Friday

20th Oct 2017

Investigation

The rise of the German alt-right

  • The anonymousnews.ru website using the Nazi-era expression "lying press" to attack German media.

For Annette, a 20-something living in the east German city of Leipzig, the disenchantment set in about five years ago. She had always been a news junkie, but then started to worry that the mainstream media was distorting the facts.

Now, she says, pushing back her blonde hair, she reads "mainly on the internet".

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Her interest in alternative sources of information deepened when her bike was stolen. The theft focused her attention on what she describes as "a big rise of criminality" in Leipzig.

Criminality is a persistent theme among those who are unhappy about the arrival of 800,000 asylum seekers in Germany in 2015, though she doesn't mention this explicitly.

Today, she is a member of numerous Facebook groups that share her concerns. When someone posts an article that interests her, she does her own research around it, going to the original source where possible, for fear of being misled.

Clad in skinny jeans and a leather jacket, she looks like the kind of metropolitan hipster who might be demonstrating outside a meeting organised by the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Instead, however, she is attending one.

Frauke Petry, the youthful co-leader of the party, is the draw this time, at a party event held at the Baroque-era stock exchange.

Liberal consensus clash

People like Annette are prime targets for a crop of websites that have sprung up in recent years seeking to challenge the liberal consensus in Germany.

These included Junge Freiheit (Freedom Youth), a radical right weekly, and PI-News (standing for Politically Incorrect), which is a popular political blog that was first established as a fan-site for George W. Bush in 2004 shortly after his re-election as US president. But PI-News later broadened its focus towards a more anti-Islamic agenda.

Now, an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalists shows that these pages have been joined by over a dozen new 'alternative news' sites, which revolve around the same themes - immigration, Islam and crime. 

It looks as if Germany - which is associated with boringly sensible politics - is beginning to develop the same kind of anti-establishment online eco-system that helped bring about an astonishing political outcome in the US. 

Even if the radical AfD party ends up fizzling out, as many predict, this network of mutually reinforcing sites could create the foundation for more dramatic politics in Germany's future.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming gestures towards the refugees, who arrived in 2015 partly due to the Syrian conflict, helped pave the way for the new dynamic.

Merkel's ratings fell sharply, although they have since recovered. Right-wing movements found themselves with a new lease of life amid concerns about how the government was handling the influx.

A constellation of websites focusing on Islam, migration and crime emerged, with names like Refcrime (an abbreviation of "Refugee Crime") and Politikversagen ("Political Failure"). Before, there were just isolated voices, but now there are the beginnings of an echo chamber for the German right. 

Merkel is likely to form a coalition government again, as she did in 2013, when her centre-right CDU/CSU party gained over 45 percent of the vote and created a grand alliance with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

This time around, with SPD faltering in the polls, it is not yet clear whether any new coalition is likely to be with the right, the left or the Greens.

The stability of the centrist political order, however, has caused resentment amongst those who do not feel represented - particularly on the extreme right and left.

Media mistrust

In a survey conducted at the end of 2016, by academics at the University of Mainz, 55 percent of those polled thought it possible that the media systematically lied, and 26 percent believed strongly that the media and politicians worked together to manipulate public opinion. 

In the US, media organisations like the conservative Fox News and Breitbart, a far-right news and comment website, observed a similar well of anti-establishment sentiment and capitalised on it, creating profit-making media organisations to serve it.

Last year, those two organisations helped to put Donald Trump in the White House and now, new right-wing websites are trying to tap into similar sentiments in Germany.

The Bureau's analysis of these sites suggests that they are, collectively, more likely to be cited by committed AfD supporters than all of the mainstream media outlets put together.

The websites carry alarmist headlines - "The Tragedy of the Self-Islamisation of Germany", "Christian attacked with knife because of crucifix in Neukoelln" and "Whoever wants to live 'well and happily' in the future in Germany had better learn Arabic" - all of which are markedly different in tone from those of the mainstream press.

And their prevalence could have implications well beyond the upcoming elections. 

None of Germany's right-wing websites we looked at had a reach remotely comparable to that of Breitbart, which had 83 million visits in August this year, according to the data analytics firm, Similarweb.

In comparison, the most popular of them, PI-News, had 5.4 million visits in August, although the German population is just a quarter the size of the US. The next most popular each attract around a million per month. Refcrime.info - a slick, anonymously registered site that records German crime reports - had just 40,000 in August 2017.

The advertisers they've managed to attract include purveyors of right-wing books, Uruguayan properties, and gold. Most ask their readers for donations, although refcrime.info does not do so.

