For the last few months I have been building up towards my own progressive media platform and I am proud to say that the Bernauer 57 Collective is now launched! The name comes from Tunnel 57 that ran underneath the Berlin Wall on Bernauer Straße.
B57C is about telling Europe's stories from the perspective of activists, artists and journalists. Head to www.b57c.com to find out more and follow @bernauer57 on Instagram to keep updated.
Belarus’ president, Aleksandr Lukashenko is no stranger to controversy. Often touted as Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’, the post-Soviet country has been under rule from its first and only president since 1994. As the result of the election become known yesterday, few were surprised to see Lukashenko won with over 80% of the vote. However, there is no doubt that these results were fraudulent and not representative of the increasingly indignant country, weary of the president’s iron-fisted rule. I spoke with Kate*, a Minsk native and self-described ‘veteran’ of the anti-Lukashenko protests, just before the elections to find out why this year is a turning point in Belarus’ history. Could this be the beginning of the end for Europe’s longest serving leader?
“There were always protests,” Kate tells me, “they first began in 1996 after Lukashenko launched a referendum to change and expand the presidential power. But usually the protests were after the elections. The Central Election Committee would announce that Lukashenko has 115% of the vote and then people would go into the street (to protest) because it was not true.” 2010 marked the most recent major anti-Lukashenko demonstrations and the last time the elections were so heated. Kate recalls being able to vote for the first time and the optimism surrounding the strong candidates, who looked like they may be able to oust Lukashenko. Nevertheless, the rigged elections sparked huge rallies in the aftermath of the results, prompting Kate to join in, along with 40 000 other frustrated citizens.
However, this year was different. Instead of protesting after the election, people took to the streets months before. What changed? “The stupidity of the whole situation started long before the election,” Kate explains. “They arrested a blogger who wanted to run for president (Sergei Tikhonovsky who was barred from running), but he wasn’t even a registered candidate yet!” Previously Lukashenko’s opponents would be arrested only after being officially registered, on charges such as money-laundering, tax evasion and unlawful protest. “Now you throw everybody in jail before the election day. That’s different and that’s why people are going out and protesting. They understand the sheer stupidity of what is happening. Are they going to put all the candidates in jail? Is the ballot only going to have one name?”
Another major factor was Lukashenko’s coronavirus response, or lack thereof. Kate points to an infamous interview with the president at a hockey match; when asked about the pandemic he responded, “Do you see the virus? Well neither do I!” “Oh my God,” Kate hysterically exclaims, “he didn’t do anything for the country.” However, whilst the public may have accepted this rhetoric a decade ago, technology and internet access has become far more prolific in the last 10 years; a lifeline in a country with one of the worst freedoms of press ratings in the world. The amount of information Belarusians are now able to access is a perspicacious breath of fresh air, shifting the mind-set of the people.
“People go on social media and see what is happening in the world. During the corona-crisis, they learned what people in the UK, Italy, Germany and China were doing. They learned about the lockdowns in the USA; the government giving money to people; people not working and staying at home- and here? What is happening! It can’t be that it is happening everywhere else and not in Belarus. People were shocked, even people who are not really into politics. It destroyed this facade, especially for those people who didn’t care or know the scale of the actual problems in Belarus.”
One of the main hangovers from the Soviet Union is the consumption of government-run TV channels, which is particularly popular amongst the older generations. Kate informs me that this is also changing. “Now there are (social media and instant messaging) channels where people leak information, and they reveal what’s going on. The previous generations now have smartphones so people forward this to their parents and their grandparents. Some of them use that technology to notice certain discrepancies between what they see, what is happening and what they are told.” To counter its surging popularity, the government responded by condemning social-media in the news as some kind of malicious, corrupting platform, although this “senile” response has had little effect. “The government is so old school, they live in Soviet times,” Kate emphasises. As people step out of Belarus’ shadowy bubble, the rust eating away at the system is clearer than ever. Younger citizens are not only spreading crucial information but have taken it among themselves to improve the country; creating projects and platforms that reveal the extent of Belarus’ issues and offering alternative solutions to the government’s failures.
Compared to the election five years ago, Belarusians have become more active and hopeful. Morale was low after the anti-climax of the 2010 protests. “I think the interests and desires of people fizzled” Kate remembers, “because nothing was happening in 2015. Everyone knew the results. People didn’t see any strong candidates in that particular race. They were not bad but they were not strong enough to create a following.” Yet this year saw a surprise twist. After the previously aforementioned blogger, Sergei Tikhonovsky, was arrested, his wife, Svetlana signed up to replace him instead, and surprisingly she was successfully registered, becoming the face of the opposition. She has the support of a bank manager, Viktor Babariko, another jailed rival of Lukashenko with a large following, which has helped increase her popularity and her rallies attract thousands of people. “This is something that has never happened before. So that gives us hope,” Kate mentions. Moreover, for the first time in Kate’s memory, protests are happening in towns and cities all over the country, rather than being confined to Minsk. Yet hope is amalgamated with exhaustion. “I think people are tired of the same picture, same things, same scenario. It’s Groundhog Day,” she says. However, this has also forced protestors to get angrier and instead of taking the beatings from the police, they are now fighting back.
“There was this huge fight in a town not far from Minsk. Six police grabbed one little teenager, people were watching and screaming, and then suddenly some people ran towards the police. The police started using force and people thought, ‘OK if you beat me, I will beat you’, so they began fighting back. Which I don’t think has happened before, even in 2010. But now you see people fighting back and standing in groups and if the police try to grab one person, the whole group is together in solidarity, which forces the police to leave.”
