
Experts like Pagung and Vogel fear a new ‘Querfront’ is emerging, a term originally used to describe the cooperation between some far Right and far Left groups in Germany during the 1920s, who found common ground in their opposition to the Weimar Republic. Now, as the AfD and individuals like Elsässer increasingly align with Querdenken – which counts many self-described left-wingers and greens among supporters – it appears as if history is repeating.
Ballweg laughed when we asked if he would ever consider joining forces with Elsässer. “[He] invited me a couple of times to make an interview with him. I always declined,” Ballweg told openDemocracy in February 2021. But he was “very thankful” for the positive coverage Elsässer’s magazine has given Querdenken and he does not rule out speaking to him: “Basically, I will first meet him and get more details about him before I will do an interview.”
Speaking to us over video call, Ballweg wore a white hoodie emblazoned with ‘Querdenken’ in a simple font. His smile is gentle and disarming. Many of the COVID sceptics we interviewed described him as good-hearted. Like others we spoke to, Ballweg does not believe in “Right or Left”: both he and Haintz both talked about how their movement will move beyond what they described as an anachronistic way of thinking about politics.
Shortly before openDemocracy went to press, Ballweg finally gave an hour-long interview to Elsässer, published on Compact magazine’s YouTube channel on 26 March 2021. “We are journalists and have reported on the demonstrations since April 2020 and repeatedly interviewed various protagonists,” Elsässer said of his magazine’s relationship with Ballweg, adding that there were “no formal agreements or regular meetings” between Compact and Querdenken organisers. “We met Ballweg for the first time in February 2021, and that is how the interview came about.” The interview is far from combative, and frames Querdenken’s demonstrations as having been crushed by the government “regime”.
Even if Querdenken loses support, Germany’s infodemic is likely to continue. Michael Blume, a political scientist who serves as antisemitism commissioner for the government of Baden-Württemberg, says that as with other groups united by mistrust, there is a good chance that Querdenken will splinter. Some members, however, will remain highly engaged and could radicalise further.
“These movements live in an apocalyptic way,” Blume said, explaining that their supporters expect conspiracies to be unmasked and perceived enemies to be brought down. “If that doesn't happen, then a part pulls out [and] another part becomes potentially violent.” Blume said there were already signs that the broad alliance behind the demonstrations in the summer was breaking up into a network of smaller groups, led by particular Telegram influencers. Some of the movement’s key figures have escalated their rhetoric: at a January demonstration, Schiffmann declared that those who “worshipped” vaccination would “perish and die”.
Ballweg and other prominent figures are not in control of what they have created, they merely “reap the profits from it”, said Blume. “They are only symptoms, they don't steer this. They are conspiracy entrepreneurs. They look at what’s selling.”
Update, 14 April 2021: When this article was first published, it stated that RT DE had not responded to a request for comment. RT DE has since disputed this. In response to the article, RT DE has said: “Whereas openDemocracy willingly publishes false claims about RT DE without any evidence, we as a diligent news organisation thoroughly verify materials we publish. This practice has recently been independently verified by German newspaper Der Spiegel, which reviewed our internal editorial exchanges and noted vigilance against conspirological content in our editorial approach."
This investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund
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