The Bureau examined websites mentioned on Twitter by a central group of AfD supporters over a two-week period during August 2017.

Our selection was drawn from accounts that most frequently used the AfD's election slogan #TrauDichDeutschland - loosely translated as "Be Bold, Germany!" - along with the other accounts most frequently mentioned by them.

Between them, they produced 34,885 tweets over the two-week period. We extracted 10,956 web addresses from these to see which online sources were leading the conversation. Of the top 10 most popular news sites tweeted by this group, six were from the new, alternative right-wing sites.  

Mainstream media, like the German tabloid newspaper Bild, which is right-leaning, made up just three, with the German edition of Russia Today (RT) sitting in tenth place.

Just outside the top 10 were two other right-wing sites: freiezeiten.net - a German spin-off of a well-known Swedish alternative news site - and a German-language, but Russian-hosted site, anonymousnews.ru. The German edition of the Russian outlet Sputnik is also in the top 20 most tweeted sites amongst AfD supporters, we found.

The Bureau's research pointed to eight other sites as significant publishers of anti-migrant right-wing content - all of which were established after summer 2015.

The sites we examined are a ragtag bunch. Some host mainly opinion pieces, while others present themselves as news sites. Some are anonymously registered, while others are associated with an individual author. 

The Bureau has identified some key similarities amongst the sites, with the negative effects of migration being common to all of those we examined. Other popular topics include censorship by technology companies, distrust of the mainstream media and complaints of attacks - both virtual and physical - on the AfD by leftists.

Islamisation theme

So-called "Islamisation" is a major theme: articles appearing in the first week of September covered issues such as Google Earth censoring church crosses, supermarket chain Lidl removing crosses from Greek food packages and a nursery in Austria that will no longer serve pork to pupils.

The content on these sites frequently offers a skewed view of reality, but that does not necessarily mean that they get caught by Germany's newly bolstered fake news filters.

After the US election, there were fears that the German vote would be affected by a flood of disinformation and fake news.

The government stepped up pressure on social media companies, and Facebook entered a partnership with an independent fact-checking team at the journalism organisation, Correctiv, to improve their response.

In the summer, the German parliament also approved a law that could see social media companies being fined up to €50 million for not removing hate speech and defamatory content quickly enough.

However, as a Bureau investigation into a misleading refugee crime map in February 2017 revealed, distorted information is much harder to police and more problematic to censor than fabricated information.

The sites deepen and reinforce each other's worldviews. According to Similarweb, one of the top sites driving traffic to PI-News is politikversagen.net, an anonymously registered aggregation and comment site that provides as its address a business centre in a small town in Switzerland.

Politikversagen.net also directs a lot of traffic to freiezeiten.net, and PI-News.net is one of the sites driving most traffic to refcrime.info and anonymousnews.ru.

The sites show solidarity with each other and the more established right-wing publications in the face of what some of them call the "Luegenpresse" - a Nazi-era term meaning "lying press", also popularised by Trump supporters during the US presidential campaign.

PI-News, for example, ran a piece defending the right-wing magazine 'Compact' from 'slander' by mainstream tabloid Bild.

Jonas Kaiser, a German media expert at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center, says that the plethora of these sites suggests that "there's now a bigger and more self-referential right-wing ecosystem".

He says this helps people more readily validate their opinions. "Once you make your way into this right-wing bubble, you now have more sites to visit, and it gives you an idea that there's an alternative to the mainstream."

In discussions under a piece on the website Philosophia Perennis, about refugees falsifying their asylum claims, one commenter suggests people read an article on PI-News about how racial dilution, known as "Umvolkung" - with a nod back to Nazi-era words such as "Volk", or nation - is the goal of Germany's ruling CDU party.

Right-wing echo chamber

The sites also spread each other's stories. For example, on 8 September, Politikversagen posted a brief summary of an article that first appeared on freiezeiten.net.

The headline stated: "39-year-old woman brutally raped on the way to work by a Nafri", the latter being German slang for a North African. The original police report actually states that a 27-year-old Moroccan had been arrested, based on the witness description.

Nevertheless, the relentless focus on the twin concerns of migration and Islam may not reflect the original aims of the site founders.

The German right is politically and ideologically fragmented. PI-News.net began as a pro-Bush site, whereas Behoerdenstress, founded by Dirk Lauer in 2011, began as a forum for his complaints about employment practices in the Hesse police force. AfD itself started life as the party of eurosceptic technocrats.

The 2015 refugee crisis, however, gave the fragmented right a rallying point.

