Putin Verstehen: The Pro-Russian Presence on German Facebook

July 5, 2021
A wide network of German-language public groups and pages on Facebook shares Kremlin narratives about NATO, the U.S. and Ukraine.

When UkraineWorld studied the activity of the popular Ukrainian news website strana.ua, we discovered that some of its manipulative articles were shared in German-language public Facebook groups Russlandversteher (The Russia Understander) and Gegen Defender 21 (Against Defender 21). We decided to study the activities of these groups further and tried to find similar communities on Facebook.

“The Voice of Donbas”

If one takes a look at the content shared in the Russlandversteher and Gegen Defender 21, there are quite a few similarities:

  1. Articles from Russian state-owned outlet RT are shared quite often.

Source: screenshot from Facebook

  1. NATO countries are portrayed as aggressors, while Russia is portrayed as merely defending itself from the West. In particular, posts in both groups blame the U.S. for pushing NATO expansion eastward and causing a war between Ukraine and Russia.

Source: screenshot from Facebook

  1. Both groups depict Ukraine as the aggressor in the Donbas war.

Source: screenshot from Facebook

  1. Both groups often share content posted by pages and politicians from Die Linke, a German left-wing party with pro-Russian rhetoric. In particular, Die Linke call for closer ties with Russia, criticize sanctions against Russia, promote the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V and support the construction of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline. Die Linke also criticize Germany’s cooperation with the U.S. and NATO.

Source: screenshot from Facebook

  1. Content from pro-Russian Facebook pages is often shared both on Gegen Defender 21 and Russlandversteher. Notable examples of such pages are Voicedonbass, a page dedicated to the “people’s republics in Donbas”, as well as Wir erinnern uns, an anti-fascist page. UkraineWorld looked at the groups linked to these pages and found even more German-language pro-Russian groups.

Source: screenshot from Facebook

Source: screenshot from Facebook

“Friendship with Russia”

UkraineWorld also studied reposts of the content from Voicedonbass and Wir erinnern uns. We discovered that posts from these pages were shared to many more German pro-Russian groups by two accounts: Frank Ingo Gottschlich and Olga Malzev. While the second account is most likely authentic, the first one seems to be a troll, since it has very few friends and its profile picture has very poor image quality and was likely downloaded from somewhere else.

Source: screenshot from Facebook

While studying these reposts, UkraineWorld has discovered 15 pro-Russian Facebook groups in German language. We analyzed them via CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook.

Posts in these 15 groups have received 182.3 thousand interactions (likes, comments and shares) since the beginning of 2021. In particular, the posts were shared 29.8 thousand times, which means that the reach of the content published in these groups has been amplified significantly. Furthermore, posts in these groups tend to draw “angry” or “sad” reactions. 16.6 thousand reactions were “angry”, and 7.1 thousand reactions were sad. Provoking anger and desperation are among the most widespread tactics of Kremlin propaganda.

Source: CrowdTangle

The content of these groups is very similar to Russlandversteher and Gegen Defender 21:

  • articles from Kremlin-controlled media about the West escalating tensions with Russia;

Source: screenshot from Facebook

  • promotion of the idea that “Russian army can defeat NATO within 60 hours”;

Source: screenshot from Facebook

Source: screenshot from Facebook

  • reposts of articles from Russia-controlled media.

Source: screenshot from Facebook

Decentralised influence

Pro-Russian actors employ a strategy of “decentralized influence” in the German segment of Facebook. This means that there is no single centre of influence, but rather many small ones. However, although some of the groups and pages we discovered may have quite small audiences (under 1 thousand group members or page likes), their combined reach is significant.

Pro-Russian messages mostly appear on public pages and are then spread to multiple groups by several accounts. This strategy allows for the quick and efficient distribution of pro-Kremlin messages among German-speaking Facebook users who may be receptive to Russian narratives. While gaining this access, pro-Russian actors try to persuade their audience that the U.S. and NATO are the real aggressors, and that Germans should thus favor ties with Russia.

This is also why the Kremlin supports German parties which advocate against the existing democratic order in Germany such as Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The Bundestag elections scheduled for September 26, 2021 will show whether the strategy has borne any fruit.

This article was written within the framework of the project "Antibot: how to resist information manipulations" which is being implemented by NGO Internews-Ukraine with financial support from the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Ukraine. This article is the sole responsibility of its authors and might not reflect the official position of NATO.

Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld and Internews Ukraine

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