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A good disinformation and influence operation usually adheres to two core principles. First, the target audiences are not supposed to be aware that they are being fed disinformation. Second, the disinformation is supposed to appear to come from domestic sources. That’s largely how Russia was successfully able to use social media to its advantage during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But can overt influence campaigns work? For instance, can a foreign actor overtly spread disinformation to influence a target audience? Last month, a perfect example came in the form of U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s inaccurate tweet about a 10 percent rise in crime in Germany.
Crime in Germany is up 10% plus (officials do not want to report these crimes) since migrants were accepted. Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2018
It is rare for government officials to openly intervene in the domestic affairs of other democracies. There is good reason for this—societies are unlikely to be swayed by arguments from outsiders as to how they should run their affairs. It is even rarer for foreign government officials to use demonstrably false information in such an undertaking.
But conventional rules do not apply to President Trump. Last month’s tweet directed at Germany provides the opportunity to assess the impact of overt influence campaigns directed at the domestic politics of other countries. Here’s how it played out.
Similarly to United States and other European democracies, immigration policy has polarized Germany. The opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy has fueled the rise of a rightwing populist movement in Germany that made the Alternative for Germany (AfD) the third strongest political party in the 2017 national elections. Fearing the pressure from the AfD, conservative politicians in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union have pushed for more restrictions on refugees and immigration. In our own election monitoring we have observed that the AfD and other political actors on the right deliberately use disinformation about immigrants to mobilize support. President Trump’s tweet on rising crime rates in Germany has to be understood within this context. The tweet falsely linked immigration to growing crime, a narrative very popular with the AfD in Germany.
First the facts about the tweet. President Trump offers no source for his claim of a 10 percent rise in crime. In fact, the crime rate in Germany has actually been falling according to government statistics. Twitter users and German government officials were quick to point out these facts. But President stood by his comments.
President Trump might have had his domestic audience in mind when he wrote this tweet. Regardless of whether it was aimed at a U.S. audience, Germans interpreted the tweet as an overt attempt of disinformation by a foreign government official, in this case the President of the United States, crafted to further incite an already heated debate over immigration in Germany. It is hard to ignore the timing of the tweet. It came right at the moment when Chancellor Merkel was confronting an existential power struggle from within her party over immigration. And it came on the heels of a controversial Breitbart interview with the U.S ambassador to Germany in which he expressed a desire to “empower conservatives throughout Europe.”
How did the German public react to Trump’s tweet? To answer this question, we used our method of tracking fake news in online media which we developed for the German election campaign in 2017 and applied it to analyze online reporting and social media engagement related to President Trump’s tweet.
Disinformation usually gets much more engagement on social media than efforts that seek to debunk the false stories. But in this case, the pattern was reversed. An overwhelming majority (78 percent) of the posts debunked the tweet, pointing out that crime rates were, in fact, falling. Only a small fraction (6 percent) of the posts amplified President Trump’s narrative. Not surprisingly, this amplification was driven by German right wing media outlets and the AfD. They take any opportunity to discredit Chancellor Merkel’s immigration and refugee policies and frequently use disinformation to support their political agenda. Another small fraction of engagement (6 percent) resulted from poor journalism: media reporting on President Trump’s tweet and Chancellor Merkel’s refutation without making clear which of the statements was actually true.
The analysis confirms what academics have known all along: overt influence campaigns do not work, especially, if the foreign actor already has a credibility problem with the target audience. But it also shows President Trump’s ability not only to set the agenda in the United States, but also to drive the conversation abroad. His statement received significant attention on German-language websites and social media. And it made national headlines in the mainstream media. But instead of weakening Chancellor Merkel, the Twitter attack helped her. Germans rallied to call out the attack and defend the facts. And it further solidified the credibility problem that President Trump already has in Germany. He might not care, but this episode further damaged US-German relations, and in particular Germans’ perceptions of the U.S. president.