‘We don’t just have voters, we have fans’: inside the AfD ‘newsroom’

It is not only offices of the AfD which are full of people cursing Germany's traditional political parties and speaking out against refugees; Weidel, Gauland and their colleagues also have a loyal fan base lauding them on the internet.

'We don't just have voters, we have fans': inside the AfD 'newsroom'
Holger Sitter, the coordinator of the AfD's media department, is photographed in his office in Berlin. Photo: DPA

“Greetings from Berlin,” “There should only be the AfD”, smileys with hearts for eyes and cartoon stuffed animals: in the comment column running alongside an AfD livestream, their supporters are singing their praises. However, they aren’t only showing love. A visitor to the AfD Facebook page recently wrote “relinquish Merkel of her duties and send her to a Russian labor camp!!!!!”

The live stream with the parliamentary party leaders, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, was published by the AFD’s media department, which is headed by Jürgen Braun, the party's parliamentary manager.

The department includes the press office, the PR team, a small research team and a very active social media unit, led by AfD member Mario Hau. “We don’t just have voters, we have fans,” he says.

The young employees of the social media team shoot videos everyday and post AfD content on Facebook and Twitter. Their quote-queen is Alice Weidel. More than 430,000 users have ‘liked’ AfD on Facebook and the right-wing nationalist leader of the Thuringia AfD party, Björn Höcke, has garnered over 63,000 likes.

Two other employees of the social media unit work from home. They spend all day scouring the comment sections for extreme remarks. “Anybody who calls for violence or posts symbols of anti-constitutional organizations will be banned,” explains Hau. That’s an average of five to ten percent of the comments.

Jürgen Braun is pictured in the Bundestag in Berlin. Photo: DPA

The AfD has a complicated relationship with the media. On the one hand, their top politicians want to be invited to talk shows, but on the other hand, they like to criticize the “lying press” at their party conferences, as they feel they are put at a disadvantage by the media.

After the Hesse state election at the end of October, Gauland complained that nobody had wanted to speak to him and get his opinion on camera. However, the press conferences organized by the spokesperson for the AfD’s parliamentary party, Christian Lüth, are sometimes so well attended that not all journalists can find a free seat.

With its focus on direct channels where there is no potential for critical journalism, the AFD shows a similar mindset to that of the US President, Donald Trump, who prefers to let world politics play out on Twitter, rather than in lengthy conferences with multiple heads of state.

“Our followers want to see our point of view directly and unadulterated. They want to experience the AfD themselves,” explains Braun. “It is easier for us than for the established parties which have to restructure in order to fit changing habits when it comes to political engagement.” As a new party, the AfD has had a strong presence on social media from the outset.

A magnetic board hangs behind the desk of social media director Hau. It shows a daily plan which his team uses when there are no press conferences or AfD speeches in parliament lined up. It says: “10:00 Find a topic; 11:00 Text and Soundtrack; 12:00 Video!”

Under the heading “Merkel has to go!”, there is a newspaper clipping from Bild with the headline “Political earthquake in Berlin. Merkel at the end of her reign”. In addition, there is a list of arguments which the AfD wants to use to create growing hostility towards the UN Migration Pact, an agreement which the federal government promotes.

Mario Hau stands in his office, in front of his magnetic whiteboard. Photo: DPA

Braun has brought Holger Sitter to the AfD, a former sports journalist who now works as a ‘coordinator’ in the media department. Jörg Walter, who used to be a mainstream radio presenter, does the voice overs for short AfD videos in a small office in parliament. Two doors down, the AfD Citizens’ Office is housed; a friendly man with a headset answers emails and calls.

On the same hall there is a large room labelled ‘Newsroom’. However, behind the door there is not the hustle and bustle that you might expect. Apart from a few tables, the room is largely bare. Braun says an employee of the research team is currently on the way to Chemnitz to scout out more staff.

