Dutch group combats Wilders' rhetoric online
By Peter Teffer
It was a big shock to Olaf Paulus van Pauwvliet when he found out that two of his friends were planning to vote for the Party for Freedom (PVV), of the anti-Islam and anti-EU politician Geert Wilders.
“They live in a nice affluent suburb, and are never bothered by Muslims – if you should be bothered by Muslims in the first place,” said Paulus van Pauwvliet.
Their political disagreement led to an “unpleasant” conversation, because he did not respect his friends' opinion. “If your opinion is not based on knowledge and fact, then I do not respect that,” he said.
The incident was the main reason for Paulus van Pauwvliet to join a group of Dutch citizens who want to prevent Wilders' party from becoming the largest in Wednesday's (15 March) elections.
Instead of protesting or canvassing for a rivalling political party, the volunteers decided to seek out potential PVV voters and try to persuade them with facts.
It is inspired by a Swiss initiative from last year, which claimed that it helped to stop the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party from winning two referendums. The Dutch volunteers called themselves Operation Libero, the same name used in Switzerland.
Since 1 March, at least two of a group of eight have met every evening in a co-working space in Amsterdam to go online and participate in debates with Wilders' sympathisers, on social media and on websites with a predominantly right-wing audience.
EUobserver met with them on the last night before the elections of the lower house of the Dutch parliament.
Liesbeth Jongkind was motivated to participate because of the election of Trump in the United States. “I had not expected that, and I don't want us to say that here too,” she said.
A third member of Operation Libero, Eltine Kampen, described the initiative as “a chance to do something instead of watch from the sidelines”.
All three are worried about populism, and have focussed only on Geert Wilders' party. While some other political parties also use populist strategies to a degree, they are mostly worried because Wilders “threatens the freedom of individuals the most,” said Paulus van Pauwvliet.
“I'm very worried about populism in general, that facts are no longer sacred, about the spinning and the messages of hate,” said Paulus van Pauwvliet, a copywriter during the day.
While it is unlikely that the PVV will join a coalition, since most parties excluded working with it, he is worried about the signal that would be sent internationally if Wilders' party ends up as the largest.
According to the last aggregate of six polls, published on Wednesday, Wilders is predicted to receive between 19 and 23 seats, behind prime minister Mark Rutte's Liberals, who are expected to receive between 24 and 28 seats.
However, until recently, the PVV was leading in the polls for months.
Paulus van Pauwvliet noted that there is no evidence that they changed any voting intentions, but that he cannot imagine they haven't.
“I can't be sure, but the potential of our method is great,” he said.
One indication that they struck a cord, they said, was that websites that tailor to a conservative audience, actively tried to discredit them.
“Even Geert Wilders has mentioned us”, said Paulus van Pauwvliet.
On the day Libero began, 1 March, Wilders called the initiative an “infiltration” against his party, “desperate” and “pathetic”.
By mentioning the initiative to his 802,000 Twitter followers, he gave it more publicity, as well.
They also published a guidebook online for any Dutch citizen who wants to join them. While they have no statistics on how many did, they believe that private initiatives to counter populism have popped up thanks to them.
The debaters in Libero disagree that they are online trolls, as some have called them, because they do not fabricate discussions.
They also wanted to emphasise that they have no party affiliation, or any funding.
“We were allowed to use this office for free, and Olaf pays the beer out of his own pocket,” said Jongkind, referring to the canned beers Olaf Paulus van Pauwvliet had brought.
The initiative is supposed to outlast the elections, the three of them said.
“People should not be afraid to enter each other's bubble and have a normal conversation,” said Jongkind, who added she has developed more of an understanding for why people vote Wilders.
They said they have not yet received any requests from France, where presidential elections are coming up in April and May.
But they are in touch with an initiative from Germany, which seeks to the prevent anti-Islam party, Alternative for Germany, from passing the 5 percent threshold in the Bundestag elections after the summer.