Voters in Germany handed a small victory to the nation’s alt-right movement on Sunday, after a contentious election season that saw the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, economic populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) enlist an Austin-based advertising agency to create a divisive social media campaign.
Though the nation’s moderate-leaning leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, remains in power, the results of Sunday’s election struck a blow to Germany’s political center and left wing, with AfD garnering thirteen percent of the vote—three times the 4.7 percent it received in 2013—and becoming the third-largest party in Germany’s Parliament, winning 94 of 709 seats. “We will go after them. We will claim back our country,” Alexander Gauland, one of AfD’s leaders, told party supporters after the election, according to the New York Times. “We did it. We are in the German Parliament and we will change Germany.”
Critics of AfD say its nationalistic platform and anti-immigrant, anti-Islam rhetoric is deeply racist, drawing comparisons to the rise of fascism that once gave power to the Nazis. While party leaders publicly reject accusations of racism and fascism, AfD’s campaign undeniably played on fear and nationalism amid tensions that have boiled over since Germany opened its doors to predominantly Muslim refugees from war-torn nations in the Middle East, such as Syria.
The party often used posters and street signs to spread messages of ethnic supremacy. In one case, a poster bore the slogan, “Burkas? We prefer bikinis,” superimposed on two white women at the beach, according to NPR. Another poster’s slogan, “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves,” was printed alongside an image of a pregnant white woman lying in the grass. The party pulled a poster showing a piglet in a grass field along with the slogan, “Islam? Doesn’t fit with our cuisine,” because it drew unintended sympathy for the pig.
The party’s digital campaign became more graphic in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Take, for example, this popular image on AfD’s official Facebook page, portraying bloody tire tracks alongside statistics of terrorist attacks in Europe, with the text reading “the tracks of the Chancellor through Europe.”
To give its online presence an added boost in the week or so leading up to the election, AfD hired Harris Media, a right-wing digital advertising firm based in Austin that has worked on campaigns for Ted Cruz and, briefly, Donald Trump. The firm is led by Vincent Harris, whom Bloomberg once dubbed “the man who invented the Republican internet.” Harris had an immediate impact on AfD’s digital campaign, according to Spiegel Online. While the AfD once hoped a Facebook post would garner 1,000 reactions, Harris Media dramatically extended the reach of AfD’s digital arm. AfD representatives told Spiegel that the bloody tire tracks post, for example, reached “a massive number of users” and potential voters. This growth in numbers is largely due to the efforts of Harris Media, which brought new ideas to the campaign, as Spiegel describes:
These days, three of his employees march into the AfD offices in Berlin at 8 a.m. each morning, coffee-to-go cups in hand, and play grunge music for the staff and summon “priority meetings.” Above all, though, the advertising professionals make clear to their German clients that far from all Americans are fans of political correctness. One Harris staffer is reported to have asked an AfD politician why the party isn’t campaigning with “Germany for Germans” as its slogan? It put the AfD staffer in an awkward position. Germany for the Germans? No, he said, that’s a nationalistic slogan that even the AfD would prefer not to use.
Social media is important for any political campaign, but the internet was a particularly valuable means for the AfD to reach potential voters, according to the Washington Post. AfD rallies are regularly disrupted by protesters, while many of its controversial posters are quickly torn down or vandalized. Restaurants and other private venues often won’t rent out space for AfD, and the party’s leadership “has deep distrust for the German media,” meaning the internet is the most effective space for pushing its message. “The AfD has been more prominently doing work on social media than any other party in Germany,” Karolin Schwarz, a fact-checker with correctiv.org, a nonprofit research center that has been monitoring online extremism ahead of the election, told the Post. A separate analysis by the Post found that AfD dominated other parties on Facebook in particular, drawing far more followers, shares and clicks than their competitors.
