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Germany’s COVID sceptics fuelled by Russian media and far-Right conspiracies

Exclusive: Disinformation and pseudoscience shared on social media inspired tens of thousands to attend anti-lockdown protests across Germany

Darren Loucaides Alessio Perrone
31 March 2021, 1.00pm
Crowds gather in Kassel to protest Germany’s anti-COVID measures, 20 March 2021
Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters/Alamy

A wave of false information, some of it spread by foreign media outlets, has fuelled mass protests against the German government’s response to COVID-19, openDemocracy can reveal.

Tens of thousands of people have joined multiple demonstrations across Germany since the start of the pandemic, many of them inspired by conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific claims shared on the social media platform Telegram, openDemocracy has found. Often, these are amplified by media outlets linked to the Russian state. The initially diverse COVID-sceptic movement has become increasingly radicalised, turning towards the far Right.

During a four-month investigation in collaboration with the political data scientist, Josef Holnburger, openDemocracy analysed some 20 million messages from more than 2,000 public channels and groups on Telegram. The service, which doubles as a messaging app and has grown to 500 million users worldwide in the past year, has become a haven for users banned from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Messaging that undermined scientific consensus around the pandemic – for example, questioning the efficacy of face masks and vaccines – was prominent in the channels and groups openDemocracy analysed. An article from an Austrian paper entitled ‘Horror risks: after the coronavirus vaccine, the body fights its own cells’ was viewed nearly 200,000 times in one channel alone.

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The Russian disinformation apparatus is incredibly quick at spotting and exploiting the cracks in society

Foreign media outlets play a key role in distributing and amplifying false claims. While Epoch Times, a publication linked to the dissident Chinese religious group Falun Gong, was the most shared overall, the list was dominated by outlets linked to Russia.

RT DE, the German branch of Russia’s state-controlled media network, Russia Today, ranked as the sixth most shared media outlet in the Telegram groups and channels, ahead of German news publications such as Der Spiegel. The Russian state news agency Sputnik, known in Germany as SNA, came eighth, while Pravda, a Russian newspaper, ranked 11th.

One video produced by RT DE, titled ‘Dr Claus Köhnlein on “fatal coronavirus experiments” by the WHO [World Health Organization]’, was viewed more than 200,000 times on the Telegram channels analysed. It received 1.5 million views on YouTube in less than six months and is still available on the platform.

‘Alternative’ German publications, some of which are staunchly pro-Russia, were also prominent on the list. Compact, which ranked tenth, is a far-Right magazine that has previously organised conferences alongside the Kremlin-backed Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.

"We are an independent magazine and do not subordinate ourselves to any ‘line’ from outside,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jürgen Elsässer, told openDemocracy.

Related story

Germany Covid lockdown.jpg
Exclusive analysis by openDemocracy reveals how false claims and conspiracy theories gave rise to Europe’s largest anti-lockdown movement

Sarah Pagung, a political analyst and Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said that Russian and ‘alternative’ German media outlets “utilise each other for gaining legitimation and extending their reach”. The EU’s East StratCom Task Force, a body set up to challenge Russian disinformation campaigns, and the US State Department have both accused Russia of working to undermine Western governments’ public health responses to the pandemic. In March, the EU's disinformation watchdog EUvsDisinfo (run by East Stratcom) singled out Germany as by far the top target of Kremlin-backed disinformation.

“The Russian disinformation apparatus is incredibly quick at spotting the cracks within a society and then exploiting these,” said Nathalie Vogel, a senior fellow at Kremlin Watch, a programme run by the European Values Center for Security Policy think tank. Vogel added that while such tactics were not new, many “normal and respectable people” attracted to the COVID-sceptic movement have been exposed to far-Right and Kremlin-linked sources during the pandemic.

Telegram’s structure may also help the spread of false information. Unlike other messaging apps, the platform allows groups to have up to 200,000 members, and there is no limit to the number of people that can follow a channel. Telegram also features little content moderation.

Michael Ballweg, the founder of Querdenken, the largest COVID-sceptic protest group in Germany, told openDemocracy that Telegram was “one of the key success factors” behind the protests. Our analysis of the channels and groups showed a growing embrace of far-Right ideas and conspiracy theories.

Among the most shared links were petitions asking the then US president Donald Trump to depose the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who they referred to as a “deep state marionette” and part of a “shadow government”. The conspiracy theory that Trump has a secret plan to save Germany derives from QAnon, the US movement whose followers were involved in the riot at the US Capitol on 6 January.

On 29 August, up to 400 people broke through barriers to 'storm' the German Parliament

“Fringe conspiracy theories such as QAnon were quickly adapted and are now represented by large sections of Querdenken, including some of the leading figures,” said Holnburger, the political scientist who worked with openDemocracy.

COVID-sceptic protests in Germany have sometimes turned violent. On 29 August 2020, when 38,000 protesters brought Berlin to a standstill – the largest protest so far – up to 400 people broke through police barriers to 'storm' the Reichstag, Germany’s Parliament building.

Holnburger said that he was surprised by the “rapid radicalisation” of the movement, and that calls to abandon peaceful tactics have been “growing louder”.

In Baden-Württemberg, the south-western German state where Querdenken was founded, the local branch of the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s domestic security agency, has started to monitor the group.

“Extremist actors have managed to spread their anti-constitutional messages to large parts of the non-extremist protesters through Querdenken,” said a spokesperson for the Verfassungsschutz.

Ballweg, along with other leading figures from Querdenken, told openDemocracy that they believed in listening to a range of voices from Left and Right, but distanced themselves from extremism or violence. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

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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