In a rare rebuke of Moscow last week, Germany accused the Russian security services of mounting “wholly unacceptable” cyberattacks on several members of parliament. It claimed the attacks were aimed at collecting personal information on the politicians for a disinformation campaign to influence Germany’s Sept. 26 federal election. With the outcome of the election uncertain, German leaders took the attack more seriously than previous ones.
Since 2015, Germany has been the main target of Russian disinformation in the European Union. Russia’s goal, according to an EU report last March, is to cultivate distrust and “convince citizens that their participation in the democratic process is meaningless.” One particular target group is young people, whose low voter turnout reflects their widespread disillusionment. According to a 2020 survey by Vodafone, 73% of young Germans do not feel sufficiently represented in politics.
Like other democracies, Germany realizes it cannot be mainly defensive against foreign disinformation. Hackers are moving targets able to penetrate the tiniest openings in computer systems. A better course, says German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, is to pursue a “positive agenda” that builds up social resilience to disinformation.
One of Germany’s new “positive” tools is the use of nonprofits to promote democratic participation among young people. The nonpartisan group called Unmute Now uses bus tours to survey young people about their top issues, which include climate change, drug policy, and social justice. It also helps project young people into the current election campaign – literally. At night, it projects the faces of young people onto the facades of prominent buildings as a message for politicians to take them seriously.
The idea of such campaigns is to counter one of Russia’s main false narratives: that Germany’s democracy is rigged for the elite. If more young people join in politics and turn out to vote, they will realize the truth that the political system is available for them, too.
Western democracies, states a recent report by the Center for European Policy Analysis, must play “to the greatest strengths of free societies dealing with authoritarian adversaries: the inherent attraction, over the long run, of truth.” In Germany, a truth-affirming strategy has begun, focused first on its youngest voters.