In just a few days, Germans will go to the polls to vote for a new government in an election that feels strangely familiar. For decades, Germany’s elections have been subdued and predictable, but this campaign cycle has seen a rise of fake news, hate groups and right-wing politicians with a nationalist agenda. There also are allegations of Russian meddling. This week on Reveal, we team up with Coda Story to look at the rise of right-wing populism in Germany’s election. Credit: Gabriel Hongsdusit/Reveal

In just a few days, Germans will go to the polls to vote for a new government in an election that feels strangely familiar. For decades, Germany’s elections have been subdued and predictable, but this campaign cycle has seen a rise of fake news, hate groups and right-wing politicians with a nationalist agenda. There also are allegations of Russian meddling. This week on Reveal, we team up with Coda Story to look at the rise of right-wing populism in Germany’s election.

First, reporter Luisa Beck introduces us to Beatrix von Storch, the leading candidate of Alternative für Deutschland, or the AfD. It’s a new party running on an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim platform that credits the Tea Party with teaching its candidates some of the strategies they’re using in this election. Since World War II, more than a dozen right-wing groups have tried to enter Germany’s national parliament, and they’ve all failed. But this year, if the polls are right, the AfD has a chance to win seats, which will give it a say in writing national legislation.   

Next, we look at the role fake news is playing in spreading the far right’s anti-Muslim message. Beck brings us the story of Anas Modamani, a 20-year-old Syrian refugee. When Modamani arrived in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel visited his shelter, and they took a selfie together. The photo made headlines and helped Modamani find a host family. But over the next year, fake news outlets used it to spread lies about Modamani, including allegations of being a terrorist in the attacks in Brussels and at the Christmas market in Berlin.

Fake news and disinformation aren’t coming just from Germany’s far-right political parties. Reporter Ilan Greenberg looks at how Russian media is trying to influence Germany’s election by spreading stories that vilify immigrants and undermine confidence in Germany’s political system. Some Germans also are worried that Russian hackers will spring a last-minute surprise to discredit Merkel right before the election.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: ‘Life Is Not For Everyone’
  • Read: Russian Disinformation: Everywhere? Nowhere? Neither?


