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Group Chat Podcast: Far-Right Propaganda Spreads In Europe

News podcast about the spread of far-right propaganda around Europe.

Posted on September 12, 2018, at 3:35 p.m. ET

In this week's Group Chat ...

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The Group Chat - 00:34

Julia Furlan: Germany has taken in over 1.2 million refugees in recent years, stoking tensions in parts of Germany that have long been a bit anti-immigrant. Then two weeks ago, in a small east German city, rumors that a man was killed while defended a woman from rape fueled huge protests with mobs hunting people in the streets.

Now, Germany’s biggest far-right party thinks it has a chance to capitalize on the anti-immigrant anger in the eastern parts of the country

For today’s group chat, World editor Miriam elder talks to debunking reporter Ishmael Daro and world correspondent Lester Feder about the fake news that sparked real protests and how allegations the the Alternatives for Germany party is tied to Nazis may help them win in upcoming elections.

Miriam Elder: All eyes have been on Germany for the past couple of weeks, where the the murder of a man has sparked intense protests, the likes of which we haven't seen in a very very long time. So Lester, maybe we can start with you. Can you explain what is happening in this small city of Chemnitz?

J. Lester Feder: Sure. So a couple weeks ago as you said a local man was killed in an incident and after that two men were arrested for his killing. One of them was a refugee from Syria and one from Iraq. And almost immediately there were really loud outcries. And on the internet a lot of fake news started circulating, that they were somehow involved in attempting to rape a woman, and the local was killed trying to protect her. That was not true. There was no rape attempt. But by the next day a local hooligan squad had called a protest that turn kind of violent. And the day after there was an even bigger one. These produce videos that included people chasing immigrants on the streets, or people they thought were immigrants. There were Neo-Nazi chants. And even though a lot of the people who were there were just regular residents, who were angry about the killing, it tared the whole protest as being the product of an insurgent neo-Nazi movement that had not been seen in Germany in a long time.

ME: And Lester, how did these political parties like the Alternative for Germany, which is Germany's biggest far-right party... How did they use this fake news to their advantage if at all, how do they engage with?

JLF: So Alternative for Germany kind of... Which probably for Americans, if you think of it, as like the Trump wing of the Republican party. It's an anti-immigrant party, but it's still a pretty substantial part of the political landscape. They came into town a week after this first round of violent protests and sort of wanted to portray themselves as the more mature, responsible voice of this anger about this murder. So they initially organized what was supposed to be a silent march through Chemnitz, in contrast to the ones that got super rowdy the week before. And it started off that way and then the police halted it early for a bunch of reasons. One of which was that there was a left-wing blockade of the march further down, that they didn't want to clash with. And as that stand off sort of went by and it got more and more tense, suddenly clumps of people sort of her coming to the edge of the march, and there there were people who were over neo-nazis, who were using the slogans of fringe neo Nazi parties. That did rush the police. They were attacking journalists. It got kind of scary for a minute, but they came... Alternative for Germany was like “We were protesting. There aren't neo Nazis. You are taring all of these people with this epithet. People are trying to ignore the locals who are angry about this. The elites need to listen to their people.”

ME: Right. I guess it's something that fake news also does. It’s like, it kind of eliminates this idea of reality so people can say that anyone who seems to tar their movement is actually just a paid protester. It's something we're seeing in the US as well.

JLF: Yes.

ME: Ishmael, you wrote a great story on how on the interplay between fake news and particularly anti-muslim fake news happens between Germany and the United States.

So can you walk us through a little bit of the background of how we got here? Like these protests didn't just break out out of nowhere.