Yet police violence hasn’t eased and Kate is concerned for the protestors, particularly younger people who didn’t experience the demonstrations in 2010. She describes a “romantic view” held by the social-media generation, which she believes can be dangerous. “You come into the brutal reality and you think maybe you will scare the police off and be a hero, but the reality is that the police grab you, beat you and throw you into the riot truck. They make you sit on your knees and spend the whole night standing against the wall, and you’re lucky if nobody beats you or breaks your arm. (…) The thing is you need to be realistic about what is happening and what can happen to you; what are the consequences because otherwise it looks like entertainment and its not and it shouldn’t be. Because that was me in 2010- I was there partly because of the excitement to struggle against the system and feel like a revolutionary. When you go into the street there’s so many people around you, which ignites more passion and the power of being together. But then the riot police come and the next day you see the photos of the square and the traces of blood and you think thank God they didn’t smash my head.”
Instead of taking responsibility and addressing Belarus’ issues, Lukashenko instead blamed outside interference. In another unprecedented twist, the government claimed to have intercepted and arrested a group of mercenaries that planned on “destabilising the country”. Whilst this alone is not an unusual narrative for Lukashenko to take, Kate mentions that in previous years “there were always some revolutionary groups trying to come in to the country before the elections”, the real twist comes with who he blamed- Russia. “Russia is a long term colleague and ‘friend’, depending on the president’s mood; he dances between Europe and Russia, but Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia in terms of gas and money.” The announcement surprised many and Kate, along with other experts, doubt the authenticity of these claims. “I think they are trying to scare people and create this aura that something evil is happening. That you have to be careful and not trust anybody.” Kate goes on to stress that her concerns lie in the fact that people may start to believe that the protestors are being funded by Russia, which will hinder the support from the general public in the long run.
The Belarusian government is no stranger to lying and manipulating. Kate harks back to an event during the 2010 protests, when official news outlets aired footage of alleged protestors attacking the parliament building. Kate believes this “was carried out by the government to encourage a mob mentality so that riot police could be brought in.” Many other protestors also believed it to be a trap laid by Lukashenko, and thus a violent mob never materialised. Four years later, the bloody Maidan revolution in neighbouring Ukraine shocked Belarus and it seems this year Lukashenko is determined to quell the violence using outright force, lest he suffer the same fate as the now exiled former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Arrests have numbered in the thousands, even though many protestors are peaceful and acting within the fullest extent of the law, whilst the Maidan is being used as a scare tactic to discourage demonstrations. However with these warnings being ignored, Kate is apprehensive that the government could start shooting. Considering that clashes and fights with authorities have only intensified since the results were announced, this is a likely possibility.
Kate’s final concern lies in the fact that protestors may be too hopeful. “The more hope you have towards something, when it doesn’t happen, the harder you fall.” Instead she suggests the fight needs to be a marathon, not a sprint. “If you want success you need to keep fighting, not just once every 5 years but every single day, setting up tents with people coming into the city and sitting on the street; they take you away, you come back and do it again, because otherwise nothing will get done. You can’t sit there and wait for the regime to die out. So don’t lose hope, don’t get distracted, realise you need to fight every single day because otherwise its pointless.” Even so, like many veteran-protestors Kate is tired. She recognises that the country is slowly waking up and can see the direction it needs to take in order to successfully overthrow Lukashenko. But she doesn’t say whether or not she thinks this will be achieved.
The result of the election was known from the start, but for the first time in 10 years, Belarusians have tasted the scent of change. On social media, election commission officers have been posting the true results of the elections, clearly showing that Tikhanovskaya won. In turn, the Internet was blocked on August 9th whilst peaceful protestors returned to the street in the evening, only to be greeted by violent riot police. The fact that they are continuing to fight back suggests that people believe ousting Lukashenko is possible and the current unpredictable climate across the world is certainly more charged and unexpected than 2010. For many young, zealous activists, who are demonstrating for the first time, this may provide the much-requited energy to push through. For the rest of country, it may be a different story. Kate shifted between optimism and despondency throughout the interview. Despite her great ardour at times, she clearly didn’t want to allow herself too much hope in case the reality turned out different. The failure of the 2010 movement has made her cautious and like with many Belarusians, this has clouded her optimism. Whether or not this will be the end of Europe’s ‘last-dictator’ is to be seen. One thing is for certain though; this election has changed the country and will forever be remembered.
*Full name and identity not mentioned for privacy reasons.
I've been giving workshops for the fantastic Ukrainian NGO GoCamp to teach teens from across Ukraine the history and art of comics. Sadly the language camp wasn't able to take place in the beautiful Ukrainian countryside this yer (damn corona) so the camp was moved online which posed all sorts of new challenges!
I had a great chat with Mandem founder Elias Williams about disinformation, the far-right, German immigration and how people can stop the spread of fake news.
Have a listen here!
For clarification, I don’t profess to be an expert on the far-right. I certainly hold an interest and follow their activity from a distance, however I have never conducted any deep investigations into the movement. What I have written here is information collected through my own observations, light investigations and reports from journalists monitoring the far-right. I recommend following the excellent investigatory work of Bellingcat and Popular Front for detailed analyses of this complex movement.
To the Right, to the Right
Since publishing Part 1 at the start of May, the situation in Germany has changed. Although lockdown restrictions have eased, the weekly protests are continuing and for the next few parts I want to focus primarily on the 9th May demonstration, due to the particular prominence of the far-right. A recent investigation by Die Zeit revealed nefarious Telegram channels used by anti-lockdown protestors that spread far-right conspiracy theories and propaganda. At the protest they outnumbered the leftist, anti-capitalist and Antifa groups and they were certainly more vocal. An expansive police force attempted to retain control over the hostile environment, however demonstrators eventually manoeuvred past police, escaping the narrow streets they were confined to and congregated in the central square, Alexanderplatz. At this point, I saw protestors climbing up a fountain and the scene unravelled into a chaotic mess, with over 1000 people dominating central Berlin. The chant, ‘Wir sind das Volk’, translated to ‘We are the people’, echoed through the air, which caused the German friend I was with to grow concerned. Out of historical context these words may seem innocuous, indeed quite typical of a protest, nevertheless they have became severely racially charged in recent years. Originating in the twilight of the GDR when frustrated citizens protested against the oppressive communist regime, the slogan has since been adopted by the nationalist PEGIDA organisation: an anti-Islam, xenophobic populist movement formed in Dresden in 2014. Despite its anti-authoritarian origin, the chant now has a firm association with Germany’s nationalist right.
