Julius van de Laar, a German digital political strategist who worked for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, called the AfD’s digital advertising among the fiercest Germany has seen. “While there has been some negative campaigning in the past, most campaigns always made sure to insert a certain sense of humor in their attacks,” he said. He pointed to a science-fiction themed 1998 campaign spot from the center-left SPD’s chancellor candidate Gerhard Schröder, featuring a space ship and a scene in which his opponent, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, tried and failed to teleport—implying that the center-right CDU was too focused on the past. “The future: not everyone is made for it,” the slogan went.
Harris Media and the AfD digital team have faced pushback for their work in Germany, including criticism from the German media for the “Oathbreaker” site (which ultimately received more than 400,000 page views, the firm told me). The German newspaper Stern referred to Harris in a headline as the “high priest of social media dirt,” saying his work for the AfD consisted of “mockery, denunciation and dirt.” In addition to media criticism, the AfD ran into trouble when Google reportedly refused to place ads for it across its vast ad network. (There are some messages that are even too much for the AfD, however. When Harris Media’s staffers suggested “Germany for Germans” as a potential slogan, unaware that the phrase has Nazi roots, AfD leaders balked and suggested that the firm keep brainstorming.)
Just as important as the negative campaign tactics, Harris Media helped the AfD convince German voters that it was socially acceptable to vote for the party. In August, the Harris team created a video campaign across social media called “I dare to show my face for my party!” a play on AfD’s slogan encouraging Germans to “dare” to vote AfD (“Trau Dich, Deutschland!”). Supporters submitted short videos explaining why they were proud to publicly pledge their support to the party. Many of those videos were shared across the party's social-media networks. “All of these elements helped to humanize [the AfD] online,” Canter told me. “We put real faces to AfD supporters and showed its country-wide appeal. That allows us to appeal to on-the-fence voters.”
The week before election day, the AfD digital team launched a similar effort: mapping AfD supporters across the country. Voters entered their first name and postal code on a website to indicate their commitment to voting AfD, a way to show potential supporters that the party enjoyed broad support. (Canter said 10,000 people signed up in the first 24 hours after it went live; by election day, more than 29,000 people had entered their information.)
Georg Pazderski, an AfD candidate running in Berlin, told me while campaigning on election eve that his party was definitely “stigmatized,” and that it was difficult for some to admit they were AfD supporters for fear of facing judgment or repercussions at work or at home. “In Germany, it’s an easy thing: someone soon puts you in the right-wing corner and says, ‘These are Nazis,’ … People have tried this against the AfD for many, many months,” he said.
Whatever the AfD’s future, its members know they owe their recent success to their Harris-designed digital strategy. “We use the internet,” Christian Buchholz, an AfD member of the Berlin parliament elected last year, said. “We have got internet people—Harris Media—that’s how we have to compete with the situation. … It’s part of our success that we are the first ones doing it.”