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Special thanks to Angelika Fey, Nicolas Semak, Dörte Fiedler, Alaa Khalil, Viertausendhertz, Timo Lochocki, Hans-Gerd Jaschke, Heidi Tworek, Alexandr Burilkov, Nikolai Mitrokhin, for their voices, recording studio and expertise.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al:From The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. In just a few days, Germans will go to the polls to vote for a new government and in a typical year, I’ve got to say I wouldn’t care. I mean, let’s face it. The German elections are sleepy compared to what we’re used to here and they don’t effect us, right? Things are different with this election and they’re different in ways that sound strangely familiar.
First, fake news. Yeah. It’s a thing. Just like it was in our election. So are alleged Russian meddling, hate groups, and the rise of right-wing politicians with a nationalist agenda. That’s happening in Germany too. This is the rally of a right-wing group called PEGIDA. They gathered back in march on an old market square in the middle of Dresden. They do this once a week and their rallies always start with music. A cross between elevator music and Lord of the Rings maybe. (music)
A woman steps onto a tiny stage and starts reading the rules of the rally. This is Germany after all. Public gatherings are regulated to the smallest detail. She says, “Flags can’t be taller than two meters. Also very important, no laser pointers, no LED lights, not overly bright bicycle lights.” All seems pretty tame, but then the music changes and suddenly they’re playing clips of German chancellor Angela Merkel. They’re chanting, “Traitor to the people.” A term that was used by the Nazis. Then, “Merkel must go.”
There’s a guy holding a poster that shows Merkel wearing a Hitler mustache and the hijab. She’s got outstretched hands covered in blood. A political poster like that would offend people here, but in Germany it’s outrageous and unheard of. Until now. It doesn’t stop there. This guy’s yelling, “Lugenpresse,” or lying press. It’s the same term that American white supremacist Richard Spencer likes to use.
The reporter this guy’s yelling at is Luisa Beck. Luisa is a German American reporter partnering with us and the and the online news organization Coda Story. She was raised in Germany and has been tracking the rise of right-wing populism in Germany’s election. She takes it from here.
Luisa:Lugenpresse is a word that Adolf Hitler used to bash media that was critical of him during World War II. People here think all mainstream media is biased and in cahoots with their political rivals. I try to talk with them, but most refuse. PEGIDA stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West and standing in the middle of their rally, you get a good sense of the issues being debated in this year’s election. The future of the EU, Islam, border security, refugees.
PEGIDA’s not a political party. They’re more like a fringe group of activists, but they’re finding a friend in a new party that is running for office. The AFD or Alternative for Deutschland. I decide to seek out one of the AFD’s leading candidates, Beatrix Von Storch. When I arrive at the address in Berlin, an old mustard-colored apartment building, there’s a sign for a doctor’s office, but no sign anywhere for a politician’s headquarters. Only a tiny buzzer. There’s a reason for that.
Von Storch:Yeah. You’re going to have to sign there. This is for security reasons. Yes, we have got a police here.
Luisa:Beatrix Von Storch’s party has no chance of winning a majority in parliament, but they could win seats, which would give them a say in policy making. I walk inside her office and it’s clean and orderly. Her desk completely empty except for a flyer that says, “[German 00:04:23],” which means, “The best is still to come.”
Von Storch:Yes, we have got a police here. We check the house and then we change the doors and all this kind of stuff.
Luisa:Has there been vandalism in the past for AFD offices?
Von Storch:Yes, a bit. Not a bit I mean, but a lot.
Luisa:She pulls out her phone and shows me photos of her office. Spray painted walls, broken windows, and lots of messages scribbled across her door.
Von Storch:Again, something.
Luisa:Nazi …
Von Storch:Whore. Bitch. So we over-painted it and then they burnt my car.
Luisa:They burned it?
Von Storch:Yeah. This used to be my car.
Luisa:Do you know who did it?
Von Storch:It’s the far left. This is what we know. It has been published on some far left forbidden or illegal website and they …
Luisa:She swipes to a photo of a graffitied message on her office wall about her grandfather.
Von Storch:The thing is they’re talking about my grandfather. My grandfather was a finance minister of Adolf Hitler. Yes, he was. So they put that on my door.
Luisa:Even though people attack Von Storch, she doesn’t look threatening. She’s in her mid-40’s, wears pink pastel pants, and if anything comes off as rather aristocratic. Just like you’d expect from the daughter of a German duchess. That’s not all she is.
Von Storch:I am vice chair of the Alternative for German [German 00:05:49] and I’m now on the list, on the regional list for the election for the [German 00:05:57] and for the region of Berlin I am a leading candidate. I am candidate number one and I’m a member of the European parliament.
Luisa:When you talk to Von Storch, you get the sense that Germany is under attack.
Von Storch:We have a severe problem, so we are not able to take in other millions from another cultural background.
Luisa:She’s talking about refugees. In 2015, as people were fleeing in wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel did something unprecedented. She allowed over 1.1 million refugees to enter the country. Much of the world celebrated the decision as humanitarian, but for Von Storch, it was a big mistake.
Von Storch:We want to have clear rules. We want to have a rule which is saying who fits into our society. Who wants to integrate into our society. Whom do we need. Then we want to pick them because everyone is claiming to be a asylum-seeker and so we don’t pick them. We are just letting them in.
Luisa:Actually, that’s not true anymore. These days the German government severely restricts who’s allowed to enter and stay. If an asylum seeker cannot show they’re politically threatened in their home country, they could be deported. Chancellor Merkel herself has since vowed that a situation like the summer of 2015 must not be repeated. Still, foreigners coming to live in Germany, that’s the issue that Von Storch is using to win supporters for the AFD party.
It’s something that Germans have grappled with for a long time. Many don’t consider Germany a nation of immigrants even though millions of foreign guest workers have lived here for decades. To see how Von Storch is using this touchy subject to win voters, I follow her on a campaign sweep through one of German’s most conservative states, Bavaria.
We’re in the city of Augsburg. It’s in the south of Germany just outside of Munich. It’s predominantly Catholic and on Sundays families are out strolling around enjoying street music. The campaign event is at a beer house and outside there are way more police cars than passenger cars. Inside Beatrix Von Storch stands on the stage and rails against the media. She goes through a list of articles and tells the audience how each story gets something wrong. At one point, she quotes a conservative politician of another party.
Von Storch:[German 00:08:45].


Luisa:“We need to stop the thousands of human traffickers who’ve taken the EU hostage and, if necessary, to take up arms.” Although she’s quoting someone else, Von Storch has agreed with the sentiment. Last year, when someone on Facebook asked, “Do you want women with children to be denied entry by armed force?” she replied with a simple, “Yes.” For Von Storch, the biggest thing plaguing Germany isn’t just controlling the border. It’s Islam.


Von Storch:[German 00:09:16].


Luisa:“As a culture, we won’t make compromises with Islam. We won’t let Germany get taken over by Islam.” I ask her what kind of compromises she means and she brings up Islamic law. Also known as Sharia.


Von Storch:Sharia is not only regulating the personal. Sharia is also civil law and a punishing law, and a public law. It claims to, you know, organize the society and ruling the way of living. This is not compatible with our culture and with our way of living.


Luisa:Yes. She’s read that some Muslims consider Sharia law important in their lives, but to be clear, if someone who’s Muslim does not comply with German law, they could go to prison, just like anyone else. Her next worry is a lot cruder.


Von Storch:So not to have very short skirts or all this kind of stuff. Not to pervert the Muslim man because they might, you know, misunderstand a short scarf as inviting them to rape.


Luisa:The German Federal Statistics Office has no data on sexual harassment by Muslim men and there’s no proof that there’s an upward trend. What we do know is that crimes against foreigners living in Germany have been going up.


Von Storch:It’s a very clear line what we have. Islam does not belong to Germany and it does not fit into our society. It doesn’t go together with our values.