As mentioned in Part 1, several politicians from the anti-immigrant, PEGIDA friendly, Alternative für Deutschland party were spotted at the April demonstrations, having positioned themselves as the leading political voice against the lockdown. PEGIDA and the AfD share many ideas; both present themselves as the acceptable face of the far-right, whilst successfully attracting moderates and extremists. Indeed, PEDGIDA’s 19-point manifesto managed to gain somewhat mainstream support by straying away from overtly racist language, even claiming that they are ‘for the admission of war refugees’. Yet one point in particular jumps out and has come to define German, far-right nationalism: ‘PEGIDA are for the preservation and protection of our Judeo-Christian influenced occidental culture’. Similarly, the AfD manifesto exclaims the party wants to prevent the ‘creeping extinction of European cultures’. What becomes clear is that the far-right believe European culture to be under threat, with Islam as the culprit. PEGIDA and the AfD may stay clear of explicit racism but this narrative runs in line with a particular far-right theory whose roots are steeped in racist history: the White Genocide conspiracy. This belief has also become prevalent in another country also dealing with mass protests and an increase in far-right activity: the United States. In this article I will examine the parallels between the US and Germany; the two countries with the most prolific anti-lockdown protests. Both have been marked by a surge in far-right ideology percolating into the mainstream, so let’s see how and why this is happening and the reason the far-right are taking part in the demonstrations.
To begin with, we need to dissect the White Genocide narrative at the heart of the far-right in both countries. It’s an idea that harks back to the most infamous conspiracy theory of the 20th century: the Stabbed in the Back myth, which led to the demonisation and eventual slaughter of Europe’s Jews. After Germany’s defeat in WW1, a theory amongst the right-wing began to gain momentum suggesting that the war had not been lost on the battlefields, but rather at home. Blame was placed on the liberals, anti-war activists, socialists and communists, which included a significant number of Jews, claiming that these groups had betrayed Germany due to their anti-war and anti-Kaiser actions. Proponents of this theory believed that Germany was still in a strong position to fight and win the war, despite the huge amount of evidence proving that Germany was out of resources and outnumbered.
The myth became instrumental propaganda by the Nazis, used by Hitler to rile up support through the frustrations of impoverished and dispirited Germans. This promulgated further anti-Semitic sentiment and a belief that Jews were responsible for Germany’s economic depression as part of a great ‘Jewish conspiracy’ to cripple Germany and take control. The fact that many Jews in the Weimar Republic were amongst the wealthiest people in the country and had begun to play an influential role in German politics, helped synthesise the Jewish elite conspiracy. By this time, Hitler had become obsessed with eugenics and the concept of racial hierarchy and hygiene, fixating on a book titled The Passing of the Great Race by American author Madison Grant. Grant’s theory segregated Europe into 3 racial groups: Nordic, Mediterranean and Alpine; with Nords (aka Aryans) sitting at the top of all races, as evidenced by dubious scientific ‘proof’. Grant depicted Nordic culture as being threatened to extinction by immigration from less-desirable races from Southern Europe and Asia and other non-whites. Evidently Grant’s theory made an impression on Hitler, as shortly after he came to power the Nazis published a pamphlet titled Are the White Nations Dying?, confirming Grant’s concerns of White Genocide and thrusting the conspiracy theory into the spotlight. By the time the Third-Reich was in full swing, the theory had poisoned the mind of an entire nation, creating a narrative that Jews were untrustworthy traitors, scientifically proven to be racially inferior and, most ominously, they were a threat to Germany’s Christian way of life.
Le Grand Replacement
Almost 100 years later and these myths may have primarily dissipated, but they never fully went away. Instead they found a home- the Internet-which has allowed them to sprout and propagate faster than ever before. As such, we have seen the mutation of the White Genocide theory into the Great Replacement theory; an equally egregious myth, inciting terrorist attacks across the Western world. It was formed at the start of the 2010s, when French author Renaud Camus published ‘Le Grand Replacement’, a book echoing the White Genocide theory, but with a fixation on Muslims rather than Jews. The book became a Bible-like-text for Internet trolls and extremists, circulating YouTube and notorious Internet messenger boards, providing answers to their frustrations. Then in March 2019, the most significant terrorist attack of the last 3 years took place in Christchurch, New Zealand. A terrorist of European heritage, opened fire on 2 mosques, murdering 51 Muslims and injuring 49, becoming the worst terrorist incident in New Zealand’s history and shaking the country to its core. In his manifesto, which he published on Twitter and 8-Chan before the attack, he directly referenced both the Great Replacement and White Genocide theory, as well as the 2011 Norway attack also targeting Muslims. His use of far-right Internet memes suggests he was embedded in Internet culture and likely discovered the Great Replacement through a far-right messaging board. Moreover, in a horrific demonstration of the Internet and real world colliding, the terrorist live-streamed the ordeal to Facebook, where an audience was watching the massacre unfold in real time as if it were a film.
Within a year, Christchurch sparked 3 similar incidents in the US and 2 in Germany. The most violent of these was the targeting of Hispanic Americans during the El Paso shooting, resulting in 23 deaths and 23 injuries. This in turn inspired the Halle shooting, in which a 27-year-old German attacked a Synagogue and Turkish restaurant, killing 2 and injuring 2. Both terrorists referenced the Great Replacement, with the El Paso shooter directly referring to the Christchurch attack, and the Halle shooter proclaiming El Paso as his inspiration. The latest terrorist attack in Germany took place in February 2020, in Hanau. Although the attacker didn’t specifically reference the Great Replacement, his actions certainly replicated its ideology, as he murdered 9 people of immigrant backgrounds and injured 5 in an attack on hookah bars. Like the Christchurch terrorist, he also mentioned his support of Donald Trump, offering an insight into how contemporary American nationalism has infiltrated far more than just American politics. Trumps election was a turning point in populist nationalism worldwide, symbolising the re-birth of an ideology once destined to remain firmly in history. From his election, and the subsequent surge in popularity of nationalist politicians, a shared narrative is currently being lived out by far-right supporters across the Occident; one in which white populations are at risk of being wiped out unless they fight back and save their race.
