BERLIN — “My name is Shahak Shapira,” a young blond man announces in German, deadly serious as he delivers a video address to tens of thousands of Alternative for Germany (AfD) supporters. “Don’t worry; it’s an old Prussian name.”
Shapira’s eyes twinkle as he informs his audience he’s hijacked dozens of their Facebook groups, just weeks before the populist AfD is set to become the first far-right party to win seats in the Bundestag since World War II. The group’s rapid rise has shocked establishment parties by challenging Germany’s postwar aversion to right-wing politics and evoked jarring warnings from major public officials.
In a recent interview with t-online.de, Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel compared the AfD to “real Nazis.” On Monday one of the AfD’s top candidates, Alexander Gauland, said Islam is “incompatible” with Germany, and stood by earlier comments that the country should be proud of its World War II soldiers.
With all eyes on the party before Germany’s federal elections on Sept. 24, Shapira teamed up with the satirical party Die PARTEI to co-opt pro-AfD Facebook groups. They turned private ones public to expose members, rebranded the pages as their own fan clubs, and changed names like “Homeland Love” into “Hummus Love.”
“My position at Die PARTEI is the Reich Minister of Propaganda. Like [Joseph] Goebbels,” Shapira told VICE News soon after the takeover. “I’ve been doing that for two weeks — not long, but longer than about 95 politicians at the White House. So I’m pretty experienced, from your perspective.”
Amid security concerns over Germany’s susceptibility to hacking attacks and foreign interference in its elections, Shapira’s pranks touch a nerve. The 29-year-old comedian says he wants the AfD’s followers to know they’re regularly tricked into joining groups created by bots and fake profiles, turning their news feeds into streams of party propaganda and false information intended solely to stoke anger.
With his campaign, Shapira reassured them, they’re at least being pranked by real humans.
“It was very generous of the AfD to just hand over their groups to us,” he said.
Shapira has made a name for himself through a series of stunts as irreverent as his new party title. In August, after Twitter failed to remove hundreds of tweets he’d reported as racist or containing hate speech, Shapira spray-painted the offending material onto the street in front of the company’s Hamburg offices.
Earlier this year he publicly shamed people for taking inappropriate photos in front of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a monument in Berlin, by photoshopping pictures of Holocaust victims into the backgrounds of their glamor shots.
The AfD formed as a Euroskeptic party in 2013, but found a rallying cry in its anti-immigration platform after Merkel opened Germany’s borders to 1 million refugees in 2015. Since then, the AfD has campaigned on stricter border controls and on addressing security issues it says have been created by immigrants.
“The AfD is the only interesting thing about this election.”
The group’s leaders also haven’t shied away from espousing xenophobic views.
Earlier this month, the German paper Welt am Sonntag reported that one of the AfD’s leading candidates, Alice Weidel, sent a 2013 email describing Germany as “overrun by Arabs, Sinti, and Roma,” in a message laced with language associated with the Nazi era. The AfD had called it a fake, but Weidel’s lawyer no longer denies she wrote it.
“They’ve been able to mobilize lots of votes by playing with fire and challenging the taboo of nationalism in Germany,” Boris Vormann, professor of politics at Bard College Berlin, said.
The group’s campaign posters include placards featuring a pregnant white woman’s belly and the tagline “German children? We make them ourselves,” as well as a picture of women in swimsuits alongside the slogan, “Burkas? We prefer bikinis.”
The group’s anti-Islam rhetoric has made it a natural target for Shapira.
“I would say some of [the AfD] are neo-Nazis — 30 percent, I think experts say,” Shapira quips. “The rest of them just tolerate neo-Nazis. That’s not better.”
The AfD did not respond to requests for comment, but they’ve previously called Shapira’s Facebook prank “illegal” and a “stupid joke.”
“Every time German politics become relevant to an international audience it’s probably bad news.”
The AfD currently holds seats in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. But despite those early upset victories, the party’s popularity has dipped as fears surrounding the refugee crisis have subsided. Polls published 10 days before the election show their support at 12 percent — less than their peak of around 15 percent in early September, but still enough to clear the threshold required to gain representation in the Bundestag.
“The AfD is the only interesting thing about this election,” Shapira says.
With Angela Merkel all but certain to win another term as chancellor — the latest Infratest dimap poll shows her conservative party members (CDU/CSU) 17 percentage points ahead of their closest rival, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) – the biggest question of the campaign season has been which party would come in third place. Now the AfD looks likely to take that title.
But Vormann says its impact will be limited, as most mainstream lawmakers are expected to shun the newcomers.
“None of the other parties is going to enter any kind of coalition with the AfD, so there will be no real political impact in that sense,” Vormann said. “It’s a very symbolic change to German politics. The kind of messages they’ve been running on have been quite provocative.”
If the AfD snaps up dozens of seats, as expected, it could force the political debate to the right. The party’s track record in regional parliaments suggests it’ll be a disruptive force in proceedings.
“Every time German politics become relevant to an international audience, it’s probably bad news,” Shapira said.