Foreign powers could try to influence German coalition talks: spy chief

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s elections escaped the major foreign meddling that disrupted votes in the United States and France, but there is a risk powers could try to influence coalition talks, a top official with the domestic intelligence agency said on Thursday.

Workers remove election campaign billboards showing Christian Democratic Union CDU party leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party SPD leader and top candidate Martin Schulz, the day after the general election (Bundestagswahl) in Berlin, Germany September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Mang

Burkhard Even, head of counter-intelligence at the BfV agency, said Russian-backed media had spread low-level propaganda which did not have a significant impact on voters, but there was no sign of anything worse.

“The German parliamentary election ... was spared major attacks, but I must point out that even after an election such attempts are possible, for instance in trying to discredit (officials) or in trying to affect the forging of a new government,” he told a conference in Berlin.

Russia has denied meddling in other countries’ votes.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel won Sunday’s vote, but her conservatives lost ground, leaving her facing protracted talks to form a coalition government.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has called for stronger ties with Russia and the lifting of sanctions on Moscow, won nearly 13 percent of the vote and moved into parliament for the first time.

Russian-backed media such as Sputnik or RT published a large amount of propaganda before the vote, Even said.

“I don’t think it affected the election as a whole ... or that the election outcome was affected by several percentage points,” he said. “But there was an attempt and the risks are enormous. And the risk is rising not diminishing.”

He did not go into details on the coverage. But Stefan Meister from the German Council on Foreign Relations this week said many Russian social media posters had abruptly stopped posting messages supporting the far-left Left party and switched to the AfD.

Another researcher with the council, Sarah Pagung, also cited hundreds of tweets under the hashtag “Wahlbetrug” or voter fraud that popped up the day of the election and raised questions about the vote’s legitimacy.

Andreas Koenen, head of the cyber security directorate at the German Interior Ministry, told Reuters at the conference that German officials were closely tracking any attempts to influence the coalition talks.

“Things happen all the time. We’re paying very close attention,” he said.

Separately, security officials said they were looking at one fake Tweet posted under the name of Michael Link, former director of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who was just elected to parliament.

The fake posting said 3.15 million new German citizens (a common euphemism for immigrants) had voted for Merkel’s conservatives, citing what it called a report by OSCE election observers that it said had been leaked by Link.

Facebook on Wednesday said it had taken down tens of thousands of fake profiles in the final month before Germany’s election to ensure that social media network was not used as a platform to manipulate public opinion. [nL8N1M863G]

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Andrew Heavens