When we zoom out and compare both the US’ and Germany’s overall terrorist attacks in the last 4 years, we see stark similarities, with both countries being hardest hit by Islamic terrorist attacks in 2016. The USA confirmed 4 major Islamic terrorist attacks that year, whilst Germany confirmed 5. However since then, Germany hasn’t recorded any Islamic terrorist acts and America has only recorded 2. Instead, the trends in both countries have been a sharp rise in left-wing vs. right-wing extremism. There have been 14 major terrorist attacks in Germany from left-wing and right-wing groups since 2017, 10 in 2019-2020 alone. Far-left attacks resulted in 0 fatalities and injuries, aside from a few unfortunate torched cars, whilst right-wing attacks resulted in 15 deaths and 9 injuries; all of them related to immigration, including the assassination of Walter Lübcke, a pro-migrant politician. It is not surprising that similarities are being pointed out between today’s state of affairs and the Weimar Republic, an era in which violent street clashes between the left and right were routine, whilst blame was piled onto minorities.
The United States is a little different, wherein terrorism is less of a dichotomy between left and right and more between races. Of the 16 terrorist attacks since the start of 2017, 11 have been ethnicity related, excluding the 2017 NYC Islamic terrorist attack. It is not just white on non-white; in fact African Americans make up 3 of the perpetrators. The last 2-recorded terrorist attacks in the US were directed at the Jewish community by 3 different African American attackers. Meanwhile, 2 years earlier, a 25-year-old Sudanese man shot at white American churchgoers, injuring 8 and killing 1 as revenge for the Charleston church shooting of 2015. The far-right, however, have committed the most deadly attacks. In addition to El Paso, 11 people were killed and 6 injured in the 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, the most deadly attack on American Jews in the US’ history. Although the terrorist did not directly reference White Genocide in any manifesto, his online activity suggests he was also a believer.
What does all this information suggest? Well it proves that old tensions in Germany and America never really left, but have risen with a vengeance. The election of Trump has brought a surrealism to the world that countenances conspiracy theories and disinformation. That, combined with the bleeding of the online world into the real, has resulted in a bizarre and uncertain environment that crosses borders and compiles a narrative that is uniting the occidental far-right. Certainly a group of people who felt unrepresented by neo-Liberal and progressive values found a resurgence in power in this digital sphere, using conspiracy theories to motivate their movement and convince themselves of their beliefs. It is unfortunate, however, that in this time of over-information they were only able to find answers to their frustrations on the Internet, falling into the trap of radicalisation.
Most alarming of all is the seeping of these theories into mainstream politics. It is concerning that the third largest political party in Germany is referring to the ‘extinction of European culture’ as if it were fact, normalising an insidious ideology. Of course not every supporter is going to go out and commit atrocities, but these parties are attracting extremists who share this belief, injecting fears and resentment and pushing the most vulnerable even further into the conspiracy abyss. Although there have been internal arguments within the AfD recently, due to their stance on the coronavirus and neo-Nazi revelations, thus weakening their influence and potentially pushing away more centrist voters, they will no doubt have strengthened their position amongst hard-line supporters. Moreover, there is the possibility that they garner further support from the fringes because of their blatant questioning of the lockdown, which will be attractive for voters suspicious of Chancellor Merkel's COVID response. With conspiracy theories flying around and people spending more time on the Internet searching for answers and coming in contact with extreme ideas, it is likely the AfD will emerge with a more radical support base. Unfortunately the pandemic has strengthened the far-right and it is likely we will see more attacks like Christchurch in the post-coronavirus future.
If you’re reading this and thinking “That didn’t explain at all why the far-right were at the protest, in fact Dominic veered off the protests completely on this one!” Well, you are correct. This rather depressing and heavy section is just the prelude in order to provide some background information on a very dangerous theory and to show you why it is concerning that the AfD were even at the protests in the first place. I have plenty more to say on the topic. But I thought it would be too off-putting to completely emotionally drain you in one excessively long article, so it’s been divided into manageable chunks. The next section, will delve into the oppression of white’s and everyone’s favourite antagonist, the Elites (again).
Conspiracy theories can be harmless fun; anything is possible, right? However, when they bleed into the real world, they can have disastrous consequences. The results of coronavirus-theories have included unlicensed property damage, such as the recent flurry of immolated 5G towers. In California, a Q-Anon follower crashed a freight train in an attempt to reach the US hospital ship Mercy, which was assisting overburdened hospitals with coronavirus patients. The reason? He wanted to prove to the world that the ship was rescuing children from an elite paedophile ring. No one was injured, but the 44 year old is now facing a twenty-year sentence.
A less tangible, but equally destructive consequence of conspiracies is that they can drown out legitimate criticisms. Instead of convincing yourself that Bill Gates wants to inject a microchip into everyone, you can call into question the influence the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has on the World Health Organisation. The WHO relies heavily on donations from the BMGF, totalling nearly 10 per cent of their entire fund. Some officials, including the former chief of the organisation’s malaria programme Arata Kochi, are concerned that the foundation has too much influence and holds the power to jeopardise its survival if Gates decides the donations should stop. Now that the United States has ceased funding, the BMGF has taken over as top donor. Should the WHO rely so much on one private foundation that comes from a corporate background? It is important to scrutinise where influence comes from and if there may be an ulterior motive. But this must be done with rationale and hard evidence. Despite what you may think, anything is not in fact possible. We should spend our time focussing on criticisms that actually hold weight and can be backed up with proof.