The widespread perception that chancellor Merkel had actively invited refugees to come to Germany, meant that right-wing websites could deploy each and every migrant crime, whether alleged or convicted, as an example of a government that had lost touch with the concerns of ordinary Germans.

The catalysing event was when the mainstream media, police and politicians were initially hesitant in reporting sex assaults and other crimes, which were allegedly committed by migrants on New Year's Eve 2016 in a number of German cities.

The media's hesitation, ostensibly to check the facts of the case, fuelled wide-spread suspicion that the press was echoing the government line.

AfD supporters complain that anyone who questions Merkel's refugee policy, or the media's reporting of it, is labelled an extremist.

Ever since, the self-styled alternative media has been keen to maximise this wedge issue. "Merkel wants to bring in twice as many refugees as originally planned!" thundered a headline in Philosophia Perennis, as late as last month.

Internet 'changes everything'

Manfred Rouhs, the leader of the far-right Pro Deutschland party, thinks it is a time of opportunity. When he first started out as a campaigner, he printed a youth newspaper and distributed it to schools.

The internet, he says, has changed everything.

"Formerly we reached only a few thousand people, nowadays we reach hundreds of thousands of people every week," he says, speaking from his office in East Berlin, which is strewn with placards calling for a ban on public officials wearing burkas.

Pro Deutschland ("for Germany") is a very small political party - it only has 1200 members, and even its Facebook page only has 20,000 likes. One of its income streams is selling 'Rapefugees' t-shirts advertised on PI-News, created after the Cologne market assaults.

Pro Deutschland is supporting AfD in the election, rather than fielding its own candidates. However, Rouhs has clearly thought a great deal about media strategy.

He says he has benefited from the advice of a British communications consultant. The consultant advised him not to post opinions on Pro Deutschland's Facebook page, explaining that people preferred to have facts.

Rouhs says he also thinks the content has to be credible, even though fake news often generates more traffic. "If we're not more credible than the mainstream media we will still be consumed, but more as entertainment," he says.

He says that the growing number of sites such as PI-News will make it easier for people to voice their true feelings about issues like immigration, referencing communications theorist Elisabeth Noelle Neumann's theory of the "spiral of silence". More sites offer "more confirmation" of peoples viewpoint, he says.

Rouhs thinks there may be enough of a market in Germany for a single radical-right website to flourish, along the lines of Breitbart, even though no one has cracked it yet.

Last year, Breitbart itself announced that it was going to launch a version of its site in German which caused some consternation in the mainstream press, especially after the site published a story implying that migrants had set fire to a historic church in Dortmund that turned out to be a mixture of distortion and insinuation.

So far, however, Breitbart's plans have come to nothing.

Andre Haller, an expert in the German media scene at the University of Bamberg, thinks that a powerful anti-establishment media, like that of the US, is highly likely to prosper in the near future.

"In 2000, you only had Fox News and some conspiracy blogs - now you have Breitbart," he says. "I think this is a phenomenon that will spread over other western democracies."

The German election will continue to be fiercely fought by the AfD, despite it lagging in the polls behind Angela Merkel's resurgent CDU party.

Germany First?

Meanwhile, back at the AfD campaign event in Leipzig, there were certainly echoes of Trump's America.

One of the attendees explained that he was too nervous to give his name in case it cost him his job, citing the precedent of alt-right protesters in the US. Though most of the attendees appeared to be middle-aged, but a few young people also attended.

The younger audience members tended to be most sceptical about the media.

"When you read the mainstream media on political and criminal issues, you're being fooled," said one man with a leather jacket and fashionable beard, also refusing to give his name.

The audience filed out of the talk into a phalanx of police, as anti-AfD protesters up the street chanted 'Petry - get lost!"

Despite all the noise that AfD is making, the anti-immigrant agenda does not appear to be making significant political inroads. Although it may take seats in the Bundestag for the first time, many media commentators predict that it is nothing more than a protest party, which will subsequently lose momentum.

With the number of asylum seekers having drastically decreased, immigration is not a top concern for most Germans. Even Rouhs, for his part, acknowledges that the "Islam and Muslims" approach of sites like PI-News limits their mainstream appeal.

The prevalent mood at Leipzig's old stock exchange is not so much excitement about a particular party or ideology as deep distrust of the government and mainstream media's version of events.  

The attitudes of people like Annette from Leipzig are typical of this scepticism. Like many of the people interviewed, she expresses doubts about the veracity of both mainstream and alternative media.  

"I don't trust anything," she says.

This article was published in partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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