Ishmael Daro: No, they didn't. And so what I described in this story that I wrote was that there's a real pipeline going back and forth between Europe and the United States. And that pipeline carries a lot of anti-immigrant and anti-muslim propaganda and tropes and it sort of becomes a self-reinforcing system. It becomes a closed system where stories that originated in fairly, you know, disreputable sources in Germany or Sweden or other parts of Europe that are experiencing tensions with immigration, that thing gets filtered through to the English-speaking media in the UK and in the US. But you sort of lose that local content. What I've noticed is that often it loses that context. And it becomes just accepted as fact in a large swath of the political spectrum here in North America, that Europe is just in flames, that immigration has utterly destroyed, you know, what was once a proud, noble civilization. And then it sort of goes back the other way too, where American activists...Well, you know, go over to Europe and kind of spread the message the other way, you know, sort of encouraging some of those elements or really boosting some of these concepts, like so-called no-go zones. The idea that, you know, cities and whole towns in certain parts of Europe are just inaccessible to law enforcement or that non-Muslims aren't even allowed to go in, or that they get assaulted if they do. These things, you know, have been repeatedly debunked by, you know, us, by Snopes, by all sorts of fact-checkers and yet these myths survive. Because I think there's this really strong interplay between North American and European anti-immigration and anti-muslim forces.

ME: And what role do you think places like Facebook or YouTube should be playing in all this? Are they taking the steps to shut these fake news stories down, or outlets down?

ID: From what we've seen in the last couple of years I really don't think so. I think they're figuring it out and I think we, in general, are trying to figure out. How do we navigate this new information landscape, where anybody can say anything, and that's a wonderful thing, but when it goes south, you know, who's responsible? Or who's going to counter it? And can you do it in time before violence or something else happens?

ME: Right. And so I mean it's like these echo chambers are just a reinforcing themselves. So in addition to the crisis that we see on social media these protests have also had huge repercussions in terms of what's happening inside Germany and with German politics. Lester,

what on Earth is happening? How is Angela Merkel responding to this? Has it reached a crisis point for her over there?

JLF: It's hard to say. I think she's been dealing with a slow-moving crisis for months. Basically there's a lot of really deep local anger about the situation. People were not happy. A lot of people in this area, which is not even an overwhelmingly right wing area. But a lot of people there were not happy with the migrants who were coming through in the first place. There's a lot of anxiety about crime in the area. There are local crime statistics that say though crime as a whole has gone down in the city. In the very center of the city, late at night, there has been an increased problem of violence involving young people, or crimes involving young people.

So there is a real dynamic at the heart of this also. Her immediate response was to denounce the far-right. And that was generally true for most of the senior people around her. One of her biggest critics inside of her party though did then immediately say that immigration was the mother of all political problems. And the governor, the equivalent of the governor in the state where Chemnitz is based, has tried very hard to sound receptive to the people who are hostile to immigration. So he started this town hall I went to last week, by saying a lot of people are saying they don't like being called Nazis and I understand that. We need more police. He then, after the second round of protests, gave a speech to the local legislature where he said there was essentially no mob violence, which is contradicted in part by some of the videos that appeared. So this then put him crosswise with Merkel. So it continues to be a huge mess and the state is going into elections next year.

ME: I find it difficult sometimes to, you know, engage with this sort of idea that people, you know, are freaked out about the immigrant crisis and are freaked out about seeing all these immigrants because at the end of the day is this not just a question of, kind of straightforward, racism?

JLF: To some extent, sure, absolutely. To some extent, sure. Like I talked to one AfD supporter who you know said that he didn't know if the president of Syria was actually a dictator because it was a lower nation and couldn't be compared to a western nation. So that's obviously the case. I talked to one Member of Parliament from Merkel's party who was saying that ‘People say that we're not listening to them. We're listening to them. They can come talk to me if they want. I have this happy-hour at a bar. No one's coming. And even when I listen to them, my job is not to just do what they want. I have to balance all of the other interests, we’re a democracy.’ And some people, local people who are frustrated with this, who want to be sympathetic, say part of this is also a failure in understanding what democracy means in a country that used to be communist. For them, from that perspective, democracy does not mean you get your way.

