By Raquel Miguel Serrano, Researcher, EU DisinfoLab
- Disinformation about a potential blackout has recently flourished amid the energy crisis in Europe, specifically in Germany.
- A blackout is defined as a large-scale interruption of power that can happen due to severe weather or equipment failure at power plants. It is necessary to differentiate it from more minor interruptions or power outages (caused, i.e., by transformer malfunctions) or brownouts, which are partial and temporary reductions in system voltage or system capacity.
- The purposes of spreading disinformation about potential blackouts are multiple, but the core seems to be an attempt to curb the transition to renewable energy sources (i.e., wind or solar energy) and e-cars. In parallel, it is also exploited as a tool for political polarisation, mainly to attack the Green Party.
- The narrative also favours pro-Russian stances: the war in Ukraine provided a fertile context for Russian, pro-Russian, and far-right outlets to scare about the impact of Western sanctions and portray Germany as a failed state. Besides ideological motives, monetisation attempts are hidden behind clickbait content.
- This report aims to alert on a rising hoax and conspiracy that risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy anytime a power shortage occurs. Therefore, in addition to raising awareness of these deceptive trends once they occur, pre-bunking becomes a crucial tool to reinforce social resilience to disinformation.
A computer attack caused a power blackout in Germany and Western Europe. Power stations were switched off from the grid, and the risk of a nuclear disaster was imminent. The country ran out of water and food within a couple of days. The population took the streets: arson, looting, crime, and violence, while the authorities seemed unable to manage the situation. Amid the chaos, the German government refused to provide accurate information to the citizens and even to accept help from a well-intentioned Russia.
This scene, from a tech thriller written a decade ago by Austrian author Marc Elsberg (Blackout), which was recently turned into a six-episode TV series, is mere fiction. Yet, the fear of a similar situation was exploited recently by some malign actors. In a comment published on 31 January 2023, EIKE (European Institute for Climate and Energy) portrayed the fictional scenario as close to reality and highlighted the real danger of a blackout in Germany. EIKE is a German organisation known for its climate change denialist stances and its opposition to the energy transition. “Blackout: How reality threatens to catch up with fiction” was also headlined by Tichys Einblick, another right-wing outlet, well-known in the German disinformation arena.
Many may wonder why a blackout with catastrophic consequences should be feared in one of today’s most developed countries in the world, and ask what this has to do with disinformation. Those would be only fair questions.
The war in Ukraine and Western Europe’s attempts to become independent from Russian energy sources amid an energy transition process, which already spurred criticism, are two of some real-life external events which gave substance to that narrative. While experts reassured that the energy supply would be guaranteed no matter what, some actors profited from the perceived uncertainty to warn about possible blackouts.
Specifically, in Germany – where dependence on Russian energy sources was strong – the risk of a blackout has been instrumentalised to slow the energy transition, promote pro-Russian narratives, or even discredit the Green Party. Not to forget the monetisation attempts of those selling different gadgets to allegedly help citizens prepare for possible blackouts in full survivalist mode.
This report intends to shed light on a complex reality and draw attention to a narrative with growing deceptive potential and severe risks for trust and security. The hope is that awareness-raising can increase citizens’ resilience to disinformation and mitigate its negative impact. In this sense, it aims to have a pre-bunking function, inoculating citizens with the necessary knowledge to react to such narratives in the present and near future.
2. Framing the narrative: disinformation in multiple countries
A blackout that deprives citizens of electricity and, therefore, primary resources such as hot water or communication means such as the Internet, is a nightmare that triggers many emotional responses.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this anxiety is embodied by the so-called preppers who, since the Cold War, have been preparing to survive a nuclear disaster and other events that might potentially anticipate such events as a big blackout. These groups even organise courses and sell online the necessary supplies for surviving a catastrophe.
People preparing for an unlikely scenario do not pose a danger to society, but they can whip up an emotional state of panic that contributes to the information disorder.
Blackout-related disinformation is neither new nor specific to Germany. For instance, the misinterpretation of the Austrian government’s emergency plan in 2021 gave rise to hoaxes and false alarms, such as the “great blackout” narrative that circulated in Spain and the Netherlands. Last December, a fake map spread in France, showing areas of possible power outages. In February, the creation of passes allowing nurses to go out in case of a blackout, as part of a crisis management plan built by Vienna, was also interpreted as evidence of an imminent blackout.
