Corona Conspiracy Theorists Protests in Germany See Fringe Mix with the Mainstream

At demonstrations and on the internet, both the far-left and the far-right have converged in their agitation against measures taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In a disturbing development, their conspiracy theories are also reaching the mainstream.
A protest in Berlin against coronavirus containment measures taken by the government.

A protest in Berlin against coronavirus containment measures taken by the government.

Foto: M. Golejewski / AdoraPress

By Maik BaumgärtnerFelix BohrRoman HöfnerTimo LehmannAnn-Katrin MüllerSven RöbelMarcel RosenbachJonas SchaibleWolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Steffen Winter

PEGIDA isn’t marching these days. For almost six years, racists and disaffected Germans, marched every Monday through Dresden’s city center as "Patriotic Europeans” to stop the purported "Islamization of the West.” But last Monday, the city’s Neumarkt square was empty. The local authorities were only permitting the demonstration to take place within a small square delineated by barriers, restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus. A maximum of 50 people could take part.

That was too small for PEGIDA organizer Lutz Bachmann, who’s accustomed to larger audiences. He has instead moved the protests to the virtual realm, inciting his followers from home by video livestream, not a bad move given the torrential rain that day. But Bachmann has also expanded his usual repertoire of political issues: These days, he has turned his attentions away from migration and Islam and toward the coronavirus lockdown restrictions imposed by politicians. Yet the despite the flexibility in focus, the message has remained the same: Merkel has to go.

In his livestream on May 4, Bachmann called for civil disobedience. "There’s nothing anybody can do about it if you just sit down, as long as you pay attention to minimum spacing requirements," he said. The PEGIDA organizer sees considerable mobilization potential in tapping the anger many Germans feel about the restrictions on public life imposed as a result of the coronavirus as well as the social and economic impact they are having. Something is stirring in Germany, he shouted to his followers. And not just in the former East German state, where most of PEGIDA’s energy has come from, but also in the western states. "The people are slowly waking up over there,” he said.

In fact, a growing number of people across Germany have been gathering to protest against the government. And it’s not just the usual PEGIDA suspects who are taking to the streets. The virus is uniting people in protest who previously had very little to do with each other: right-wing extremists, anti-vaxxers, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, left-wing radicals, old school anarchists and followers of New Age beliefs. But also quite normal people who weren’t politically active in the past.

Last Wednesday, around 400 gathered in front of the German parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin. The past two weekends have also seen protests in Stuttgart, where more than 4,000 demonstrated against the coronavirus measures on May 2 and the largest protest to date took place in the city this Saturday, with police estimating the size of the crowd at 5,000 people. Meanwhile, around 3,000 protested in Munich over the weekend, over 1,000 in Berlin, and similar demonstrations were held in Frankfurt and Cologne. Recent days have also seen protests in a number of smaller cities. In many places, the desire to resist resulted in acts of aggression against police officers and journalists. In Berlin, camera teams working for the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF have been attacked. There are even efforts to start a new political party as an umbrella body for the disparate groups of protesters. The official papers for the "Resistance2020” party were filed last week.

”Infodemic”

At the same time, conspiracy theories pertaining to corinavirus are spreading rapidly through the internet. German celebrities like the singer Xavier Naidoo, star chef Attila Hildmann and singer Senna Gammour have been helping to ensure that fake news about the coronavirus reaches a mass audience by spreading it on social media.

The World Health Organization has warned of an "infodemic,” and German security experts fear that a global information war is breaking out over the virus. In an open letter to major technology companies, a number of leading doctors and virologists like Christian Drosten of Berlin’s Charité University Hospital are now calling for tougher action to be taken against fake news.

The odd mix of fabricated news on the internet has been fueled by conspiracy theorists and pro-Russian media who spread fake news as part of their efforts to destabilize democracy. In addition, there are also elements from the left-wing fringe and from the far-right orbit of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. They are using the coronavirus as a means of building bridges to reach people closer to the political mainstream. They may not be well organized, but they have nonetheless succeeded in drawing an astonishing number of people out into the streets to protests.

The protests haven’t gone unnoticed to politicians -- and have actually had an influence. The fact that the broadest steps yet to loosen the lockdown were taken last week is linked in part to anger among the protesters and certain segments of the population.

Protesters at Saturday's "Querdenken" demonstration in Stuttgart

Protesters at Saturday's "Querdenken" demonstration in Stuttgart

Foto: 7aktuell.de Marc Gruber/ imago images/7aktuell

"The dangerous thing about this is that these people are also reaching people who firmly believe in Germany’s constitution with their crude theories,” says Berlin state Interior Minister Andreas Geisel of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). "They can then be used to further spread the conspiracy theories.”

Germany’s state governors are also worried that the mood in the country is shifting. That’s one of the reasons they pushed Chancellor Angela Merkel last Wednesday for a further loosening of restrictions – changes that would have been unthinkable only a week earlier.

But who are the people driving the politicians to take these steps?