Luisa:Beatrix Von Storch isn’t the first to make Islamophobic statements in Germany, but she and her party have been more successful than anyone else at spreading that message. She’s had some effective teachers.


Von Storch:My party only was founded in 2013, but years before I founded myself a grassroots movement, which basically was acting like those Tea Party we knew from the United States.


Luisa:So basically you learned from the strategies of the conservatives, including the Tea Party and then used them here?


Von Storch:Sure. So we had people to teach us and to tells us who’d spent their time in the United States and we made them come to us and advise us how to do this.


Luisa:The Tea Party. This is the last place I expect to hear about them, but it turns out there are a lot of people here who feel that Germany should be looking to the US. Back outside, I meet a guy named Max Nigella.


Max:Donald Trump. Yes. Yes. Great. I’m happy he got elected because in his whole way he is so different and because I think that political establishments all over the western world are so corrupt, right, that somebody who stirs them up at least gives me the hope that something better might happen.


Luisa:Max is from Bavaria and works as a mailman, but he dresses more like a male model. He wears snakeskin shoes, designer jeans, and proudly tells me people confuse him for being Italian. He’s been a member of Von Storch’s party for about six months, but this si the first time he’s heard her speak live. Okay, so what did you think of what she had to say?


Max:I think all in all it was pretty much the truth or how we feel about it. So many Muslim people coming into the country who will have children of course and you don’t have to have gone to Harvard to know that this will make Germany and Europe more and more Islamic. If you want that, then good luck to you, but I don’t want it you know? I do not want to become like an Islamic state. Why do all these Muslim people come to Christian countries?


Luisa:This kind of rhetoric upsets a lot of Germans. A few feet away from where Max and I are standing, protestors are shouting, “Get out, Nazis!” and, “Get rid of nationalist thinking!” Just like in the US, the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim message here has divided the country. Even though the AFD’s a small party, it’s had a big effect on mainstream politics.


Christian:With the introduction of right-wing populism we now have basically a player who doesn’t stick to the unwritten rules. A player that is immoral. That says things that are outrageous and discriminatory.


Luisa:That’s Christian Ludde, a member of the Social Democrats, one of the center left parties. He says “German politics used to be very civil, but the AFD changed that and the media and politicians don’t know what to do about it.”


Christian:Do you try to go after them? Then you make them stronger, which is probably what happened to Trump. You know, the over-reporting and everything made him bigger than he was. Do you leave him alone? Which is bad because we think that terrible things need to be addressed. The worst is that it’s hard for us to know to what extent their messages resonate with the people that will vote on election day.


Luisa:Now he says, “Germans are having to discuss topics they thought they’d gotten past.


Christian:We thought that, you know, institutional racism was gone and we find that it is not at all. There’s a resurgence of nationalist beliefs and racist beliefs. There’s a resurgence of Antisemitism.


Luisa:Earlier this year, an AFD leader named Bjorn Hoecke made a statement that shook Germany’s media and politics. Here’s what he said.


Bjorn:[German 00:15:14]. We Germans are the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capitol.


Luisa:It might sound like nothing. Just a politician making a statement about a monument in the capital, but it was a huge deal in Germany because Hoecke was referring to a Holocaust memorial to murdered Jews. In another speech, he referred to refugee shelters as, “Breeding grounds for the germs of fundamentalism in which criminals are spawned.” Elizabeth Wehling is a researcher at UC Berkeley who studies right-wing rhetoric and she’s German herself.


Elizabeth:This is really a new shift. We have not seen this type of discourse in a broad public really since the Nazi Reich.


Luisa:It’s not just what’s being said, it’s how. She says Hoecke and the AFD party leaders often use metaphors that compare the nation to a body and refugees to invaders or a disease. She says it comes straight from the Nazis.


Elizabeth:So this is a push of these political groups to call into question how should Germany feel about people that are quote unquote, “Not part of,” the German identity, but now the population they’re going against is the Muslim population. Saying that Islam for instance is like a foreign thing to our culture doesn’t fit with our culture. It’s a threat to our identity.


Luisa:To be clear, there’s been a lot of in fighting within the AFD party about what kind of language to allow and Bjorn Hoecke was almost kicked out. Most German voters and almost 40% of AFD supporters say the party has not distanced itself enough from right-wing extremism. So do the Von Storch supporters believe her us versus them talk and do they, like her, think German identity is being threatened? Why?


The day after her speech in Augsburg, I’m on my way to our next rally. I’m driving there with Malique [inaudible 00:17:34], an AFD member. He tells me they’ve had to change the location because event spaces in the original town refused to host them. Since that, we’re heading to a tiny village. [German 00:17:48]. No I’m not making that up.


We’re passing through fields of hops and Enrico tells me, “This is where all the hops are grown for Germany’s beer.” The campaign event is of course at a beer house. Inside there are wooden tables covered with large mugs of lagers and stouts. People are eating schnitzel. A few even wear lederhosen and blue checkered shirts. It’s kind of like a caricature of German culture, but the audience seems really into it.


