Right wing populism, Migration, Polarization – Newsletter #7


Dr. Kai Unzicker


Hello and welcome to issue No. 7 of Upgrade Democracy News!

Political sentiment in Germany is heated. According to polls, the right-wing populist to far right and partly anti-constitutional party, AfD, would receive around 20 percent of the votes. This makes the political landscape in the country nervous. This year, there still remain the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, but everyone is especially anxious about those coming up next year. In 2024, voters in Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg will head to the polls. While many are still contemplating what to do to protect democracy, the public debate is clearly already heading towards polarization.

Besides climate change and the war in Ukraine, the emotionally charged topic of migration is once again at the forefront. Specifically, the current debate revolves around what young men and adolescents with a migration background do in public swimming pools on hot days. Violence at swimming pools has become the hot topic of summer 2023. And when the mood reaches a boiling point, to the extent that even a refreshing dip in the cool water can’t calm things down, disinformation quickly spreads, fuelling into the agitation. In this case, for example, a video of teenagers attacking and kicking a man in a park emerged on social media. But did that serve as evidence of increasing violence among young migrants in Germany? No, because fact-checkers quickly verified that the video did not originate from Germany but actually showed footage from  Russia. By now, the identities of the assailants are known, and they have been arrested. However, what we don’t know is how many people in Germany have seen the video and thereby received the impression that violence is spiralling out of control. At least for North Rhine-Westphalia, it can be said that the number of crimes in public swimming pools has not increased but rather decreased from 2019 to 2022.

Migration is a topic where polarizing and scandalous disinformation is particularly common. And not only in Germany. In Tunisia, there have been violent clashes between locals and migrants for some time. These conflicts are further fuelled by debates on social networks, where claims , among other things, are made about migrants being intentionally used to change Tunisia’s demographic composition and enable certain politicians to financially benefit from this. Surprisingly, it was Tunisia’s President Kais Saied himself, who spread this story, as reported by Tagesschau. Last year, Tunisia introduced and adopted a law to combat the spread of false information. You will find an interview linked below, where Nompilo Simanje shares insight on this type of legislation and how governments can use it with intent to fight political opponents and silence topics inconvenient to them and their narrative rather than countering disinformation effectively.

On our website, you can read more exciting new articles. For instance, Julia has written a comprehensive piece on what disinformation is and why it is dangerous. Additionally, our next impulse paper is now online, focusing on climate and gendered disinformation. There’s also a new article about some findings and insight on the fight against disinformation during the 2022 elections in Kenya. All of this and other reading recommendations are linked below.

Best regards,


Between Freedom of Speech and Combating Disinformation

Interview with Nompilo Simanje

Virginia Kirst spoke with Nompilo Simanje from the International Press Institute about striking the right balance between combating disinformation and authoritarian restrictions on freedom of speech.

Read interview

Threats to democracy: Climate misinformation and gendered disinformation


Together with Matthias Kettemann, Katharina Mosene and Vincent Hofmann from the HIIG, my colleagues Charlotte and Cathleen have presented the next impulse paper.

Read impulse

Disinformation – What they mean and why we are addressing them

Blog Post [GER]

Julia has written a comprehensive blog article about what disinformation is, how it differs from misinformation and malinformation, and why Upgrade Democracy is engaging with this topic.

Read post (DE)

Reading recommendation: Misinformation Susceptibility Test

Sophie Culpepper has summarized the results of a recent study for Nieman Lab, which examines the susceptibility of people in the USA to believe misinformation. If you want to test your own abilities in distinguishing true from false news, you can try the Misinformation Susceptibility Test (MIS-Test) yourself. The link is provided in the article, and it only takes a few minutes.


Dr. Kai Unzicker

Dr. Kai Unzicker


Dr. Kai Unzicker is a senior project manager in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Democracy and Cohesion program. He is co-leader of the Upgrade Democracy project, which focuses on the opportunities and risks of digitization for democracy. Previously, he has developed the “Social Cohesion Radar” for the Bertelsmann Stiftung since 2011. In numerous studies, he has examined societal changes in an international comparison, in Germany, and at the regional and local level. He frequently speaks in the media or at events on the topics of cohesion, trust, justice and solidarity, and, more recently, disinformation. He is one of the spokespersons for the “Alliance for Social Cohesion,” an alliance of several foundations whose work focuses in different ways on strengthening cohesion in Germany. In 2018, he was responsible for the Reinhard Mohn Prize on the topic of “Living diversity – shaping society” as project manager. From 2004 to 2011, he was a researcher at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University. Kai Unzicker studied sociology, psychology and philosophy at the Philipps University of Marburg from 1998 to 2004.   

Further information, including publications and projects, can be found on the Bertelsmann Stiftung website: Profile of Dr. Kai Unzicker 

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