Germany heads to the polls on Sunday and, as the country’s election quickly approaches, signs of a giant Russian effort to sway voters are vanishingly small.
Russia-linked hackers actually launched their most obvious cyber assault on Germany more than two years ago, which was thought to be just the start of a coming onslaught on German election integrity. But there are currently few signs that the country has achieved anything like the success it had in the U.S.
In mid-2015, German officials discovered that some entity had cracked open the internal server of the Bundestag, one of two German houses of parliament. The people behind this entity stole a trove of data that included emails, possibly from members of the dominant political party – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – and even perhaps from the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have proven to be something of a foil to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It took German officials some time to understand what happened, and why, but many details became clear the following year as the United States experienced something quite similar.
Russian-linked hackers broke into the servers of the Democratic National Committee and stole a bunch of information that included emails. Those emails were released to the public in spurts that undermined the credibility of leading presidential candidate and Putin critic Hillary Clinton, showing that members of the DNC worked against her Democratic primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Regardless of whether that information should have done much damage to Clinton’s credibility, it was evident that these emails could turn news cycles against her in the lead-up to her election loss last November.
Watching from Germany, officials figured something similar could happen to their national elections on Sept. 24. The group that hacked the DNC was allegedly the same group that hacked the Bundestag, and, if Putin has one European counterpart he’d like to disempower right now, that person is likely Merkel, who was a leader in the push for sanctions against Russia when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
If Putin has one European counterpart he’d like to disempower right now, that person is likely Angela Merkel.
But just hours before those elections take place, emails from the Bundestag hack have yet to be seen.
Researchers have observed allegedly Russian-led disinformation campaigns in Germany as well, designed to undermine the credibility of Merkel and the CDU. This, too, occurred in the U.S. during its national election. But in Germany, alleged Russian influence attempts have either not materialized or not been as successful. Why?
An empty threat?
If you look up to see someone staring at you with a cocked fist, you expect to be punched. If, after a while, that punch doesn’t come, questions start to bubble up.
So it is in Germany with the Bundestag hack. Though Russian-linked hackers allegedly stole German politicians’ emails, those emails haven’t been used to try to sway German voters to parties – whether right-leaning or left-leaning – that are more friendly to Russia than the CDU.
There’s still a chance these emails will hit the internet before the election. Russian-linked hackers dumped a bundle of information on the campaign of (now) French President Emanuel Macron in the days before the presidential election earlier this year in an attempt to sway voters toward Russia-friendly Marine Le Pen.
That attempt obviously failed. Macron won by a margin that, in the U.S., we’d call a landslide. And perhaps this is at least one of the reasons CDU emails haven’t been released online. Unlike the email dumps in the U.S., the French email release seemed much more desperate, and French law prevents the publication of political news items in the hours before an election. Macron was far, far ahead in the polls, and a good disinformation campaign is going to take more than a few days to get its roots into the minds of voters. In Germany, Merkel appears well on her way to a fourth term as chancellor, so why bother with an obvious influence attempt that is likely to do little damage?
“The Russians work this long-term and with sequenced objectives,” said Joerg Forbrig, a senior transatlantic fellow with The German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic policy institute. “Ideally, they’d have prevented [Merkel] from taking office again. A couple of months ago, they must have seen that this was going to be impossible.”
It’s possible “the emails written by German parliamentarians are simply too boring” to be worth publicizing.
It’s also possible that, as Die Zeit wrote in a May, 2017, article about the Bundestag hack, that “the emails written by German parliamentarians are simply too boring” to be worth publicizing.
Forbrig thinks it’s plausible that the hackers just don’t have any good information. As evidence for that theory, he cites “an attack” recorded earlier this month on a regional branch of the CDU that’s run by German politician and CDU member Julia Kloeckner, who is close with Merkel.
If these hackers had enough compromising information to do serious damage to Merkel’s election chances, why waste time trying to get more?
Sound the alarm
German officials weren’t quiet about pointing the finger at Russia.
Bruno Kahl, the head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst – the German equivalent of the CIA — said in 2016 that there was evidence that cyber attacks on Germany came from the “Russian region” and that these attacks “have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty.” Hans-Georg Maaßen, who leads Germany’s FBI equivalent, described Russian officials as willing to “carry out sabotage.”
In November, 2016, Merkel said “we have to inform people” about the intent of such cyber assaults, and implored the nation “to know that there’s such a thing and learn to live with it.”
All this stands in contrast to the way the administration of former President Barack Obama handled evidence that Russia was behind attacks in the U.S. Wary of appearing to wade into the election, the Obama White House was much quieter about evidence of Russian interference. Trump, in even starker contrast, has often denied that Moscow meddled in the U.S. election.