Although it is a widespread phenomenon across different countries and periods, Germany provides a remarkable opportunity to dissect a highly complex subject, making it an interesting case study for our investigation.
3. The German case study: one narrative, multiple purposes
3.1. Preventing green policies: blackout threats against the energy transition and counter-climate change measures
Examples of disinformative narratives:
- Power outages in January showed that these situations are becoming more frequent, for which the energy transition or the nuclear phase-out is to blame.
- Authorities want to give electricity providers the option of remotely controlling electric cars and heat pumps to disconnect them in the event of an imminent grid overload.
- Blackout danger: Switzerland plans a driving ban for e-cars!
Transmitters and amplifiers:
- Outlets questioning climate change and the energy transition.
- Right-wing outlets.
Deceptive messages warn that an imminent blackout will occur due to the inability of green energy sources to fully replace fossil fuels or nuclear power in terms of energy supply. Although these can be potentially legitimate concerns (e.g., green alternatives are indeed impacted by weather conditions), disinformers exaggerate their downsides, making them sound like something that would do more harm than good.
The pro-nuclear lobby has been using this narrative since 1975. The EIKE website discussed it in 2012, shortly after the Fukushima disaster and former chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision on a nuclear shutdown – initially planned for 2022. This discourse aims to curb the energy transition, supporting nuclear or fossil fuels by attacking renewable energies, such as solar or wind, and alternatives to fuel-driven motion options, such as electric cars (claiming they are too energy-consuming in the case of power shortages).
The discourse ranges from blatant disinformation to sensationalism, being primarily propagated by websites known for their denialist or ‘delayist’ positions on climate change (e.g., EIKE). These websites have persistently cast doubts on man-made climate change: if there is no climate emergency, then there is no need to burden an industry whose main source of energy is fossil fuels. Therefore, the blackout narrative can be set in the framework of climate change disinformation. In this context, possible blackouts are exclusively presented as a downside of the energy transition rather than a potential drawback of extreme weather events aggravated by men, which recent reports refuted.
3.2. “The green blackout”: a political tool
Examples of disinformative narratives:
- On a dedicated website, the far-right party AfD collects reports on alleged blackouts in Germany.
Transmitters and amplifiers:
- Political actors, mostly right-wing parties and movements.
- Right-wing outlets.
These anti-energy transition narratives often attack actors promoting it, especially the Green Party, which has been part of the German government since the end of 2021 in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Liberals (FDP).
Some political parties and movements have acted as spreaders and transmitters of blackout hoaxes, with one particularly striking case. In October 2022, the far-right AfD created “Blackoutmelder” (blackout reporter), a website for German citizens to report alleged blackouts in their cities.
Correctiv, one of Germany’s leading fact-checkers, investigated the matter and concluded that in four out of the five cases reported a couple of days later, there had been no actual electricity problems. In one of them, there was a semantic mistake: a two-hour long power cut in Berlin was inappropriately defined as a blackout. AfD replied to Correctiv: “We do not verify the accuracy of the information provided by the users”. Following Correctiv’s publication, access to the website was restricted. When trying to navigate the website, a message appears: “You do not have access to blackoutmelder.de. The site owner may have set restrictions that prevent you from accessing the site”, without further indications. However, a Twitter account and mentions on TikTok and Facebook are still available without any warning labels.
AfD’s motivations align with its political program. The party advocates for a return to nuclear and coal as energy sources, and against e-cars, as its members made clear on multiple occasions. AfD’s regional branch in Thuringia also instrumentalised the blackout narrative with alarmist messages.
AfD was one of many actors directly involved in promoting these narratives. Freie Sachsen, the right-wing micro-party, also organised events and protests on the subject. Moreover, using terms such as “green blackout” illustrates the attempt to blame the Green Party for a potential blackout. In another noted case, Compact, a magazine classified by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as a “suspicious entity”, dedicated an entire edition to the blackout topic in April 2022.
These examples show how blackout-related disinformation has been politically instrumentalised in favour of right-wing and far-right positions and against the Greens and the German government.
3.3. Blackout and pro-Russian narratives
Example of disinformative narratives:
- Energy supply problems due to EU sanctions on Russia led to dramatic consequences and accidents.
