University of California, Los Angeles

German Right-Wing Populism in the Age of Social Media by Ricardo Taylor @University of California Los Angeles

The right-wing  populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), has gained momentum in the recent years, and has managed to use social media to their advantage. In the recent 2017 elections AfD, gained 13% of the vote, which led them to gain seats in the German parliament (also known as the Bundestag). With anti-semitic, anti-establishment, and anti-immigration rhetoric spread through Facebook and Twitter, AfD has been able to gain support from angry citizens who feel that the current political system is cheating them. The rise in skepticism of mainstream media has lead many citizens to social media websites to gain access information. AfD’s social media presence on Facebook and Twitter has created a platform for their supporters to interact with one another allowing them to possibly gain more radical and extreme views. To what extent has social media helped right wing populist group Alternative for Germany gain political clout?


Populism through social media

With a quarter-million Facebook followers, spreading populist right-wing rhetoric has never been easier. The social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook not only allow their users to connect collectively as a group, but also directly to AfD party leaders. Alternative for Germany is known for posting a large number of sensational rhetoric, which mobilizes individuals to with emotional or angry responses. According to University of Pennsylvania professor Muller the term populism, “is regularly used as a synonym for ‘anti establishment,’ irrespective, it seems, of any particular political ideas; content, as opposed to attitude, simply doesn’t seem to matter. The term is thus also primarily associated with particular moods and emotions: populists are ‘angry’; their voters are ‘frustrated’ or suffer from ‘resentment’.” social media makes it very easy for individuals to express these moods. For example, AfD posted a photo right after the Barcelona terrorist attacks on twitter with the headline, “Frau Merkel, die Opfer Ihrer politischen Amok-Fahrt sind nicht vergessen! Doch wie viele müssen noch sterben, bevor Sie verstehen?” (Translation: “Mrs. Merkel, the victims of your political rampage are not forgotten! But how many have to die before you understand?”) By posting this and blaming the current political elite, AfD is able to use social media to their advantage and promote populist ideologies to capture the angry voters and their emotional responses. This anger and emotion that these supporters share on the internet towards immigrants, the political elite, and globalization further drives their populist movement.


Free Speech or hate speech?

Social media serves as a medium for individuals to use their freedom of speech by posting their thoughts and political views on the web. Freedom of speech is one of the most democratic attribute societies can have. At the same time, individuals can weaponize social media and use freedom of speech to their advantage to spread hate. For example, according to the Guardian, “ Two delegates of Germany’s far-right party are being investigated by Germany’s state prosecutor over possible incitement to hatred, after one of them accused Cologne police who had tweeted a new year message in Arabic of appeasing ‘barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men’.” AfD are using social media as a weapon spreading hatred spreading xenophobic messages to angry german voters. Alternative for Germany is using the democratic platform of social media to further promote their undemocratic ideologies which appeal and benefit a small group of individuals within the german population.

Social media also serves as very productive platform for Party leaders to reach out and speak to their supporters. Sometimes their anti-establishment tweets can get them into trouble. For example, an AfD lawmaker fined €1,000 for tweeting photo of anti-Merkel ballot. This is an example of of a populist leader uses social media as a tool to partake in undemocratic actions. Social media has helped the AfD but it has also lead them to violations with the law hurting their political legitimacy.  


Social media political polarization

According to a study done by the Washington Post, “When individual users share a party’s post in their timelines, they make it potentially visible to their friends and followers who have not themselves followed that party. That happened with AfD’s content much more frequently than with other parties, particularly in the months preceding the election”. Social media today allows us to make our political views public; this can either homogenized individuals due to their common political ideology, or it can polarize people due to differences in political views.

A study done by Sunstein on group polarization suggests that, “ like-minded people tend to move to a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk with one another”. We can see group polarization happening on the internet. When individuals that share a common ideology coalesce and share posts on Facebook and Twitter, the individual tends to leave with more extreme views. Social media and group polarization go hand and hand. This has worked to Alternative for Germany’s advantage in gaining political clout making it easier to spread extreme polarizing views. Group Polarization allows extreme ideologies and populism to thrive. Social media is being manipulated and used to Alternative for Germany’s advantage.


What now?

Social media can be used as a weapon or a tool. It has served and continues to serve as a democratic platform for users to communicate. Yet at the same time, populist leaders can spread hate and undemocratic ideologies through the democratic platform of the internet. Alternative for Germany has and continues to gain political clout through social media by appealing to angry citizens upset with the current system. It is important to keep in mind how social media can play a large role in not only mobilizing political groups and parties, but also how it can lead to polarization allowing more extreme views to arise. AfD has clearly used social media to their advantage. Will they continue to thrive and gain followers, or will they lose political legitimacy?

Work cited:

Müller, Jan-Werner. “What Is Populism?” OpenEdition Journals, University of Pennsylvania Press,


Sun Stein, Cass. “Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide.” Cass R. Sunstein: Books, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Photo by sratenschulte


  1. A Polarizing Alliance: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Germany’s Grand Coalition by Sarah Stradling @ Ohio State University – Democratic Erosion

    March 25, 2018 at 5:39 pm

    […] an option for many more centrist politicians. Alternative für Deutschland expressed many of the populist, far-right views that have become familiar in recent years. Much of the rhetoric was focused on a […]

  2. Wenquan Xiao

    May 8, 2019 at 12:16 am

    Hi Ricardo! Thanks for the post. I think the rise of the AfD is indeed an interesting political phenomenon in Western Europe–just a few years ago political observers were convinced that Germany, unlike France or Italy, was “immune” to populism. One point that you might want to mention though is the regional divide in the 2017 German election–the anti-immigrant AfD gained few votes in what used to be West Germany but became the largest party in some regions of the east. This sounds paradoxical because the eastern states have few immigrants. Maybe you can analyze the difference in economic conditions or historical legacies. Another suggestion for your article would be to make a clear policy suggestion at the end. I feel that your conclusion that social media “can be used as a weapon or a tool” is a bit generic and unsatisfactory. Germany already has pretty strict anti-hate speech laws, do you think the government should allow more free speech? Also, mainstream German media goes to great lengths to avoid the AfD, should they engage the far-right instead? I think these are questions you might want to answer.

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