I share a table with [inaudible 00:18:26] who live in Bavaria. I ask them, “What does it mean to be German?” They tell me, “You can have German citizenship, be brought up in Germany, but never be German. Germany just isn’t an immigration country,” they tell me. They say, “Being German is Oktoberfest, and Christianity, and places like the one we’re sitting in. Here I should know everyone is white.” Beatrix Von Storch starts her speech and hits on the same points as the day before, but today it’s more extreme.


Von Storch:Here’s the question of whether we’re going to make compromises with Islam and I always break it down to a simple formula. We live in the new age. If you want to make compromises with the Stone Age, then we’ll land in the Middle Ages.


Luisa:There’s a lot of clapping. Then when the Q&A session starts, I raise my hand. One of the organizers hands me a microphone and I ask Beatrix the question I came here for. I say, “I want to ask you what is German culture?” The audience isn’t happy about the question, and Von Storch isn’t either.


She repeats the same point she’s made to me before about not wanting to compromise with Islam, not wanting Islamic law in Germany. I respond by saying that Muslims living here have to abide by German law too. Just like anyone else. Then the event organizer takes the microwave from me and says, “This isn’t the place to discuss such fundamental questions about who is Germany and who isn’t,” but Von Strorch tells me, I should ask President Trump why the US doesn’t take in one and a half million refugees. Then I’d have the answer to my question.


As I turned to grab my things [inaudible 00:20:15], the woman I have been sitting next to, tells me to go put on a hijab and get myself to Syria. I leave and Enrico drives me back through the fields of hops to the transition. He tells me they’re just talking tough for show. It’s an election season after all. To me, the anger in that room felt all too real, so I mostly look out the car woodwind window and stay silent.


Al:That story from Luisa Beck. The AFD is currently polling at about 10% of German voters. That’s a small but significant. Since World War II, more than a dozen right-wing groups have tried to enter Germany’s national parliament and they’ve all failed. This year, if the roles are right, the AFD has a chance to win seats, which will give it a sign in writing national legislation. The AFD is spreading his message against Islam with a propaganda tool that played a role in our own election. Fake news. When we come back, how an innocent selfie, set off a political fire storm that continues to burn. This is Reveal. From the center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Christina:Hey, folks. Christina Chem here from Reveals’s engagement team. You just heard how Germany’s election is still gaining tensions there. The same is true here in the US, where mass protests have become commonplace. We’re working on a show about protests here in American and we want to hear from you. Given the recent demonstrations by white supremacists and counter protestors in Charlottesville and beyond. We want to know. Are you more or less likely to tale part in a political protest these days? If so, what’s motivating you to his the streets or not. Let us know. Call 510-851-8327 and leave us a voicemail. Again, that’s 510-851-8327. We look forward to hearing from you.


Al:From The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’ve been hearing about how Germany’s far right is terminating Muslim immigrants through political speeches, but it’s also been happening for fake news. For one 20 year-old refugees from Syria, it became all too real.


Anas:My name is Anas Modamani. I’m from Syria. I have been unburdened for about one year and four months.


Al:Anas Modamani is a tall young man and really into photography. His Facebook wall is covered with action shots and collages he’s made of camera lenses and other photo gear. It was one particular photo though that he snapped with this phone that started it all.


Anas:I took the selfie. It all happened because of one selfie with Mrs. Merkel.


Al:Yes. That’s a selfie with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.


Anke:Angela Merkel has spent the morning visiting a center for processing asylum applications in Berlin.


Al:In 2015, Merkel went to visit the refugees shelter Anas was staying in. He’d been in Germany for just a few days and we ad excited to meet the most powerful person in his new country. We walked up to her, shook her hand, and snapped a selfie with her. Now, at the time Anas thought, “Well that was cool, ” by that day journalists were at the delta snapping photos too. When Anas took his selfie, they took photos at that exact moment. Anas leaning into Merkel, Merkel awkwardly giving Anas’s phone camera a thumbs up. The phone got picked up by all the big papers. People started talking about the refugee who took the selfie with Germany’s Chancellor.


Anke:Of course we know that he makes the selfie with Angela Merkel, but it was only a joke.


Al:That’s Anke Meeuw. She works as a vet and lives in Berlin with her husband and daughter and their 16-year old cat, Neelix, named of course after the cook in Star Trek: Voyager. Soon after the selfie, she read a post on Facebook that a young refugee named Anas was looking for a place to live. She and her family had an extra room, so she reached out to Anas. A few days later, he moved in. Anke became his host mom.


Anke:Think time it was a family together. We’re living together. Everything was in Germany you say, “[German 00:25:18].”


Luisa:I think everything was peaceful, happy and that’s a strangle German saying. Okay. It wasn’t as good as pancakes.


Anke:As good as pancakes. We eat pancakes.


Al:Then it wasn’t. Reporter Luisa Beck with the online news site Coda Story takes it from here.


Luisa:So how did it change?


Anke:It changed in at least 2016. You have the big big terrorist attacks in Brussels.