Stuttgart is a good place for getting a better understanding of the phenomenon. Ten years ago, massive protests were held in the city against a major infrastructure project called Stuttgart 21, the far-reaching transformation of the main train station along with major cosmetic changes to parts of the city. The anger over the project and the ensuing protests attracted attention across the entire country. It wasn’t left-wing radicals expressing their displeasure at the time, but largely well-off people who believed their quality of life would suffer through the construction of the station. There are a numerous parallels between today’s protesters and those from a decade ago

The recent protests in Stuttgart have been organized as "vigils for the constitution,” a reflection of the incursions on basic freedoms that the lockdowns have wrought, by a movement called Querdenken 711, which translates roughly as "thinking out of the box.” It’s not just chronic Merkel-haters or anti-vaxxers here, but also people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. They’ve been attended by single mothers and even restaurant owners who have had to close their establishments. They consider the restrictions to be disproportionate and are protesting against "arbitrary action taken by the government” and for the "restoration of fundamental rights” or the for Stuttgart’s nightlife to be saved.

Hijacked by Extremists

It’s exactly this confluence of broader segments of society that is worrying security officials. They have also observed extremist elements adopting the issue. An internal situation report from the German Interior Ministry from last week states: "Extremist groups are using the crisis to spread and reinforce their respective ideological narratives."

Georg Maier, the interior minister for the eastern state of Thuringia, says he is seeing a shift in public sentiment. He says that although people welcomed the rigorous lockdown measures taken at the beginning, they are now starting to turn. Maier says he wants to address the issue at the next national meeting of state interior ministers, a grouping that he currently heads. "Of course, it’s OK for people to express criticism, this is about restrictions on basic rights, after all.” But, he adds, "what is alarming to us is the attempt by extremists to hijack the protests.”

Maier is also disturbed by how widespread the coronavirus conspiracy theories have become. "The idea that the pandemic was deliberately created to control the people, and that Bill Gates or other supposedly sinister powers are behind it, reaches far into the center of society," says Maier. "It doesn’t take much for the protests to steer into anti-Semitism.”

A woman protesting the lockdown

A woman protesting the lockdown

Foto: HERMANN BREDEHORST

Markus Kerber says we are observing a "global information war” in the pandemic. Kerber is a senior official in the German Interior Ministry responsible for societal cohesion, among other issues. His team first began noticing a surge in disinformation and propaganda from abroad at the onset of the pandemic, which was often spread by state media. But he says the conspiracy theories have since begun circulating in Germany. "We have to counter this with facts, transparency and by defending the science,” Kerber says. He’s also aware that sustained periods of crisis are the ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

Pia Lamberty, a social psychologist who wrote a doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theories and is the author of the recently published book on the subject, has an explanation. "A pandemic triggers a very large loss of control, which is why some people take refuge in conspiracies,” she says. The effect is even greater with an invisible virus that is spreading globally than it is with terrorism or the sudden deaths of celebrities, events for which there have always been conspiracy theories. "It’s easier for some people to imagine evil people behind the scenes to blame for the situation,” Lamberty says. They look for simple answers and then feel special because they have supposedly recognized something that the masses have overlooked.

"The Government Is Screwing with Us All”

A number of political players have been deliberately exploiting this phenomenon during the crisis. In many places, officials with the AfD party are either participating in protests or are themselves registering the events. They include people like local AfD politician Steffen Janich in Pirna, a small town located near Dresden, who has been calling for "coincidental walks” on Wednesdays. And there are people like Gunnar Lindemann, a member of the state parliament in Berlin. Or Hansjörg Müller, a member of the federal parliament, who held up a sign at a protest in Munich reading: "The government is screwing with us all.”

The extreme right-wing group Zukunft Heimat, which is led by an AfD member of the Brandenburg state parliament and specializes in street protests is also taking part in protests. And Martin Sellner of the right-wing extremist Identitarian Movement has also called for support for the protests so that they can become a "a large, broad and common alliance.”

A corona lockdown protester in Munich wears a hat with the logo of the right-wing populist AfD party.

A corona lockdown protester in Munich wears a hat with the logo of the right-wing populist AfD party.

Foto: ALEXANDER POHL / DDP IMAGES

A series of weekly protests in Berlin began at the end of March, when Anselm Lenz called for "the defense of civil rights against the spreading new authoritarianism.” The Berlin dramaturge and journalist made a name for himself in theater with pieces that are critical of capitalism. Now the 40-year-old is the mouthpiece of a movement that believes that a conspiracy of power elites is behind the global pandemic.

Lenz and others connected with the Communications Center for Democratic Resistance gather regularly on Berlin’s Rosa Luxemburg Square. At the protests, they distribute a newspaper they produce themselves along with copies of Germany’s constitution. But not all of the participants in these demonstrations are prepared to adhere to that constitution. As the Berlin state Office for the Protection of the Constitution, an agency responsible for monitoring political extremism and terrorism, states in an internal paper, several dozen far-right extremists, including Udo Voigt, the former head of the far-right extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), attended one of the recent Berlin protests. There has been little opposition to the influx of right-wing extremists who oppose democracy within the protest movement surrounding the coronavirus measures.