The German media has also, according to experts, taken it upon itself to remain vigilant regarding Russian attempts at election interference. “I can’t tell you how many German interviews I’ve done in the last few months,” said Laura Galante, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.
Reporters have asked questions about the nature of propaganda and disinformation, and how they can cover such things so their articles don’t boost that propaganda.
“I think the [German] media has taken a real responsibility,” she said.
Similar attacks, different victim
In January 2016, news in Germany was consumed by the story of a girl named “Lisa.”
She was 13, a German girl of “Russian origin,” who said she’d been raped and implied that the group of men who had attacked her were of Middle Eastern descent.
A Russian TV station broadcast the story, and soon Russian outlets with a presence in foreign countries – outlets such as RT – pushed the story beyond the Russian border. The story made rounds on social media in January of 2016 and led to protests, which of course led to more coverage, this time in the German press.
The story was big and shocking, a gut-wrenching tale that fed into a growing political debate over how many immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African nations – fleeing violence of many kinds — Germany could and should welcome. Merkel had at first welcomed these immigrants, but her welcome quickly cooled with political pressure.
The story of Lisa turned out to be largely fake. The girl later admitted to fabricating the alleged attack, though by this time the cycle of fake news had riled up groups already predisposed to nativism, and in doing so showed Germany the divisive potential of disinformation spread by Russian propaganda outlets, a key part in Moscow’s alleged attempts to influence several elections outside Russia’s borders.
The disinformation process can work in much the same way in the U.S. Clint Watts, who spoke before the Senate Intelligence Committee in April about how Russian-linked social media bots used fake information to influence the U.S. presidential election, described the process as “circular.” Fake stories often originate with Russian propaganda outlets, but sometimes those outlets and Russian-linked social media actors will inject conspiracy theories into information already floating around.
“Every time a conspiracy is floated from the [Trump] administration, it provides every outlet around the world, in fact, an opportunity to amplify that conspiracy and to add more manipulated truths or falsehoods onto it,” he said in an interview with NPR in April.
The story of “Lisa” is an example of the same disinformation effort, except in Germany. Yet, in Germany, experts said disinformation campaigns haven’t fractured the polity in the way such campaigns helped to do in the U.S.
“There were some attempts to try to exploit the political situation in Germany, but it’s nothing compared to the political landscape in the U.S.,” said Tim Mauer, the co-director of the Cyber Policy Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The nature of the U.S.’s two-party system can often lead to polarization, whereas Germany’s multi-party system leaves more room for constituents to find a spot somewhere in the relative middle. German media is also less politically aligned than media in the U.S., according to experts with knowledge of both media landscapes.
“Germans have a far greater confidence in more traditional electronic and print media than in social media.”
Trust in the press also varies widely in the two countries. A Gallup poll published in September 2016, in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, showed that only 32 percent of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence that “mass media” would “report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” In April of this year, a University of Würzburg study showed 55.7 percent of Germans trusted the media in 2016.
Germans are also more likely than their U.S. counterparts to get their information from news outlets as opposed to social media.
“Germans have a far greater confidence in more traditional electronic and print media than in social media,” Forbrig said. “The latter still do not play a major role for how citizens vote.”
The Alliance for Securing Democracy tracks “Russian influence campaigns on Twitter,” and their data makes it clear that such influence campaigns are pushing, for example, a right-wing alternative to Merkel’s CDU.
But while the effort is there, the results, so far, haven’t materialized in the way alleged Russian influencers might have hoped.
‘A sword hanging over the German polity’
Germany is, of course, still susceptible to Russian meddling.
If Russian officials decide there is no way to topple Merkel this election, as several experts believe they probably have, then perhaps they’ve decided to try to make it difficult for her to build a governing coalition, potentially weakening her political future.
“The threat of these attacks is, even if you don’t change the outcome, all you have to do is inject some doubt into the process,” said Adam Segal, who directs the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
It’s unclear how Russia would go about sowing doubt in the German electoral process. Mauer said all this focus on potential meddling has strengthened the integrity of German elections in the minds of the voting public, and experts said direct attacks on voting systems are unlikely to do much damage. Germany uses paper ballots, and while the results of those ballots are transmitted electronically, the systems used for such transmissions have lately been reinforced in preparation for Sept. 24.
Alleged Russian disinformationists could instead try to cut Germany (and Merkel) off from other central European nations, using fake stories about “dangerous immigrants” to stir anger at Merkel’s perceivably lax stance on immigration.
Or, perhaps Russian officials are waiting until after the election to dump information from the Bundestag hack – what Segal described as “a sword hanging over the German polity” – figuring that the information therein would work better to discredit Merkel than block her path to a fourth term as chancellor.
All legitimate concerns, experts say. But Sept. 24 looks set to be a relatively regular election — at least for now.