Reporter:Shock and fear spread in the Belgium capital following the twin blasts and Brussels International airport.


Luisa:Not long afterwards, Anke was at home after a long day at work when she got a message from Anas. He was very upset about something he’d just seen online.


Anke:Then I have a look at the internet and Facebook. Some people are taking Anas’ picture with Angela Merkel and saying those was one of the terrorists from Brussels.


Luisa:You heard right. That Anas was one of the bombers in the Brussels attack.


Anke:It was viral.


Luisa:Of course it wasn’t true, and Anke thought, “Okay. This needs to be deleted from Facebook.” So she did what anyone would do who wants to correct a mistake. She contacted the person who got it wrong and asked them to take it down.


Anke:Then I write them and said, “No. It isn’t those men. On the day the Brussell attacks were, he sat next to me on the breakfast table, and we’re looking in the television, and saw the things and he was crying.


Luisa:She clocked the send button and soon the guy responded to Anke.


Anke:What sort of troll you are. Go away.


Luisa:That’s the response you got? They told you you’re a troll?


Anke:Yeah. [German 00:27:21]. There was more. They wanted to cut off my head and take my skull on my [inaudible 00:27:31].


Luisa:On your fence?


Anke:On my fence in front of our house. That’s it. Me and in front of my family and Anas as well.


Luisa:That’s what they wrote on Facebook too.


Anke:That’s what they wrote on Facebook.


Luisa:So she set her sights on Facebook, which was how the message was being spread to thousands of users. She filed a complaint asking the company to take it down.


Anke:Every time, “It’s not against our community standards.”


Luisa:You got that same response?


Anke:Yeah, I got the same response every time. I’d never get another response.


Luisa:This statement, “Not against our community standards,” is something Anke would get really really familiar with. Basically it’s Facebook’s way of saying, “We’re not going to take this down. We are not going to let this down.”


Facebook is the most popular social media network in Germany, and it’s become the main forum for right-wing groups to organize campaign events and spread fake news. Their main targets, refugees and Angela Merkel.


Back in the summer of 2015, a leader from Germany’s far-right political party, the AFD took the selfie of Anas and attached it to the headline, “Merkel Is the Selfie Queen Who Imports Violence.” That made Anke angry. She contacted the guy who posted it.


Anke:Tell the truth and take it away. No. I’ll do it to annoy you.


Luisa:That’s what you told them?


Anke:Then I was a hot guy. A badass.


Luisa:It worked. Facebook didn’t react, but the right-wing guys who posted it eventually took it down and apologized. Then this past December, Germany experienced its first major terrorist attack in decades. It was at a Christmas Market. [German 00:29:29].


Reporter:In Berlin a truck has just plowed through this busy Christmas market in the western party of the city. So let’s begin there.


Anke:People are very frightened and it was not a good moment for Germany.


Luisa:Suddenly there was more fake news. Accusing Anas od being the terrorist who did it and then a few weeks later when a homeless man was lit on fire in Berlin. Fake news blamed Anas again. A few months ago, I was able to talk to Anas about how he felt when this was going on. He said he couldn’t understand why people would post stuff like that.


Anas:It made me feel afraid because I did everything right here in Germany. I’m happy here. I have integrated myself in German society. If I really wanted those kind of problems, I could have stayed in Syria.


Luisa:The fake news about Anas in Germany even reached his family in Syria.


Anas:My family is really worried about me. A lot of people called my mom and my dad and told them, “The police took Anas and they will destroy him. Maybe they will send him back to Syria because he has so many problems there.” I keep telling them over Skype, “No. Those are lies. It’s wrong.”


Luisa:Seeing Anas so upset made Anke even more determined to go after Facebook. So she got in touch with a lawyer. A guy named Chan-jo Jun.


Chan-jo:What has been really dangerous on Facebook is that it’s not the organized radicals who are already in their [inaudible 00:31:20] bubbles and things. It is people from the middle of society. People who one time just posted family pictures, and pets, and food all of a sudden were exposed to radical opinions and fake news and believed those.


Luisa:He says, “There’s a lot of stuff on Facebook that’s illegal under German law,” where free speech is more restricted than in the US. Like denying the Holocaust or glorifying National Socialism. That’s a criminal offense in Germany. Insight violence or hatred against a group of people? Also illegal. State an opinion about someone?


Well, that’s legal, but a false statement about a person that ruins their reputation, illegal. That last category, that’s the one Chan-jo wanted Facebook to acknowledge because all of these fake news articles used Anas’s selfie to claim that he was a terrorist. That’s illegal because it’s not true.


Chan-jo:I sent registered mails or emails to Facebook and thought, “Well, they will have to take it down, those examples I sent them, and then I can just demonstrate this is a solution.”


Luisa:He sent them about 19 pages of examples. For a while, no response. When he did get replies he says, “It was always some excuse. You know, “Your attachments don’t open, the emails got cut off, et cetera.” Finally, Chan-jo gave Facebook an ultimatum. Delete the posts or he’d press charges.