Instead, organizers seem to be caught up in their own internal problems. For example, over the purported partnership they had with the German Federal Agency for Civic Education, which they alleged help print copies of the constitution. The agency has denied any involvement. "We clearly refute this,” the agency said in a statement. And famous Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben told DER SPIEGEL: "I am not the co-editor of the Democratic Resistance newspaper.”

Kremlin Propagandists

On the other hand, there are three media in particular that have stood firmly on the side of the protesters and have been very active in their reporting on the so-called "Hygiene Demos.” They include the anti-establishment webzine Rubikon as well as the two German-language offshoots of the Russian media company RT and Sputnik.

It’s not particularly surprising the Kremlin propagandists took an early interest in the protests. Pro-Russian journalist Ulrich Gellermann, who is frequently interviewed by the stations and websites and writes for both outlets, is part of the core group in the Democratic Resistance group. Gellermann describes himself as "one of the co-initiators” of the protests in Berlin, and he says he advises the organizers and is still in regular contact today.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with Bavarian Governor Markus Söder and Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher after a May 6 video conference on easing the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with Bavarian Governor Markus Söder and Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher after a May 6 video conference on easing the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Foto: SVEN DARMER / DAVIDS

Gellermann says he also has other "partners.” On his homepage, Gellermann has links to "partners” KenFM as well as Weltnetz.tv, where he has been publishing articles for years. Weltnetz.tv has deep ties to the far-left Left Party. Diether Dehm, a federal parliamentarian for the Left Party, is one of the website’s co-founders and still services as the treasurer of the association that raises money to fund the site. He’s also a part owner of the company that runs the site, as is Heike Hänsel, a Left Party member of parliament and a ranking member of its parliamentary group, and Wolfgang Gehrcke, a former member of parliament with the party. When contacted via his email address at Weltnetz, Dehm answered from his personal email address.

Dehm claims that he has nothing to do with the protests and that he considers the virus to be very dangerous. But he added that it is also important that more people protest and that they be allowed to express their opinions without intimidation. "Everyone must be allowed to spread even the greatest nonsense without being punished. Corona deniers aren’t Auschwitz deniers!" In the leadership of his party, on the other hand, a different, very determined line has been adopted. Left Party national chair Katja Kipping, for example, speaks of a "lobby” for loosening the lockdown.

The Rubikon website serves as a kind of in-house publication for the protesters. "Hygiene Demo” protest organizer Lenz has been publishing his ideas since the site’s launch. The Rubikon website was established in 2017 and is known for its frequent publication of conspiracy theories. The site’s advisory board also includes journalists who work for Weltnetz.tv and the German-language offshoot of RT. Rubikon has also sought to establish ties with fake news influencers like Ken Jebsen, who is profiting massively from the crisis created by the coronavirus through his YouTube channel KenFM.

Jebsen shows that stories based on conspiracy theories about the coronavirus are in high demand. Last year, the former radio presenter gained around 5,000 to 6,000 new subscribers a month for his channel. In March of this year, there were around 35,000 new subscribers, with as many as 75,000 subscribing in April, around 20 times as many as last year. The number of video views is also increasing, with 12 million views in April alone. Other YouTube channels with links to the scene are experiencing similar growth.

Trouble Keeping Up

One of the reasons conspiracy theories have been able to spread as far as they have is that the social networks have a lack of staff and are having trouble keeping up. Facebook, Twitter and Google largely rely on external service providers to handle content moderation. Employees search through postings and filter out hate speech and incitement, depictions of violence and disinformation.

But since the pandemic hit, many workers at Facebook Twitter and Google, of which YouTube is a subsidiary, are also working from home. In Germany alone, hundreds of moderators at service provider companies like Majorel, which provide their services to Facebook, have been affected. For legal and data protection reasons, moderators are often only able to do a part of their work from home.

"Since not all the people who normally check content are able to work currently, we are prioritizing certain content and are relying increasingly on automated systems,” says a Facebook spokeswoman. But the automated filters are prone to errors, especially when it comes to borderline cases, which many videos often are. "Despite these measures, there can still be longer response times and more mistakes in enforcing our rules,” the Facebook spokeswoman admits.

Facebook emphasizes that despite the staffing shortage, warnings were displayed for around 40 million posts in March alone. She says that 95 percent of users would not have clicked on them. Facebook and Google have also tightened their rules: At YouTube, officials say that calls for illegal gatherings as well as videos doubting the existence of the coronavirus or recommending harmful remedies are removed as soon as they are detected or reported.

In recent weeks, for example, the company has removed numerous videos in which 5G mobile technology is blamed for the spread of the coronavirus following attacks against people and 5G masts, especially in Britain and the Netherlands. The company also says that the astonishingly high number of views on some conspiracy theory channels aren’t attributable to YouTube’s own algorithms. Instead, users are searching for the channels by name.

The conspiracy theorists have already reacted to the deletion of their content by moving their business to "freer” platforms like Bitchut and, particularly, the messaging service Telegram,  where they can continue to ramble on unhindered about the "bioweapon” or the alleged "emergency regime” and dream about larger gatherings to "besiege the Bundestag until the government resigns.”

Or dream about the next time they meet on the streets. Right in the midst of ordinary people.

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