Science is the New Church
Scientists and doctors are becoming increasingly frustrated by coronavirus conspiracies and openly condemn the spread of rumours and misinformation, taking to social and conventional media to address myths and lies. But this is a catch-22. Whatever the mainstream says, theorists will see as fallacy, therefore continuously fuelling the post-truth mirage.
In an increasingly secular world, science has replaced the church as our guiding principal philosophy. Scientists hold power, directing both society and government. In this comparison, the general public are the pious, believing everything that begins with “scientists say…”, anti-establishment conspiracy theorists that doubt mainstream science are akin to pre-Enlightenment atheists questioning the Church’s absolute truth. Like the atheist of the past, many conspiracy theorists have been shunned and shamed by society, although thankfully we’ve moved past burning heretics at the stake. Instead we have become so used to relying on science for the answers that it is provocative to go against the general scientific consensus; for example, the Earth being round. Flat Earthers are, more than anything, anti-establishment. Their primary belief is that scientists, the government, the Elites, the Deep State, etc. are constantly lying to the public for some nefarious purpose. The result is people doubting their entire education and re-learning everything they’ve been taught, including basics like the spherical nature of the Earth.
Nevertheless the general public have their faults too. We lump scientists into a homogenous group, forgetting the fact that they are people with varying opinions, as with religion. So when studies are published that contradicts or undermines the mainstream consensus; for example by suggesting that COVID-19 may not be as fatal as initially thought, these scientists are considered outcasts. They are somewhat comparable with fringe religious groups, such as the Cathars, a now extinct Christian sect who repelled the ideas of the dominant Catholic Church, accusing them of being fraudulent. The Cathars were persecuted by the Catholics, and after a bloody 100-year campaign, the Cathars’ ideology was buried, along with their bodies. Whilst the authors of these studies have their lives intact, they still face scorn, and their findings may never see the light of day. This creates an echo chamber wherein scientific discussion is limited, leading people to excavate the crevasses of the Internet to find alternative studies.
Despite living in a post-truth era, society is desperate for a constant narrative. Shutting out alternatives keeps things simple. We can see this in the media coverage of Sweden, which has gone against the rest of Europe with its relaxed coronavirus strategy. Other EU countries predicted this would end in catastrophe, but so far, Sweden seems to be under control. Mortality rates are indeed much higher than its Nordic neighbours, but they remain lower than the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Ireland and Belgium. According to Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief state epidemiologist, the healthcare system is coping and there are no plans to fully lockdown like the rest of Europe. The real test for Sweden will be in the future. Will a strategy of herd immunity protect them from a second wave and an economic crash?
For some, seeing Sweden defy the general scientific consensus and survive, confirms that restrictive measures are not in accordance with reality and that they are being lied to by scientists again. Of course, there are many other things to consider here: Sweden’s low population density, excellent health care system and a high proportion of people living alone. But we should still analyse the mainstream consensus too and assess whether such stringent lockdowns are necessary. Economically, socially and mentally it has been a catastrophe. Reports of domestic abuse and depression have risen, whilst we are about to endure a devastating economic crash. Lockdown critics, like Peter Hitchins, claim the solution is more devastating than the disease. When the pandemic eases, we need to be able to freely examine both the successes and failures of the lockdown. Still, we can’t allow governments to be satisfied with their responses when clearly they have not worked for so many people. Dialogue should be encouraged and even scientific strategies outside the mainstream should be considered.
In reaction to this information overload, several despotic governments have taken extreme measure by introducing disinformation laws under the umbrella of coronavirus emergency regulations. Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán announced that anyone spreading misinformation will serve prison time. But who decides what misinformation is? Given that Orbán has recently flouted all regard for the EU’s democratic values and only remains in power through corruption, it isn’t erroneous to believe that he will abuse the law to silence anyone who disagrees with Hungary’s official truth. We have reached a point where even debunking disinformation is weaponised: information to combat other information that has been classed as disinformation that may be factual information. Do you feel overwhelmed yet? Living in a post-truth world is exhausting. Even this article is awash with it all. Well done for getting this far.
At the end of the protest I felt muddled. I was there to support the democratic right to protest but at the same time I felt guilty for violating quarantine rules. Was I being an idiot and putting people’s lives at risk? The residents of Rosa Luxembourg Platz felt so. Banners telling protestors to stay at home covered the fronts of the blocky East Berlin apartments. At one point, a young couple on the third floor shouted and laughed from above. But the demonstrators felt like they were doing something important. A man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask had brought a large speaker with him and suddenly the sounds of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” blasted through the crowd. People cheered and sang along with the chorus until a cohort of police moved in, dragging the masked man away to angry boos from the apoplectic crowd. The chorus, if you don’t know, is ‘Stand up for your rights’, which explains what people believed they were doing here. Germany has a marked history and for many residents, the restrictive lockdown-laws are reminiscent of 1933 or the brutal Stasi of East Germany who ruled through fear and paranoia. For the left at least, demonstrating is a way of ensuring that people don’t forget their constitutional rights.
But then I spotted a sign, propped up on the ground. It read “#Leave No One Behind”; part of a campaign bringing awareness to refugees living in squalid camps with no access to running water, let alone the ability to follow social distancing. This truly important issue was being discarded, side-lined by fallacious conspiracy theories and Germans who, rightfully or wrongfully, feel oppressed. I began to think of all the articles I had read about impoverished villagers in Romania being fined a month’s wages by corrupt police or South Africans being violently beaten by police for going outside. I asked my friend if he believed the oppression in Germany to be imaginary when compared with the oppression in other countries. He answered, “I’m here to support everyone, including the people that cannot protest”. For him, this protest was also about raising awareness of the people well and truly suffering from the effects of the lockdown.