That’s what he finally did. He became the first German lawyer to put public pressure on Facebook by taking them to court over the handling of fake news. The judge made Facebook remove some of the posts with Anas, but ruled against Chan-jo in the lawsuit. When I asked Chan-jo about losing, I thought he’d be bummed, but he wasn’t.


Chan-jo:I feel like so optimistic and like happy. Actually I think this was the most successful lost case.


Luisa:It was a successful lost case because soon after he made the lawsuit so public the government decided it as going to take action on its own. Major action. This spring, Germany’s Minister of Justice Heiko Maass, drafted a new law requiring Facebook to take down speech that’s clearly illegal within 24 hours or else they’d have to pay a fine of up to 50 millions euros.


That’s about 60 million dollars. That might not seem much to a multi-billion dollar company like Facebook, but they could get fined any time illegal speech is posted. So multiple that number by 100 or 1000 and it quickly adds up.


Chan-jo:My hope is if this law will be passed that no Anas Modamani will ever have to go to court again.


Luisa:The law is called the [German 00:34:21], which means The Network Enforcement law. You might think, “Cool. Story over. The Germans passed this German-sounding law, Facebook takes down nasty speech, and Anas an Anke live in safety.” [German 00:34:38].


Anke:As good as pancakes.


Luisa:No sooner was the law proposed that it became a huge controversy in Germany.


Speaker 13:It’s a crazy idea to think that the networks are responsible for people who behave badly on those networks.


Luisa:That’s [inaudible 00:34:53], a judge at the Berlin District Court. He thinks it’s the courts, not Facebook that should decide whether something is or isn’t hate speech.


Speaker 13:It’s a really hard question to decide if content is really illegal because even German hate speech laws have themselves to be interpreted even many courts get it wrong so that only our constitutional court gets a final say on these issues and I really can’t see a company like Facebook deciding these cases.


Luisa:He says the law will lead to a sort of defacto censorship because Facebook will try to avoid the fee at any cost. So they’ll just start taking everything down that could be illegal, even if it’s not. We’ve contacted Facebook and a spokesperson wrote back, “This law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem. We will do everything we can to ensure safety for the people on our platform.”


I wanted to talk to the people who drafted this law in the first place. Why such a huge fight with so many possible unintended consequences? So I went to the Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection. It’s in a stately building in the middle of Berlin and I walk through a grand entrance past a framed copy of the German constitution and meet the Ministry’s state secretary.


Speaker 14:The [inaudible 00:36:33] state secretary and the Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection.


Luisa:I ask him whether he’s worried that the 50 million Euro fine will cause Facebook to over-censor its content.


Speaker 14:There is no censorship. They have obligations. They are a private companies. They are here for business reasons. They are licensed to operate. It’s depending that they delete criminal content. So they have to decide.


Luisa:He says other companies like Google and YouTube have ways to process complaints and ensure content isn’t illegal under German law. So why shouldn’t Facebook do the same? The real problem isn’t that they can’t. It’s that they’d have to spend more money. To get them to do that, you have to play hard ball. Why is the fee so so high? Like from the outside you could say I mean it’s political theater.


Speaker 14:They have a really high impact on our societies. They see themselves as technology companies, but they are more. They are influencing our society. They are influencing the kind of dialogue we have. It’s fine, but they also have to be aware of unintended effects of the work and that’s about hate. The radicalization within the net is in many cases the first step for radicalization and particular behavior. So it’s not only about speech.


Luisa:After Germany accepted more than a million migrants and refugees in 2015, there was a surge in right-wing extremism. Hate crimes jumped from about 1,000 two years ago to almost 1,700 in 2016. Researchers say it’s at least partly due to a hate climate toward refugees. In July, Justice Minister Billen got his way. The law with a 50 million euro fine passed and is said to take effect next month.


No one knows yet how effective it’ll be, but Facebook said in a statement that they’re hiring 3,000 people on top of 4,500 already working to review posts. In the past few months, Facebook deleted thousands of accounts that were spreading fake news. People who make fake news are fighting back on forums like 4Chan, where they generate and distribute fake news anonymously. They say their goal is to create a meme war to disrupt Germany’s election and score points for the right-wing AFD party.


[German 00:39:19]. I recently went to visit Anke in her apartment in Berlin to see what she thought about the new law. When I arrived, she was eating breakfast with her daughter, Lisa and her husband, Andre. [German 00:39:39]. Anke is still preoccupied with fake news and she now calls herself …


Anke:Faker Hunter. That’s now my hobby. I do it.


Luisa:Oh, so you’re a fake hunter, which means you track down fake news and then you say, “This is wrong.”


Anke:Yes, that’s what I’m doing and I write articles for [inaudible 00:40:05].


Luisa:[inaudible 00:40:06] is a website that debunks fake news. Writing and researching for the site has become a big passion. Anke thinks it can’t be just to Facebook to deal with hate speech.


Anke:I think this work everybody can do it.


Luisa:So you’re saying we all have to be fact-checkers?