But AfD needed Harris for more than just fine-tuning its already strong digital campaign. Because of the controversial nature of its advertisements, the party had long found it difficult to purchase ad space from German subsidiaries of Facebook and Google. AfD leaders have even gone so far as accusing Google of attempting to “sabotage” their campaign by blocking a website that was created by Harris Media. “The site villifies Merkel as a ‘perjurer’ and essentially as an accomplice to murder,” the Spiegel Online writes. “The AfD strategists have created a montage and a spooky flickering black and white portrait of Merkel with the square around Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the background, where an Islamic State-linked terrorist killed 12 people with a semi-truck in December 2016 and injured many more.” Google reportedly blocked the website’s launch on September 11, later justifying its decision by alleging the ad could “hoax the customer” and contained “dangerous and degrading” content that violated company policy.
Harris Media can address the issue of access, helping AfD bypass German subsidiaries to get their ads through. “The team at Harris Media just places quick calls to the companies’ headquarters in Silicon Valley, sources say, where the agency is very well-networked as a result of its many successful political campaigns for the Republicans,” Spiegel writes. “AfD’s orders are then simply put through to Germany from the United States.”
Similar to the “Fake News” epidemic in the U.S., many of AfD’s online ads contain blatant lies and rely on fake “bot” social media profiles to spread the ads, according to the Post. One ad recently shared by a regional AfD chapter used a doctored image, and recalled the mass sexual assaults in Germany on New Year’s Eve in 2015, urging people to vote. Though the doctored image’s origins were eventually linked to a white-supremacist and anti-Semitic site, the ad had still spread across AfD-related accounts, with the help of fake bot accounts, according to the Post. A few days after the election, Facebook announced that it had removed “tens of thousands” of fake accounts in Germany in the month leading up to the election, according to CNN.
Whether Harris Media had anything to do with fake accounts or fake news is unclear, but sensationalism is not uncharted territory for Vincent Harris. A 2014 profile in Bloomberg describes the now 29-year-old Virginia native as “a Christian conservative fan of Britney Spears” who rarely watches Fox News because he gets tired of the “negativity” and “falsified outrage.” As a teenager, Harris helped campaign for his local state representative in Virginia, an experience that helped him learn “that politics was about attention, no matter how it was obtained,” Bloomberg wrote. The Baylor grad started Harris Media in his college dorm room in 2008, and he broke onto the political scene in 2011, when he joined forces with a then-unknown Ted Cruz as he ran for Senate. Since then, Harris Media has handled digital strategy for prominent Republicans like Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Rick Perry, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul, and for a brief period in the summer leading up to the November election, Donald Trump. Harris Media has also worked with global clients like the Brexit-backing UK Independence Party and Israel’s right-leaning Likud party.
While working for Patrick in 2013, Harris launched “DewFeed,” a parody of BuzzFeed that consisted of cat gifs attacking Patrick’s opponent David Dewhurst for being too moderate. Last fall, Harris Media produced a controversial video for neoconservative American interest group Secure America Now, depicting a fake future in which Germany had been “infiltrated” by “Jihadi fighters” from Syria. “Welcome to the Islamic State of Germany,” the narrator says in accented English at the beginning of the video, before inviting viewers to see “everything Germany has to offer,” including hikes through forests filled with IEDs, celebrations of arranged marriages and human trafficking at Oktoberfest, and cathedrals converted into mosques. Harris’s handiwork did not go over well in Germany, according to the Washington Post, and the satirical video was panned in the German media for—in addition to being such a transparent attempt to drum up Islamaphobia—sloppily using a video clip portraying an arriving Austrian train instead of a German train, and strangely highlighting only three European cities in a map scene: Berlin, Paris, and Nantes, a French city of 300,000 people. Still, the video drew over a million views on YouTube.
But the video’s overwhelmingly negative reaction in Germany didn’t deter Harris Media from entering German politics. That may be due to AfD’s pocketbook—according to Spiegel, AfD intended to spend “a large part of their 3-million-euro budget” on their digital publicity campaign. If so, the hefty price tag worked: the Austin-based group has helped the nationalistic political party gain parliamentary seats and significant power in Germany.