It means it's goes into a complex political process and sometimes this very vocal and in some cases racist minority loses. That leave them feeling disenfranchised. And so then that has them pushing even further into this critique, that the elites aren't listening to us. This isn't a real democracy. If you are also that inclined to believe that there's propaganda coming from the government and you're seeing information on Facebook that isn't true, it increases that paranoia.

ME: Right. This seems to echo a bit, you know, what what happens in pockets of the US. And Ishmael, you have described how, you know, the transfer between fake news in Germany and into the United States… And Donald Trump has even commented, not on these specific protests, but he has commented on the immigration issue in Germany, and I wonder if you could walk us through a bit how that happens and then the effects on the political space here in the US.

ID: Absolutely. So there's a two instances that come to mind. Famously Donald Trump during a rally said, you know ‘Isn't it a shame what happened last night in Sweden?’ And of course everybody in Sweden kind of scratch their heads, because they couldn't think of what he was talking about. And so it turned out that what he was actually referring to was something he had seen on TV. But clearly what he was pointing to was this impression that Sweden was having real challenges with integration and that there was this explosion of crime led by immigrants to Sweden. And that's obviously been disputed by lots of people. And then more recently Donald Trump said that, you know, Germany had had a similar explosion of crime and he specifically pegged that to the influx of asylum seekers in the last several years. And of course, as I think Lester alluded to, a lot of crime stats in Germany say that violent crime is down its, you know, at near historic levels I believe. And it just doesn't really... It doesn't track with what the messages are. You know, the fact often contradict what the messages are being put out by Donald Trump and people who have similar views of immigration. And what it does do, though, it creates sort of a parallel universe and there is a large constituency online that simply doesn't believe that this isn't a crisis. And you know, no matter what facts or what fact-checking comes to bear,

it is sort of subsumed into a larger sense that the truth is being hidden, and you're not getting the whole story. And especially in Germany. In fact, one of the things that I've noticed is that there's fairly strict standards on reporting, you know, for example, the names and nationalities of people involved in crime. Which I think, you know, given that country’s system, that has long been seen as the norm. But in the current context with all these tensions about immigration, that often gets interpreted as ‘Oh the authorities or even the newspapers are hiding the true scale of immigrant crime.’ So there's a lot really to unpack here and it ultimately does just push people into various universes of their own sets of facts.

ME: Yeah, that's fascinating to think about how supposedly, you know, controls meant to engender responsibility just feed the the conspiracy machine. And Lester you talked about this a bit in your latest story that it's also the speed of things that seems to be creating such chaos. That people are expecting, you know, rapid if not immediate responses and that maybe the political system isn't set up to give them the answers that they're seeking so quickly.

JLF: Or even the policing system. At this town hall I mentioned, with the with the leader of the state government, he was pleading with people to let the police do their work.

They hadn't even finished their investigation to figure out what actually happened before the protests began. And then before they could, you know, name for sure what they thought had happened, an arrest warrant they had for these first two suspects was actually leaked to a number of right-wing people by somebody inside of a prison I believe, in another city.

So it was like a crazies chain of events where there was this void and the internet was filling it because the police were trying to do things slowly and responsibly. And this was driving the politicians crazy because they were basically saying ‘There's no widespread problem. We're getting to the bottom of this. People are investigating.’ But they couldn't give an answer to these people that was satisfying fast enough.

ID: You know, this is something that we see on our debunking team. Whenever there is something like a shooting or a major news event I think people have just learned to expect information at the speed of the internet. But often investigations just simply don't go that fast. So what fills that void often is conspiracy theories and propaganda. And everybody sort of trying to tilt the narrative in their direction while they can, while there is that vacuum of information.

JLF: It's also worth pointing out... To talk about the Swedish election for one second. Right? But despite that and despite this very large or loud block of people in Sweden who claim there's a cover-up of immigration, the anti-immigrant party in this election, while it did gain seats in parliament, underperformed its poles by about ten points. It got about 17 percent as opposed to 25. And so in terms of the the block that it gained in Sweden, clearly the audience for that level of anger was not nearly as large as people thought and certain the party itself believed.