Anke:Yes. We all have to be fact-checkers. Oh, before you share a message, check if it is true or not because if it’s not true, then you are also guilty.


Luisa:There are still fake news stories about Anas and I ask about him. She tells me he moved out a few months ago. You think it change him, that experience?


Anke:Yes, I think it changed him. Changed is a big word, but it has a big influence in his life.


Luisa:The refugee who took a selfie with the German Chancellor had become a symbol of the terrorist threat in Europe and then he was celebrated as a hero for taking on Facebook.


Anke:A lot of popularity for a young man who are a refugee from a Syrian civil war.


Luisa:Also extremely negative and extremely …




Luisa:Positive stereotypes though, right?


Anke:Yes and the stereotypes are not him.


Al:Anas was given a visa that allows him to stay in Germany for three years, but it’s not clear what will happen after that. He’s working at McDonald’s and has applied to study at the Technical University of Berlin. The subject? Information science. That story was produced by reporter Luisa Beck. Fake news and disinformation aren’t just coming from Germany’s far-right political parties. They’re being imported from, you’ll never guess. Russia. When we come back, suspicions of Vladimir Putin meddling in the German election. On Reveal from The Center of Investigative Reporting at PRX.


Andrew:Hi, there. I’m Andrew Donahue, Reveal’s managing editor. Over the last year, we’ve been investigating hate groups, one of our top priorities. Long before Charlottesville, we were tracking the funding of leading white nationalists and trying to understand this new wave of extremism. Our reporters have embedded with white supremacists in Illinois and Antifa enforcers in Berkeley. Now you can follow along with them in our weekly newsletter. It’s called The Hate Report and signing up is easy. Just text hate to 63735. We’ll add you to the list. Again, text hate to 63735.


Al:If you’re looking for another podcast to fall in love with, check out this one from our friends. It’s called Ground Truth. From WGBH and the Ground Truth Project, the latest season is called New American Songbook. Hear how music helps immigrants stay connected to their culture. From a Cambodian child who carries on his family’s secret musical legacy, to a security guard who dreams of being a hip-hop star in his home country of Haiti. You can find Ground Truth on iTunes, Radio Public, Stitcher, or anywhere you love to listen to podcasts. Learn more at The Ground Truth Now back to the show.


From The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re looking at the rise of right-wing groups in Germany ahead of next week’s federal elections there. Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term as chancellor, but this could be the first time since World War II that a radical right-wing party wins seats in parliament. Just weeks before the official election season began there, President Trump gave a speech in Warsaw, Poland that got a lot of attention.


Trump:It is a profound honor to stand in this city by this monument.


Al:He’s standing in a public square in front of a big crowd cheering his name.


Trump:The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive.


Al:This is President Trump’s first major European address and he alludes to a clash of civilizations.


Trump:Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who will subvert and destroy it?


Al:Many hear that as meaning the west versus the Muslim world. Just blocks away, a well-dressed crowd of people is gathered in a hotel conference room watching the speech on tv. Reporter Ilan Greenberg of the online news organization, Coda Story, was there. What was the reaction at this conference to what Trump was saying?


Ilan :There were a lot of gasps at Trump’s speech where he talked about civilizational struggle.


Al:The reason for the gasps? Many feel Trump’s words echo those of Vladimir Putin. He was at a conference about Russian interference in Europe. It’s put on by an American think tank called The Atlantic Council and the main question on the agenda, “How will Kremlin try to influence Germany’s upcoming election?” Some of the people are trying to figure it out.


Ilan :I met with Ben Nemo, who is perhaps the leading investigator. A digital sleuth.


Ben:What we’ve seen in the Russian model is you can think of it vilify it and amplify it.


Al:In other words, paint your targets. Smear them and then spread the story as far as you can. Tracking misinformation is Ben’s specialty. He digs into social media for The Atlantic Council to see what stories are being spread and who’s spreading them.


Ilan :He is able to determine who these people are, where they’re coming from, from which countries, from what servers, and what they’re trying to do. What messages are they trying to amplify? Who are they trying to reach?


Ben:Now hashtags are very useful for people who create them so they can track how their message is doing, but they’re also very useful for analysts because a hashtag is an identifiable stream, which is very easily put into a search engine and find all the results.


Al:Alon, does Ben believe that Russia is meddling in the German election?


Ilan :Yeah, I mean, I think he knows Russia’s meddling. I think only the Russians at this point are denying it.


Al:So what kind of stories are the Russians amplifying? For one, bad news about immigrants, whether those stories are true or not. One of the most infamous examples from last year is something called the Lisa case.


Ilan :A 13 year-old Russian-German girl was reported to have been kidnapped and raped by migrants. These are Turkish or of Arab origin.


Al:The story took off


Ilan :It appeared on social media and then it was very quickly cycled through the Russian media. The Russian Foreign Minister cited that Russian television really went to town. It was explosive.


Al:It’s so clear that it wasn’t true. The crime never happened. It was fake, but some people still believe it.


