Social media and political opinion-formingWhy right-wing populist parties have a greater reach

Social media platforms are successfully used to spread right-wing extremist, racist and anti-democratic content - including by parties such as the AfD. A recent analysis shows how widely the AfD uses social media compared to other parties. How does this success come about? And what skills do young people need to critically classify manipulative social media content?

Social media are an important source of information for young people. This is shown by the JIM Study 2023, among others: On average, around 30 percent of 12 to 19-year-olds use YouTube (33 percent), TikTok (30 percent) and Instagram (29 percent) to find out about current world events. During the 2021 federal elections, 85% of young people in Germanyusedsocial media platforms to find out about the election campaign. However, party content hardly played a role, according to a study on the political information behavior and engagement of young people in Germany from 2022. This is also due to the fact that the party landscape in Germany is hardly reflected on youth-oriented platforms such as TikTok. Many political groups and active politicians are either not visible at all or barely visible on social media. The exception is the AfD, which uses TikTok, YouTube & Co. to reach young people in particular. already identified TikTok in the Situation report on right-wing extremism 2020/2021 as a trend platform that is also used specifically by right-wing extremists. This influence on young people is particularly relevant in light of the 2024 European elections, in which more than one million people aged 16 and over will be able to vote in Germany for the first time.

The AfD's reach on social media compared to other parties

Between 2022 and 2023, political and communication scientist Johannes Hillje analyzed how parliamentary parties in Germany use social media platforms and the reach they achieve. His analysis focuses on the AfD. His analysis shows that AfD content is viewed, shared, commented on and liked much more frequently on social media.

The AfD's content was viewed 430 million times on TikTok. The contributions of the SPD, CSU, FDP and Linke together only received around 140 million views.

Each AfDvideo was viewed an average of 430 thousand times on TikTok (impressions), the individual videos of the FDP around 53 thousand times and those of the SPD only 22 thousand times.

In December 2023, the AfD had 529 thousand fans and subscribers on Facebook and 241 thousand on YouTube. All other parties are well over half that number, as a chart from ZDF shows.

Only on Instagram do the Greens have more followers than the AfD. However, AfD followers interact much more frequently with posts, for example by sharing or commenting on them: 3.6% of followers interact with AfD posts on average, while 1.9% of CSU followers interact with them and the Left and Greens each have an interaction rate of 1.8%.

And the AfD's reach continues to grow, as the example of TikTok in particular shows. While the parliamentary group still had around 360 thousand followers in December 2023, by the beginning of March 2024 there were already 407 thousand users following the AfD. While Maximilian Krah, the AfD 's lead candidate for the European elections in June 2024, currently has over 38 thousand followers on TikTok, the SPD's lead candidate Katharina Barley, for example, only has just over 4,000 followers. 

In addition, right-wing movements such as the "Junge Alternative" or the "Identitäre Bewegung" as well as right-wing extremist communities on social media platforms ensure that AfD content continues to spread. However, a key dissemination factor also lies in certain communication techniques used by populist and extremist posts.

Provocation and emotionalization increases attention on social media

Fake news and content that deliberately provokes and emotionalizes spreads faster on social media than factually prepared posts. They are shared and commented on more frequently and classified as relevant content by the algorithm . As a result, these posts are displayed more often and thus spread further and further. In short social media clips or memes, there is also a limited amount of time in which context and explanations can be conveyed. Users often decide in the first few seconds whether they want to continue watching a video or scroll away. Populist posts therefore use certain rhetorical devices to polarize and appeal to emotions. In terms of content, the focus is on creating images of the enemy and presenting themselves "as the true representatives of the people" in comparison to the government in particular. For example, fear is deliberately stirred up, people and groups of people are excluded and emotionalizing statements are used, e.g. "The government hates you!". Complex topics are usually greatly abbreviated, distorted or misrepresented, especially when it comes to migration issues or climate policy. Young people need information and opinion-forming skills as well as prior knowledge of political issues in order to classify such content and recognize contradictions or even disinformation.

MAITHINK X - The rhetoric of populism

In a recent episode of her format "MaiThin X - The Show", Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim explores the various rhetorical tools of populism. All the methods discussed can also be found at:

Strengthening young people's opinions in the digital world

From a historical perspective, it is nothing new that the modern media of the time are used specifically for the dissemination of political propaganda and right-wing extremist ideologies. While the up-and-coming National Socialists in the early 1920s used radio as an important distribution channel for their ideology and later used film as a mass medium for National Socialist propaganda, right-wing extremists and populists today use social media to tap into the lifestyles, interests and viewing habits of young people. Younger people in particular can be strongly influenced by manipulation strategies and disinformation. They can develop problematic views of the world and people that run counter to basic democratic values. 

Children and young people need support to be able to competently and critically classify political content on social media platforms and recognize manipulation strategies and disinformation. You can find out how you can support young people in their information literacy in our article.

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