Turn the Frigging Frogs Gay
The way we react to disinformation and conspiracy theories is changing. We are starting to see dialogue with conspiracy theorists instead of the vitriolic shaming that used to be more prevalent a year ago. Because disinformation has moved into the mainstream, it has become necessary to approach it in a mainstream manner. Ostracising theorists without explaining why they are incorrect merely pushes them deeper into the murky depths. Here we can use conspiracy theorist and anti-establishment poster boy, Alex Jones, as an example. Jones was immortalised by the Internet for his outrageous statement, “I don’t like them putting chemicals in the water that turn the frigging frogs gay,” which transformed the red-faced radio host into a viral meme. Jones was reacting to the ‘gay bomb’ proposal put forwards to the US Air Force by the Wright Lab, which speculated the use of chemicals against enemy forces that would incite unrestrained homosexual urges. The proposal was widely ridiculed and never actually put into action.
However ridiculous Jones’ statement may seem, there is a little bit of truth behind it, like a lot of conspiracies. A Berkley study found that an effect of atrazine, a common pesticide, turned 1 in 10 male frogs into females and castrated a further 75%. But this study was never really mentioned by the numerous media outlets mocking Jones. In Part 1, I wrote about how conspiracy theories are formed when people start to connect dots that don’t exist. And it is the same here. If a Jones follower finds this study, it reaffirms their belief that the mainstream is lying whilst Jones is to be trusted. This leads to the belief in Jones’ more dangerous claims, such as the Pizzagate conspiracy, which resulted in a man firing shots at a Washington DC pizza restaurant. If, instead of mocking Jones’ gay frogs rant, more information was provided and actual conversations and explanations were broadcasted, Jones’ followers may have been persuaded to think more rationally. Fighting back with more information is, for now, a preferable tactic. Debunking websites like Snopes and FackCheck.org are vital tools. By posting informed, unbiased investigations, they explain misinformation whilst pandering to the allure of conspiracies; knowing more information than other people. Knowing things other people don’t indulges our ego and is one of the reasons they are so popular. We feel superior to the rest of the ‘sheeple’ who simply follow the herd, gobbling up the mainstream narrative.
As I mentioned earlier, conspiracies drown out legitimate criticisms, but we shouldn’t shut them down without any debunking or dialogue. There is another danger in that anything outside the mainstream consensus may be discredited as conspiracy. At the protest, it was hard to tell who had rational concerns for the future of democracy based on hard evidence and who believed Bill Gates plans to inject everyone with microchips. You can’t put these two people in the same boat. People are right to have apprehensions about the increase of government surveillance and privacy invasion post-pandemic. We’ve entered unprecedented times and things will surely change. However, if the public condemn this idea as a conspiracy-theory, then frank discussions and debate can’t be had. And that is not how democracy works.
Part 3 will delve further into surveillance and privacy invasion as well as ways to deal with over-information and post-truths.
For full disclosure, I always support the right for peaceful protest, and will continue to advocate it in the current circumstances, as long as public safety is taken into account. Although I wore a mask, social distancing was not always feasible, so I have decided to self-isolate as a precaution.
Nicht Ohne Uns
Since the start of April, restless citizens have taken to Berlin’s streets to demonstrate against the lockdown-laws enforced by Angela Merkel. Saturday 25th April was the largest to date, with an estimated 1000 participants. But who are they? What exactly are they protesting? The answer is complicated and at its heart stands our generation’s biggest dilemma: information overload.
The protests are organised by the movement “Nicht Ohne Uns” (Not Without Us), a pro-democracy group concerned that lockdown-laws violate Germanys first 20 Basic Laws. I arrived 20 minutes late at Rosa Luxemburg Platz in central Berlin to find that riot police had split the protest into 3 separate groups. As I attempted to keep my 2-metre distance, traversing the labyrinth of barriers and police roadblocks, I almost tripped over a crossed-legged activist sitting on the ground in a trance-like state. The deeper I went into the crowd, the more meditators I saw lining the streets with headphones on and eyes closed. I eventually found the pro-democracy friend I was looking for, but he had a severely vexed expression on his face. He explained that the protest was a mess; neo-Nazis and the far-right AfD party had joined, as well as fringe groups that deny the very existence of COVID-19. Even a pro-Trump supporter attended, carrying an obnoxious flag stating so. Why had these people joined a left-wing movement alongside pro-democracy and anti-capitalist groups?
I soon realised the one common trait knotting everyone together; they were all anti-establishment. The initial “Nicht Ohne Uns” movement had morphed into something else. Now it was sailing into a sea of conspiracy theories made up of fringe organisations. In a surreal twist, white supremacist groups were participating in the same protest as left-wing alternative medicine activists; who advocate for natural remedies over lab-produced medicine such as vaccines. The demonstration is being framed as an anti-capitalist movement hijacked by the far-right, but it is not as simple as that. Terms like left-wing and right-wing have become archaic nowadays, as previously contrary political factions increasingly slip into one other. Instead, the movement is exemplary of post-modern, post-truth populism: powered by conspiracy, government suspicion and total distrust of the mainstream media.
I’m going to be putting forward and answering many questions throughout this article, in order to dissect this strange, post-truth predicament we’re rapidly sinking into. You’ve already made it through three questions so here’s the fourth:
What happens when people distrust mainstream information? Well, they seek alternatives. For the first time, we have an abundance of information to choose from. People have become information junkies, obsessively scrolling through blogs, chat forums, YouTube etc., to an unhealthy degree. Unfortunately we are now overdosing on too much information. One of the side effects is that information has become a more pernicious weapon than ever before and information junkies are the prime targets.
Information junkies will seek ideas contrary to their respective mainstream and use that information to reaffirm their beliefs. One of the largest ‘alternative’ news sources that presents ideas contrary to the Western viewpoint, is RT [Russia Today] and its family, including Sputnik and Ruptly. Ironically, RT has branded itself an attractive news source for the Western anti-establishment, on both right and left, despite being a state-owned arm of Russian propaganda. It continuously reports on the Yellow Vests movement in France and has recently turned its attention to the anti-lockdown movements erupting across Europe. Ruptly, RT’s Berlin based sister channel, even live streamed the protest and is one of the few social media channels to receive mostly positive, pro-protestor comments.
