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German Activists Are Trolling Anti-Immigrant Groups

In Germany, left wing activist have found ways to transform the xenophobic activities of right-wing extremists into donations for left-wing causes.

Elissa Stolman

The migrant crisis has hit Germany hard. The country has responded to the influx of asylum seekers with relatively generous, if inconsistent, policies to deal with a projected 1.5 million people expected to enter its borders this year. Early on in the migrant crisis, Germany arguably treated migrants the best out of any European Union member on both an administrative and local level. German citizens were noted for throwing welcome parties, as well as holding "free hugs" signs to foreigners entering the country. But right-wing politicians and other countries in the EU are putting a lot of pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to turn away asylum seekers.

Grassroots efforts have also rallied on both the pro- and anti-refugee fronts in Germany. Some citizens established websites that function as "Airbnb for refugees" and threw charity fundraising parties, while the right wing criticized Merkel's liberal immigration policies at demonstrations around the country. Thirty one police officers were injured during a riot that erupted at a anti-refugee rally in Heidenau only one day after Merkel announced the suspension of migrant fingerprinting protocols that force-register asylum seekers and restrict their movement across Europe. In October, the PEGIDA movement ("Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West"), which started in 2014, drew thousands to rallies in Chemnitz and Dresden, where protestors held up nooses marked for Merkel. German-Turkish author Akif Pirinçci was also there and told the crowd it's a shame that concentration camps are inactive. And the recent attacks in Paris have only added to these types of xenophobic and Islamophobic expression in Europe.

Things were different at the end of World War II. Neo-Nazism was pushed underground when Germany passed "denazification" laws. These laws were aimed at preventing the rise of another Nazi movement and they prohibited Nazis from publicly displaying their beliefs by banning the swastika and sieg heil salute. The measures also prohibit Volksverhetzung, or speech that encourages hatred or potentially violent action against certain people. But in recent years, the right-wing movement has made its anti-refugee feelings more prominent and visible due to the rise of PEGIDA and a swelling number of anti-immigrant posts on social media, which some believe violate the de-nazification laws.

These hateful displays, both online and IRL, have inspired refugee advocates to clap back at detractors and adopt clever methods to discourage right-wing hate speech. For the past few years, there have been several efforts to turn the actions of right-wing extremists into charity for left-wing causes. In 2014, the Center for Democratic Culture in Germany (ZDK Deutschland) started Rechts Gegen Rechts, or Nazis Against Nazis, "the most involuntary charity in Germany." The campaign transformed an annual, decades-old neo-Nazi rally in Wunsiedel into a surprise walkathon to raise funds for EXIT Deutschland, an organization that helps neo-Nazis defect from the right-wing scene and provides support to refugees. Some of those former neo-Nazis now work for EXIT Deutschland and its campaigns, including Nazis Against Nazis, which has raised money by asking locals to donate 10 euro for every meter marched by neo-Nazis.

Screenshot via Rechts Gegen Rechts Youtube clip

"Our main goals are to receive money for EXIT Germany and to stop neo-Nazis," ZDK's Fabian Wichmann explained over the phone to VICE. "We haven't stopped neo-Nazis, but we are raising money for EXIT Germany, so one of two goals has been reached."

In 2015, Nazis Against Nazis expanded its efforts to two more German towns, Bad Nenndorf and Remagen, where Wichmann claims attendance at annual right-wing rallies fell by nearly half. "Last year more than 200 people came to Remagen to demonstrate," he said. "This year we started Nazis Against Nazis there and only 100 or 120 people came. I don't know if Nazis Against Nazis is the reason the group shrank, but we see that the neo-Nazis see our actions, discuss them, and think about how to handle it. I think they have no idea how to combat our actions. Maybe it's a long shot, but perhaps some demonstrators don't come to demonstrations because of us. I hope so."

The refugee situation and general spikes in Islamophobia have inspired another wave of extremist trolling from leftist factions on social media. These campagns often have more to do with combatting those who oppose the immigrants rather than fighting for the immigrants themselves. Though activist groups allover Europe are concerned with challenging Islamophobia on the internet, the digital front is considered an essential battle to German leftists who believe hate speech has the power to turn into action.

"Sometimes we send [online] hate comments to the police because they are violent or dangerous or threatening somebody," Whichmann explained. "But that's not our main goal. Our main goal is to ban the hate."

As Nazis Against Nazis has traveled to new cities, ZDK also continued to spread its trolling project from extremist marches to the digital realm of the xenophobia-filled internet with a branch called Hass Hilft ("Hate Helps"), which applies the same model to hateful Facebook posts. The enterprise launched with support from corporate sponsors, including major German media providers like Sky TV Deutschland and radio station BigFM, who donate one euro for every xenophobic, racist, or otherwise intolerant comment the Hass Hilft page is tagged in. Thus, "the haters and the trolls are making a donation against their own cause," explains the website, which now accepts money from civilians as well. This campaign is basically just online trolling.

"It's more powerful if you have [corporate] partners," said Wichmann. "Donations are one thing; the other thing is to have the signal to send a voice that says, 'There's hate on the internet, and we have to do something against it.' If you have some partners like Sky or Big FM on the homepage, more people will stop and think about it."

The German government has also added weight to the cause by pressuring Facebook to do the work Hass Hilft has taken upon itself. In September, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas called upon Facebook to monitor and automatically censor offensive comments in the German network, specifically those with xenophobic messages, to comply with the country's strict free speech laws. A few weeks later, microphones picked up snippets of a conversation between Merkel and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in which the Chancellor asked if the social network was "working on" the task, and Zuckerberg assured her they were on the case.

It's interesting that the German government is anointing an American tech corporation to regulate the speech of its citizens. Whether an algorithm can detect the nuances between hate speech and sarcasm on Facebook is still up for debate, especially considering Facebook is already getting criticized in Germany for being more likely to remove a photo featuring both nipples and hate speech for its nudity than its bigotry.

So far Facebook has helped the anti-extremist cause by teaming up with a nonprofit organization called FSM, the Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers, to crack down on hate speech posts that violate Germany's speech laws. On November 12, police in Berlin and Brandenburg raided the homes of ten people suspected of publishing offensive and provocatively hateful images and posts, which included swastikas and comments decrying asylum seekers, and confiscated computers and smartphones for evidence. The perpetrators face fines or jail time for using right-wing propaganda to influence others to hate refugees, and their sentences hinge on Germany's crucial, legal difference between voicing a negative opinion and doing so in a way that will persuade others to feel the same.

Many Americans would balk at the idea of facing arrest for expressing one's opinion on social media however unpopular it may be. And they might also question the strategy of silencing refugees' detractors rather than supporting the refugees themselves in more direct ways. But to many in Germany, online acts of hate and violence are considered just as dangerous as neo-Nazi marches on the city streets. Anti-refugee memes may be less influential than political actions that forcibly remove migrants from Germany, but as more refugees continue to enter the country, and as more xenophobia swells, leftist activists will continue to oppose the far right on every front they can.