In general, it is difficult for the AfD to employ large numbers of good journalists. Of the 21 jobs in the media department, only 16 are currently occupied. Several potential candidates dropped out because they feared the social ostracism that working for the AfD could cause. Since Lüth left to become the parliamentary party’s spokesman in April, the federal party as a whole has not had a press spokesperson.

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Germany’s far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance

Best known as an anti-migrant party, Germany's far-right AfD has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to court a new type of voter ahead of regional elections in the state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday: anti-shutdown activists.

Germany's far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance
Björn Höcke, party chairman in Thuringia, at an election event in Merseburg, Saxony-Anhalt on May 29th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

“Sending so many people into poverty with so few infections is problematic for us,” is how Oliver Kirchner, the AfD’s top candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, views the measures ordered by the government to halt Covid-19 transmission.

The anti-shutdown stance seems to be paying off in the former East German state. The party is riding high in the polls and even stands a chance of winning a regional election for the first time.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD chooses hardline team ahead of national elections

Surveys have the AfD neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, with the Bild daily even predicting victory for the far-right party on 26 percent, ahead of the CDU on 25 percent.

In Saxony-Anhalt’s last election in 2016, the CDU was the biggest party, scoring 30 percent and forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

But the CDU has taken a hammering in the opinion polls in recent months, with voters unhappy with the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

Social deprivation

A victory for the AfD would spell a huge upset for the conservatives just four months ahead of a general election in Germany — the first in 16 years not to feature Merkel.

They started out campaigning against the euro currency in 2013. Then in 2015 they capitalised on public anger over Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in a wave of asylum seekers from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The party caused a sensation in Germany’s last general election in 2017 when it secured almost 13 percent of the vote, entering parliament for the first time as the largest opposition party.

Troubled by internal divisions and accusations of ties to neo-Nazi fringe groups, the party has more recently seen its support at the national level stagnate at between 10 and 12 percent.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD investigated over election ties

The party is also controversial in Saxony-Anhalt itself. In state capital Magdeburg, posters showing local candidate Hagen Kohl have been defaced with Hitler moustaches and the words “Never again”.

For wine merchant Jan Buhmann, 57, victory for the far-right party would be a “disaster”.

“The pandemic has shown that we need new ideas. We need young people, we need dynamism in the state. For me, the AfD does not stand for that,” he said.

Yet the AfD’s core supporters have largely remained unwavering in the former East German states.

For pensioner Hans-Joachim Peters, 73, the AfD is “the only party that actually tells it like it is”.

Politicians should “think less about Europe and more about Germany”, he told AFP in Magdeburg. AfD campaigners there were handing out flyers calling for “resistance” and “an end to all anti-constitutional restrictions on our liberties”.

Political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University puts the AfD’s core strength in eastern Germany down to “social deprivation and frustration” resulting from problems with reunification.

The party’s latest anti-corona restrictions stance has also helped it play up its anti-establishment credentials, adding some voters to its core base, he said.

Other east German states in which the AfD has a stronghold, such as Saxony and Thuringia, continue to have the highest 7-day incidences per 100,000 residents in the country. Saxony-Anhalt’s 7-day incidence, however, currently is below the national average (31.3) as of Wednesday June 3rd.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Hijab snub

Funke predicted the AfD would attract broadly the same voters in
Saxony-Anhalt as it did in 2016, when it won 24 percent of the vote.

“Some have dropped off because the party is too radical, some radicals who didn’t vote are now voting and some of those who are anti-corona are also voting for the AfD,” he said.

The Sachsen-Anhalt-Monitor 2020 report, commissioned by the local government, found that the main concern for voters in the region was the economic fallout from the pandemic. But the AfD’s core selling point — immigration and refugees — was number two on their list.

According to AfD candidate Kirchner, many people in Saxony-Anhalt still view the influx of refugees to Germany “very critically”.

“And I think they are right,” he said at a campaign stand in Magdeburg decked in the AfD’s signature blue. “Who is going to rebuild Syria? Who is going to do that if everyone comes here?”

When a young woman wearing a hijab walked past the stand, no one attempted to hand her a flyer.

By Femke Colborne