You may be thinking to yourself, not another rant against so-called “Russian interference”, how is this relevant to a protest in Berlin? Well, Putin’s Russia is one of the big players in the information war that you’re unknowingly participating in and RT is the weapon of choice. They have a much bigger sphere of influence than people are aware of, with channels in French, German, Spanish and Arabic; alongside branches in the US, UK and Russia. If you follow RT’s reporting, you will notice there is a recurring narrative in all languages; “democracy is failing”. RT pushes authoritarianism as a legitimate opponent to democracy. If you want proof of this, read through their coronavirus coverage and you will see celebration of Russian and Chinese efficiency with hardly any criticism, whilst the EU is portrayed as being in shambles. The Kremlin would prefer the EU to disintegrate. One way to do this is to sow seeds of distrust into people’s minds and encourage social unrest.
Slowly these seeds plant themselves and, during the protest, I saw what happens when they flower. The influence of the RT family was clear to see. The Kremlin covertly supports anti-establishment parties, leaning towards right-wing populism, who advocate a Russia friendly policy and are critical of the EU. Links have been unearthed revealing the relationship between the AfD and the Kremlin. The AfD clearly saw an opportunity during the pandemic to criticise the current establishment by openly expressing their opposition to the lockdown. Since several AfD politicians were reported at the protest, including Lars Günther, we know they are in support of this anti-establishment movement and appropriating it for their own agenda.
Whilst most mainstream media mentioned the AfD appearance and covered the protest in a negative light, RT Deutsch did not. In fact, Ruptly and RT focussed on the heavy handedness of the police instead, which they know appeals to the anti-establishment crowd and ignites tensions further. Throughout the pandemic, RT Deutsch have published articles that appeal to AfD values, such as suggesting that migrants and refugees are spreading the coronavirus throughout Europe, endangering lives. Again this information is a weapon designed to be divisive. As such, if you are an RT follower and an AfD voter, you will be more inclined to support the protests after seeing RT’s coverage, in contrast to a left-wing, pro-democracy activist who opposes the AfD. Thus, through selective information distribution, the Kremlin influences who attends the protest. It may not be grossly influential, but over time it pollinates. In fact, I predict that we will see more nationalist and AfD voters demonstrating and less pro-democracy groups in the coming weeks. It is also noteworthy that RT Deutsch didn’t mention the AfD presence in their reporting. This way they appear politically neutral whilst retaining their left-wing followers.
It’s a BIG Conspiracy
Earlier I stated that opposing political factions are increasingly finding common ground. One such example is their mutual enemy, The Elite; the traditional populist target. Since the pandemic began, critical reports on the opacity and morality of Big Business, Big Pharma and billionaires have been widely circulated. In the US, where 26 million people have become unemployed, bald-headed Bond-villain-wannabe Jeff Bezos sold $3.4 bln worth of stock just before the COVID-19 crash. It’s not surprising that resentment has emerged. For many, the suggestion of the super rich making money during a crisis or major businesses receiving government loans, brings back painful memories of the 2008 financial crisis. The Elite, in all forms, are once again the enemies, as old wounds are being ferociously ripped open. People are fighting back by sharing articles and videos, calling out Amazon, Virgin etc., and due to quarantine, people have the time to dig through dirt buried within the Internet.
Now this is where we start to get into information overdose territory. Here I will show you how a conspiracy theory is formed using the coronavirus’ hottest targets: Big Pharma and Bill Gates. They’ve been framed as global super-villains by many anti-establishment media; including RT, determined on world domination. These accusations don’t stem from nowhere. We are aware the pharmaceutical lobby is an extremely powerful one, particularly in the Western world. Concerns have grown towards our overuse of antibiotics and anti-depressants, which damage society but increase Big Pharma’s profits. Then, suddenly, in mid-March we were thrust into a wholly aberrant plight, and for theorists, dots began to appear. Questions arose over who is making money from the coronavirus and their answer is, companies that produce the cure. Since the cure will likely be a vaccine, this aggravates anti-vax campaigners, resulting in the conclusion that COVID-19 was man-made to increase the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. But it doesn’t stop there.
Let’s say you are already sceptical of Big Pharma and believe that the pandemic was artificially created. You begin to do further research and read an article that claims Bill Gates is “is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to push a vaccine with a microchip capable of tracking you along with the rest of the world population.” You come across another article that proves Gates is a major vaccine advocate and that the vaccine industry only started to become profitable at the turn of the century, around the same time the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was formed. By this point, there is a spider-web of information, collected through ‘alternative media’, YouTube videos and Wikipedia, that when laid out together, forms a pattern. When you start to see these patterns it can be tempting to believe them as real, especially if they prove your previous suspicions: in this case that the coronavirus is man-made. The problem is, these patterns are often a hallucination, based on speculation and willingness for it to be true and not on concrete evidence. If you’ve spent hours researching a theory, it’s easy to get caught up in this web and not think critically. This is the consequence of information over-load, opaque industries and a sagacious mind that desperately wants to know what is ‘really’ going on. In reality you’ve just succumbed to the very purpose of conspiracy theories; weaponised information, and they are much more attractive than the truth.
Conspiracy theories serve a purpose and I will explain more about them and why they are being used later on. The next post will examine the potentially fatal consequences of misinformation.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected the whole world and exposed the ugliness of global inequality. Even within the tight confines of the European Union, stark differences can be seen. Whilst most EU citizens are quarantined to their homes, they can at least rely on running water, sanitation and some kind of welfare state to help them through this difficult period. But the story is completely different on Europe’s borders.
Tens of thousands of people live in slum-like conditions in Greece’s refugee camps, such as the infamous Moira. Here refugees and migrants live in inhumane conditions, without access to running water and sanitation. The EU advice on social distancing is an unimaginable luxury in an encampment housing 20 000 people, 17 000 more that it was designed for. It is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Leading the fight against the EU’s inaction is the German NGO Seebrücke. They have called upon the EU to urgently evacuate refugees before a mass coronavirus outbreak occurs, proclaiming the message “Leave No One Behind”. They point out that the Union has a duty to uphold human rights and look after the most vulnerable. If they don’t, they are violating and abusing their duty.
