Social Media Campaigning and targeting – the growth of the AfD

In the lead up to the 2017 German federal election (Bundestagswahl), all political parties used social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and e-mails as platforms to reach voters. 

The far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) reportedly hired a Texas-based company for their campaign. Harris Media is known for their work with Republican, far-right and nationalist candidates in the US and worldwide. In 2017, Privacy International revealed that Harris Media was behind the Kenyan president’s viral attack campaign against his rival. According to Bloomberg, Harris Media used Facebook lookalike audiences, a popular advertising tool offered by Facebook, to find and target voters that are most susceptible to its message. The tool allows advertisers, including political parties, to find audiences that are similar to people that have already engaged with them. Here’s how this works in practice: according to Bloomberg, the AfD had 300,000 Facebook likes at the time. Facebook’s lookalike audience tool then builds a model of these users to find the closest 1 percent of German people to match their audience. It’s iterative process, that can be repeated several times. In all, according to reports by Bloomberg, the digital-media firm created seven target groups, including mothers (2.6 million targets), business owners (1.1 million), and working-class people such as union members (6.4 million). In a statement, Facebook said its team “met with all major political parties in Germany to share best-practices information.”

Another widely discussed practice in Germany in relation to recent elections is ads transparency, specifically around ads that only target a very specific audience. According to reports by Netzpolitik.org, an advertisement of the Left Party (Linkspartei), which was explicitly addressed to sympathizers of the AfD from Saxony, during the 2019 Länder election, was only visible to this target audience. Another example is an advertisement by the CDU  member Jens Spahn, who targeted fans of the AfD-site. It was also reported that the Green Party - Alliance 90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) made all of their online advertisements available on their website.

Hamburg's DPA, Johannes Caspar, told journalists that the "use of microtargeting for election campaign purposes, both offline and online" should be re-evaluated as political parties "are surely not meant to manipulate voters" using intransparent means.