BERLIN — German WhatsApp users are spreading far-right propaganda through the use of stickers and chain letters, and the company is doing little to nothing to stop it, despite local laws forbidding the use of Nazi imagery.
In nine WhatsApp groups that BuzzFeed News has observed since October, tens of thousands of messages have been sent among its far-right participants. Among them have been symbols glorifying the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler, deeply anti-Semitic images created using WhatsApp’s “sticker” function, and messages seeking to incite violence and threats against leftists or refugees.
The groups have names like "The German Storm" and "Ku Klux Klan International.” At times, between 90 and 250 people have been members of the groups, close to the maximum size allowed by WhatsApp.
In October last year, WhatsApp introduced the so-called sticker function in Germany, which lets users choose from premade images to attach to their chats with the option to make their own. The Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism, a Berlin-based advocacy group, quickly drew attention to the surge in Nazi-themed stickers. "As soon as WhatsApp made it possible to create and use stickers, right-wing extremists flood their group chats with Nazi symbolism,” the group wrote in October, asking the platform how this could be prevented in the future.
"These anti-Semitic stickers are unacceptable and we do not want them on WhatsApp,” a WhatsApp spokesperson wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News last November. “We strongly condemn this hate. If a user receives a sticker with illegal content, we ask them to report it to WhatsApp."
But when BuzzFeed News followed up this month to ask WhatsApp how many reports of possibly illegal content it's received since then, the company declined to respond to specific questions.
"As a messaging service, we do not have access to private messages shared by users,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. “We encourage people to report issues to WhatsApp to ensure the security of our platform."
WhatsApp, a company owned by Facebook since 2014, has struggled with how to contain the disinformation and racism spread on its platform in recent years. It’s an especially trenchant problem in Germany, where in the aftermath of World War II the state has passed strict laws against the use or spread of Nazi imagery, slogans, and propaganda.
The chain letters passed around the groups — which can be joined via invitation — aren’t exactly subtle. One letter, shared in several WhatsApp groups within the last several months, opens with the words: "You have been Hitlered. Hitler at least 5 more people or in 88 days a money-hungry Jew will steal all your money and rape you.”
"Send this message to everyone you know and contribute to Operation White Christmas," it continues, followed by a huge swastika, an image of Adolf Hitler, and the sentence "Run Ali run."
"For every person who forwards this message, an immigrant is sent to his home country," the letter ends.
In one of the WhatsApp groups — which had more than 200 members — where the letter was shared, many of the members immediately responded with laughter and one of these emojis: 🙋. For the participants, it is a digital way to send along a Nazi salute.
BuzzFeed News has cataloged more than 200 different WhatsApp stickers that show inciting, violent, or anti-Semitic content. Some stickers show symbols prohibited by German law, including SS runes, the SS insignia, certain flags, and swastikas.
German media lawyer Christian Solmecke told BuzzFeed News that users who send forbidden images in a private chat on WhatsApp to only one other person or a few people they know in closed WhatsApp groups won’t be punished by the authorities. "But if the image is sent to a WhatsApp group with many members, depending on the size of the group, it may quickly become a criminal offense," he added, as it then becomes an “uncontrolled amount of participants” under German law.
In at least one case, the distribution of prohibited SS symbols or slogans on WhatsApp had legal consequences. In 2017, a 14-year-old was convicted of spreading Nazi propaganda, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported, after his parents discovered chats on their son's cellphone where the participants made fun of Jews or glorified the SS. The parents reported the groups to the police — the resulting prosecution could later target around 180 people.
The hate in the groups is often directed toward multiple broad targets, including Jews, Muslims, and immigrants. At times, the members’ bigotry can be more specifically targeted. BuzzFeed News has documented nearly 30 cases over the past few months where the groups have spread the phone numbers of people they’ve decided should be harassed and threatened.
David Begrich, who studies right-wing extremism, told BuzzFeed News that much of the imagery being spread is being done by young people trying to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable with one another. Over time, that exposure can lead to finding the views they’re sharing more acceptable.
But Begrich also sees the difficulty that comes with trying to control the contents of a service like WhatsApp. "You also have to ask yourself if you want control over WhatsApp to actually access the content of chats that are otherwise private."
BuzzFeed News has recently contacted the most active players in some of the right-wing groups. One man from the German state of Thuringia agreed to speak over the phone, but did not give his name.
He said that he is in his early twenties and has been active in the right-wing scene for years. He first saw an invitation link to one of the far-right WhatsApp groups on Facebook. From the one group he quickly got into more, through invitation links. One invitation text promised that people in the group "also do not want foreigners."
BuzzFeed News found several instances in the group chats where he’d sent dozens of WhatsApp stickers with swastikas and "Heil Hitler" slogans. “I wrote that when I was drunk," the man said. For him, the group was a place for like-minded people and he was there out of boredom. "I'm already on the right, but do not show it otherwise in public."
This post was translated from German.