- Germany is a failed state.
- Russian fossil energy sources are essential.
Transmitters and amplifiers:
- Russian media.
- Pro-Russian German outlets.
The war in Ukraine provided an appropriate context to fuel fears of a blackout in Germany. The search for alternative supplies to replace Russian sources has exacerbated the energy crisis in the country, even forcing a reversal of some advances in the energy transition (i.e., the German government agreed to extend the life of some nuclear and coal-fired power plants).
In this context, war-related narratives were also weaponised against the energy transition. For example, the right-wing website “Deutschlandkurier” claimed that the war increased the blackout risk or evidenced that wind power is inefficient and useless.
Russian media in German (such as RT) or pro-Russian German media also exploited this narrative to defend the importance of Russian fossil energy sources and claimed that sanctions would provoke blackouts in the country. They also used it to delegitimise the German government, for instance, presenting Germany as a developing nation – literally calling it a “Third World country“ – in the middle of an energy supply crisis.
Pro-Russian disinformation linked to the energy crisis has its most explicit example in operation Doppelganger. EU DisinfoLab exposed a network of cloned media sites that spread pro-Russian narratives with false information concerning, for example, terrible accidents that allegedly occurred as a result of Berlin’s decision to do without Russian energy sources.
3.4. Monetisation and clickbait
Example of monetisation attempts:
- Calling citizens to buy gadgets to be prepared for a blackout.
Transmitters and amplifiers:
- Kopp Verlag.
Some actors take advantage of the general panic to do business, such as the Kopp publishing house, linked to the far-right and well-known on the conspiracy theories and disinformation scene. The company has a specific section selling various gadgets to prepare for possible blackouts, similar to “preppers”, and on the borderline between legitimate prudence and conspiracy theories.
Well-known members of the Querdenker movement (the so-called “alternative thinkers”) have also advertised these gadgets on their Telegram accounts, amplifying the call.
Mainstream media also pointed to the growing sector of power generators due to widespread blackout worries in the country. A clear example of how anxieties can be easily converted into a business opportunity.
Alarmist titles also feed clickbait. Therefore, many articles contain the word “blackout” in the headlines to get readers to read and share the content, even though the possibility of such an event is downplayed in the text, leading to a false connection. Some German media outlets could also have exaggerated the problem to attract readers, considering that the authorities assured that the risk of a blackout had not increased lately.
4. Strategies for unleashing fear-mongering narratives
Fear is a powerful tool to get these narratives across. For instance, false information about a blackout that already happened (i.e., in Baden Würtemberg), or soldiers in the streets preparing for a blackout, recently circulated in Germany.
For a long time, catastrophic scenarios have been portrayed – a sabotage act, a weather disaster, or the consequence of a pandemic-related lockdown – together with chaotic apocalyptic situations: supply shortages, looting, prisoners being released, or even a civil war.
Multiple strategies are used to trigger fright and panic. For instance, portraying the issue as an unavoidable event, exaggerating the danger, and using an incorrect term (i.e., talking about a “blackout” instead of “brownout” or a simple power cut), or exploiting fiction. Besides the already mentioned clickbait strategy, emotional-driven methods are also recurrent, picking a sensitive time-framing (e.g., “Blackouts at Christmas: the gift of a sick network”).
- The case of the blackout narrative in Germany illustrates how complex realities can be simplified by mis- or disinformation, preventing them from being tackled from a realistic perspective and mitigating the actual risks.
- Disinformation can also exacerbate the offline impact of such an event, should it occur. In a tense environment aggravated by false claims, the consequences of a blackout can be worse than in a socially peaceful atmosphere, triggering a self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic. Therefore, random power outages, which are common during the summer, could be seen as evidence of an imminent threat, as supported by conspiracy theories.
- The awareness of the circulating disinformation could serve as a pre-bunking attempt, increasing resilience in an energy crisis that may lead to institutional distrust and ultimately to a danger to democracy. Understanding the attempts of manipulation and destabilisation, as well as the political and economic interests behind disseminating disinformative narratives, will make citizens more resilient to manipulation.
- In conclusion, this case invites us to critically consider the danger of exempting the media from content moderation, as in this case, many of the disinformers are outlets that present themselves as media (and even a magazine).