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“Hate disguised as free speech“: The right-wing campaign against the Amadeu Antonio Foundation

In the summer of 2016, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation experienced what the word “shitstorm” truly means. In May 2016, the Foundation was mentioned roughly 500 times on Twitter. In July, 5,000 times—with the majority hate posts and links to libelous articles.  The right-wing extremism expert Dr. Samuel Salzborn, professor at the University of Göttingen, has prepared a report at the request of the Foundation, which we summarize here.

Professor Salzborn sees the origin of the campaign against the Stiftung in the context of the BMJV (Bundesministerium der Justiz und für Verbraucherschutz—Ministry for Justice and Consumer Protection) task force “Dealing with Illegal Hate Speech on the Internet”, initiated in the fall of 2015. The AfD—though not explicitly mentioned by the BMJV—saw itself as the object of criticism and responded in kind. “…The main thrust of their attack—expressed equivocally by AFD Bavaria, then explicitly by [Thüringen AFD chairman] Björn Höcke—was the attempted comparison of the German government with the former DDR, specifically the former ‘Ministry for State Security’ or the Stasi. The underlying narrative being pushed was that legal restrictions on racist, anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi hate speech were equivalent to unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.”

The campaign truly took off when the Foundation published a handout advising strategies against “Hate against Refugees in Social Media.” Suddenly, says Dr. Salzborn, “all this rhetoric that had been circulating online over the past months was revitalized, in some cases escalating to extreme aggression.” He continues:

“An immense impetus of virtual energy developed against the Amadeu Antonio Foundation: on right-wing blogs, on the Facebook pages of both individuals and organizations, on Twitter, but also in emails sent directly to the Foundation…
…Arguably contributing more to the wider significance of the campaign was the subsequent media attention from a variety of newspapers. Besides the chaos caused by conflicting reports, the greatest success of the campaign was a piece published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung on August 22nd, 2016, which took Internet rumor for fact and by oversimplifying the situation succeeded in spreading falsehoods far and wide…
…Overall, we can attest to an extreme oversimplification of the situation, revealing a basic ignorance of both the legal system of the German government and the work that the Amadeu Antonio Foundation actually does.”

Though we retroactively describe the harassment as a “campaign”, the label has more to do with social-media herd mentality than any purported puppet-master. “In this respect it would be quite misguided to speak of the campaign against the Foundation as if it were directed or planned,” says Dr. Salzborn. “In fact, it is more important to grasp how numerous right-wing figures—‘right-wing’ being intentional, as not only extremists but also mainstream conservatives took part—acted in a similar fashion due to simultaneous shared interests and goals.”

Numerous violent fantasies and threatening comments were directed at Anetta Kahane personally. “Anti-Semitism, along with anti-feminism and misogyny, lies at the heart of this … where anti-Semitism is continually linked to the DDR past for purely rhetorical reasons.”

Dr. Salzborn concludes: “Put simply, the right-wing campaign against the Amadeu Antonio Foundation shows how important political education vís-a-vís social media is … and that the BMJV task force … is on the right track.”

“It is particularly clear that the origin of such campaigns is rarely anything serious, and that the foundation for the snowball effect in social media is not facts, but rather simplified rumors or outright lies. Those who spread them have neither interest nor motive in fact-checking.”

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