ME: And this was the Swedish election that was held last Sunday, where the far right was expected to do much better than it did but still did make some gains. Ishmael, I'm actually curious, you know, did you follow the reports of, you know, the role that fake news played in the lead up to this election?

ID: I did. I tried to follow it and certainly the rise of the Sweden Democrats, this hardline anti-immigrant party, was a main topic of discussion. There was just a study released by The Oxford Internet Institute, which looked at what kind of content people in Sweden were sharing about the election. And they found something pretty striking. They found that one in three news articles shared online came from so-called junk news sites. These are sites that have a very loose relationship with the facts, you know, they really tend to be very hard line anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, and anti integration. And generally sympathetic to the Sweden Democrats.

So that was something that I took note of because when you look at these sort of larger international Alt-right, or far-right, media ecosystem that's developed over the last couple of years, there's been a lot of focus on the Sweden Democrats and then also in Germany on the Alternative for Germany. These hardline anti-immigrant parties. And this international ecosystem was really really pulling for a big result in Sweden and I'm wondering, you know, how their under-performance, as Lester said, might be received. But certainly there was a large apparatus of misinformation that was sort of, if not directly, you know, working with the Sweden Democrats.

ME: The Narrative I've seen emerge in the wake of this election is that it's an incomplete picture to focus on the far right. That actually what we see in Sweden is that politics is just becoming a lot more fractured and isn't may be dividing into just left and right. Let's try...I wonder, you know, you as someone who does cover the far-right particularly in Europe if you think that's a fair assessment or what the real takeaway from the Swedish result is.

JLF: Yeah, it's, I mean it's super complicated in part because we have to define what we mean as far-right. The Sweden Democrats began as out of a neo Nazi milieu in Sweden I think in the 90s, but today I would not say it's as far to the right as the Alternative for Germany which started from a much more moderate place. So I think that's that's one thing just to keep in mind. But in order to head off a threat from the rightmost party, the centre-right party moved very far to the right on immigration. So one of the things we're seeing is the center as a whole, in a lot of countries, even where far-right parties don't make big wins, the mainstream right parties do tend to move to the right. And certainly in Germany Angela Merkel's party, which is the centre-right party, is also being pulled in that direction. That's part of why the party is becoming internally divided.

JF: That was Miriam Elder, Ishmael Daro and Lester Feder


Push Alert - 18:40

JF: And now, we have deputy breaking news director David Mack give you just a few stories to focus on so you don’t have to sort through all of the truly alarming alerts you have on your phone!

In these times our phones are buzzing constantly with new push alerts. One of our Deputy breaking news editors has the phone that buzzes more than anyone else and that's why he's here for Push Alerts to tell you listeners exactly what are the two stories that you should know something about today. David, thanks for being here.

David Mack: It's my pleasure, please save me from my phone.

JF: David we're talking hurricane stuff today because that is really like the dominant story in the news cycle. Everybody is talking about it. Everybody's writing about it. We have multiple reporters in the field right now. What is going on? What do people need to know for their push alert this morning?

DM: Well, you're right. We are on storm watch here at BuzzFeed News, along with the rest of the country. We've got hurricane Florence barreling towards the East Coast of the United States at the moment. I'm just looking at the latest satellite photos. Absolutely enormous storm. It's hard to describe just how big this thing is. It is currently a category 4, but those really don't mean anything until it gets closer to the coast at this time. The national weather service has already said this is potential to be the storm of a lifetime for the Carolina's coast. One official described it as a potential Mike Tyson’s punch to the Carolinas.

JF: Oh God, I don't even know boxing. But I know that's pretty bad.

