Who Wants to Talk about Refugees

Foreign Interventions in the German Elections

Few events in recent European history rival the crisis set off by the arrival of more than a million - depending on the viewpoint - refugees  (``are welcome''), or migrants (``go home'').   We use this as case to develop and test a theory of the use of propaganda as a strategy of political communication between a non-democratic and a democratic state.  We argue that a non-democratic state on a collision course with a democratic state will use propaganda discourse near elections to punish the elites that disfavor its policies.  We also argue that issue coverage will aim to spread conspiracies and general distrust of political institutions.  In this way, the non-democratic state can minimize the danger of push-back against its policies whoever comes to power in the democratic state.  We look at the German media market to test these propositions.  We focus on Kremlin-media channels broadcasting in German: Sputnik.de and RT Deutsch.  We also examine German media, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), the Welt, the Tageszeitung (TAZ), and the Bild.   We deploy natural language processing techniques to identify 24,753 refugee-related stories across these outlets for 2014-2018.  We find that Russian sources are more likely to publish refugee stories near German elections.  We also find that stories in Russian outlets are more likely to push conspiracy theories.  Our work has implications for the rise of propaganda discourse in Europe and beyond, and for the sustainability of liberal democracy under foreign pressure.