Ilan :It’s a hugely divisive, very racially-tinged fake event that the Russian media, I think it’s fair to say, exploited to the hilt. Putin sees Islamophobia, a fear of migrants, as doing his bidding. The more Europeans … As a matter of fact, the more Americans, are skeptical about immigration, about diversity, the more Russia can promote its interests without western interference. So what they’re trying to do is sow confusion and create a certain amount of chaos.


Al:There is a character in Game of Thrones named Littlefinger. He’s a real mover and shaker trying to move up and one of his key statements is that “Chaos is a ladder,” and that sounds exactly like what Putin and the Russians are trying to do. What you’re explaining is that they’re creating chaos so they can move forward in the world order.


Ilan :It’s all about chaos. I think that’s exactly right. What this is about is undermining your confidence in your political system. In the end, what the Kremlin is trying to do is have the space to promote its own foreign policy. To do that, they need to weaken the west. The Russians have made no secret that really their overarching foreign policy in Europe is to neuter as much as possible NATO and to undermine the European institutions like the European Union that act as a bit a of bulwark against Russian adventurism.


Al:There are a lot of people in Germany who are receptive to that point of view. Since the end of the Cold War, more than 4 million Russians have moved to Germany. Many of them still get their news from Putin’s state-controlled media.


Ilan :Russian news is a bit of a fun house mirror. It’s distorted news from a Russian perspective. It’s media that jumps on any crime from migrants and it’s seen as a real fuel for the far right.


Al:[Russian 00:49:23]. This is from a tv channel called Russia 24. It’s about the upcoming German election. The anchor is saying that it’s quite likely Merkel will lose her post even though that’s not true. So that’s disinformation, but what about hacking? The head of Homeland Security said that Russian hackers could potentially be targeting election systems in 21 US states. Have we seen anything like that in Germany?


Ilan :In 2015, Germans’ parliament was massively hacked. Nobody can prove it was the Russians or anyone else, but there’s been radio silence ever since that happened.


Al:A lot of people are convinced it was the Russians and they think it’s to bring a last-minute surprise to discredit Merkel right before the election. One theory is that it has something to do with her Chemistry PhD.


Ilan :The second theory is that Merkel collaborated with the Stazi. Merkel grew up in East Germany. She was an adult in East Germany before the wall fell and that this hack will somehow reveal that she collaborated more than was usual with the East Germans secret police and that this somehow will be very damaging to her. Nobody knows, nobody knows what’s in the hack and what could be revealed.


Al:With all that being said, if Merkel wins, can we take a big sign of relief? I mean, is that the end?


Ilan :I think we can take a small sigh of relief, but ultimately it’s not the end at all. You know, Russia has real foreign policy interests in the region. They’re looking to see a much more fragmented violent Europe or something else. It’s something that’s going to play out over the next several years.


Al:That was Ilan Greenberg. He’s the publisher and co-editor in chief of Coda Story, our partner on today’s show. While working on this week’s show, we noticed a lot of similarities with the right-wing movement here in the US. Remember when German far-right leader Beatrix Von Storch said this about Muslim immigrants.


Von Storch:It’s a very thin line, what we have. Islam does not belong to Germany.


Al:Well that sounds a lot like what some people from the far right in the US have to say.


Speaker 19:I do have a problem with Muslim immigration. They don’t want to assimilate. They’re ghettoizing. They’re going into whole neighborhoods and then there are a lot of rapists happening. They’re basically destroying thousand-year-old cultures.


Speaker 20:Blood and soil! Blood and soil! Blood and soil!


Al:Next week we’ll look at the provocative rallies being staged by right-wing groups in the US and their response from their opponents on the far left who show up at right-wing rallies looking for a fight.


Speaker 21:So I’m saying that we break his leg now so that then maybe he’ll consider it next time if it’s worth it to him.


Al:That’s next week on Reveal. Our show today was reported and produced with our partners at Coda Story, a new media invention that does in-depth crisis reporting. Katherine Mieszkowski is our lead producer, [inaudible 00:52:24] Tanaka helped with fact-checking, and [inaudible 00:52:26] is our lead editor. My man, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, is our lead sound designer and engineer. We had help this week from [inaudible 00:52:34] Mullen, Katherine Raymundo, and Cat [inaudible 00:52:36]. Our head of studio is Chris [inaudible 00:52:38]. Andy [inaudible 00:52:39] is our editor in chief. Suzanne Reaver is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.


Our theme music is provided by [inaudible 00:52:46]. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, The John S and James L Knight Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, and The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.


Hannah Young is the former the Director of Audience at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, leading Reveal’s digital and social efforts. Using human-centered design, she and her team work to find new ways to expand the reach of Reveal’s journalism and engage more meaningfully with audiences across platforms.

Previously, Hannah was a Butler Koshland Fellow at Reveal focusing on creative engagement approaches in public journalism. Before that, Hannah worked at Code for America, where she led the Brigade program and grew it to a network of more than 50,000 civic tech volunteers in more than 80 cities across the U.S. During her time there, Brigade was responsible for nearly two thirds of total growth in the civic tech community in the country.