DM: That’s not good shall we say. There's wind speeds at the moment of about a hundred and forty miles per hour, at least last night. And of course, winds are one thing with these storms, and that's how they decide the category level, but of course the level of rain and the storm surge is where the real danger is. That's what officials keep warning. They are warning rather in Wilmington in North Carolina and in Jacksonville, there too, they're expecting somewhere between 30 to 50 inches of rain. And that’s just rain, let alone the storm surge. And FEMA is warning as well that the power could be off in these area for weeks. So they are saying that evacuations are mandatory in a lot of these places. They're really urging people to get the hell out. More than a million people already evacuating from these areas. The federal government is taking this extremely seriously.

JF: Oh God, stay safe everybody. And our second story that we have in our push alert is also related, a little bit, adjacent to Hurricane stuff. Tell me what is going on.

DM: That's right. We're talking hurricane still. What we're talking about a hurricane from last year, that's still in the news. The president was in the Oval Office yesterday, being briefed by his FEMA administrator about upcoming hurricane Florence, when he started talking about his administration's response to Hurricane Maria. That's the one that hit Puerto Rico last year and killed, we now know, almost 3,000 people as opposed to the 60 or so that the government was saying for a long time. The president was saying what an incredibly successful response his administration did. He was praising it as one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to a hurricane relief.

JF: That sounds like a lie.

DM: Well, that sounds like something that ignores the fact that 3,000 people died.

JF: Right.

DM: That's not the best. The President says of course because of Puerto Rico's electric grid was already in disrepair and the fact that it's an island territory, that it makes it harder to do this kind of relief work. But these comments came on the same day of September 11 anniversary, of course, and about roughly the same death toll there between the two events. Very dire situation there still, in Puerto Rico. Our reporter Nidhi Prakash also has reporting that FEMA, the Emergency Management Agency, approved just three percent of applications for funeral assistance for the Puerto Rican families who lost their loved ones after Maria. That's a shocking figure. They approved just 75 of almost two and a half thousand requests that came in for money to help bury people's loved ones. Part of that is because to get this money from the government you have to fill out a lot of forms, and show proof that someone's death was specifically related to the natural disaster. And of course, we know given the administrative disaster that was going on, both federally and locally in Puerto Rico after the storm last year, that it was impossible for many families to get that documentation.

JF: Right. They didn't have time to like go and find all of the certifications that they needed because maybe their house had blown away.

DM: That's very true. It was also that the local administrators weren't filling out the forms properly because they didn't have the right directions from the local authorities there as well. So huge mess there. And of course, this is all coming. As we now know, as we've said, that Florence is approaching the East Coast and the Trump Administration is saying how seriously they're taking this. But we also know, thanks to some reporting through Rachel Maddow and again through Nidhi Prakash as well, has attained a letter that was sent to Jeff Merkley, one of the Democratic senators, showing that the government has taken money out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They've taken about nine point eight million dollars out of FEMA and transferred it to, of all places, ICE. That's the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

JF: That seems like a really risky move as hurricanes continue to get worse across the country.

DM: It seems like we're going to need a lot of money to deal with these, but of course the administration says that they also need a lot of money to deal with “enforcement and removal operations” as well as “protective operations.”

JF: Okay. I feel like the emoji for this push alert would be the thinking face emoji, like “Hmm. Are you sure about that guys?” Doesn't seem great. Doesn't seem like a great idea.

DM: That, or an umbrella at the moment.

JF: David Mack, the Disney princess of breaking news, if I must say so myself.

DM: Which one?

JF: Cinderella is a little basic for you. I feel like you're a Belle, you know? I don't know. Have you taken one one of the quizzes?

DM: BuzzFeed quiz? No, I've never done that before. We make quizzes?

JF: I don't know! David Mack, Disney princess of breaking news. Thank you for being here.

DM: Thank you. I am the Beauty to your Beast.

JF: Oh God, rude!


Thank you!

This episode was produced by the PodSquad! That’s Megan Detrie, Alex Laughlin, Camila Salazar, Ahmed Ali Akbar, and Julia Furlan. Our boss is Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale, and our music is by Chad Crouch.

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