Restricted from demonstrating outdoors, activists in Germany are finding alternative, creative ways of showing support for Seebrücke’s call to action. In Berlin: flags, banners and graffiti can be seen adoring buildings displaying #LeaveNoOneBehind. Meanwhile, supporters from across the world took to YouTube to host a digital protest, successfully gaining over 40 000 views, as a way of demonstrating in self-isolation and spreading the urgent message. Activists continue to relentlessly push forwards with campaigns online. They will only stop once everyone is provided with equal access to quality healthcare and the camps have been replaced by adequate living conditions.
We are all struggling during this period. Many of us have lost income, family members and freedoms, and the post-pandemic world is looking equally gloomy. But at least many of us can rely on basic necessities to survive this pandemic. As we do, let’s keep in mind those on the fringes of society; do what you can to make sure no one is left behind.
Europe has locked down and shut down. Like most of you, I have been confined to my apartment for the last few days. I’ve pondered this strange new reality coronavirus has forcefully flung upon us; one in which toilet roll is rarer than Donald Trump admitting he has no idea what he’s doing. Over this time it has become apparent: we’ve all been washing our hands wrong, racism is still a pertinent issue, and everyone should have listened to Bill Gates’ Ted Talk. But one particular aspect will be looked back on as a generation defining moment: our relationship with the digital world in the midst of a crisis.
We’ve always used technology to connect with one another. The luxury of smart phones, laptops and tablets at our fingertips has allowed us to contact the 4.5 billion Internet users anywhere in the world in a number of creative ways. One of the most iconic being the humble meme, which has emerged in recent years as a noticeable coping method for this generation. 10 years ago people were arguing over how to pronounce the word, but now everyone and their gran is sending them to the family WhatsApp. They will be looked back on as a time capsule for how we deal with major, life changing events. And, let’s be honest, the meme game has been strong since corona perniciously took over our lives. We’ve been treated to the wittiness and weirdness of mankind when kept isolated for weeks and it’s a fascinating reveal into our modus operandi.
The key to a successful meme is the recurring gag, my current favourite being the replacement of money with toilet paper, which then becomes a reference all of us can enjoy. The meme expresses solidarity, a ‘we’re in this together’ mentality, and for the first time, on a completely global scale, it’s created a universal inside joke. One that traverses borders, facilitates conversation and creates a big community.
Additionally, these memes call out people’s selfish acts. In this case, the hoarders stockpiling unnecessary amounts of toilet roll, but in a humorous way that still keeps morale up. This is arguably a more effective way of forcing people to rethink their actions. It’s a move away from the typical technique of posting public shaming videos and is an unequivocally more popular trend right now. Post covid-19, we may find that our lust for vitriolic online shaming starts to diminish in favour of a gentler call-out culture that utilises humour instead. In a society that uses the Internet for keeping itself in check, this will be a constructive development. The often-fatal consequences of online shaming are beginning to be brought to the public’s attention, in part thanks to journalist Jon Ronson, and if a positive alternative proves to be successful, then the despotic online mob may be left behind in the 2010’s.
Memes offer light relief thrown in amongst the apocalyptic images burning our social media feed, but are we in danger of reacting too ironically and not taking enough serious action? Are we detracting from the real problems? Laughing over Tik-Tok videos or tut-tutting at footage of shoppers grappling over groceries, like some kind of neo-liberal ‘survival of the fittest’ competition, doesn’t actually help us pay the bills. Fortunately, our online pragmatism percolates down to the physical world too.
Activists have responded to concerns over the survival of pubs, clubs and other cultural venues. Not everyone is trusting of government plans to roll out funding and support. In Berlin, where clubbing is the heartbeat of the city; bringing in an estimated 1.5 billion euros a year; there’s questions over how venues will manage to survive the coming months. Many balance precariously on the edge of extinction even in the best of times. If they can’t make it through this period then tens of thousands of musicians, artists, workers and performers will suffer.
But Berliners, not giving up so easily, have created the United We Stream initiative to support this vital industry. Effectively a virtual club that live-streams DJ sets from the city’s most beloved venues, bringing the clubbing experience to the safety of your corona-free apartment. A donation page with the goal of raising €1 million ensures the clubs and their workers get through this period. Clubbers have turned to organising ‘nights out’ with friends by all tuning into the live-stream together and video-chatting. It’s another development in virtual community; an amalgamation of the digital and physical, wherein community and connection is still kept alive.
Mental wellbeing has also been a serious concern. In a society that places high value on friends and socialising, the sudden departure from physical, social interaction is incredibly jarring. In response to this, people have turned to sites like Reddit to tell the world how the coronavirus is affecting them. In Russia, art agency Shishki Collective opened the Stay The Fuck Home Bar, a slickly designed chat room for the 2020’s under the guise of being a ‘virtual bar’. Users are encouraged to have a drink at home instead of going out, and video-chat with strangers from across the world. It’s a digital platform particularly targeting Gen Z’s and Millenials to talk about how the coronavirus is affecting their jobs, family, studies etc., briefly alleviating stress and worries and relating to strangers going through the same frustrations. Just remember to bring your own booze and snacks.
Of course, United We Stream and Stay The Fuck Home Bar can’t compete with their physical world counterparts, but it does offer a semblance of normality and fills the void of loneliness and boredom many are experiencing. It’s the most uniquely human approach to the digital world we’ve experienced. Constricted from our daily lives we are managing to replicate the everyday with the help of some virtual creativity. If anything this quarantine period has proven how much we rely on communication and humour.
We are at a pivotal moment in our relationship with the virtual world. This pandemic has caused a total upheaval from the physical world. We have all been forced to move our lives online: from doing the shopping to socialising with friends and now even schooling. It’s not yet a replacement for real human connection as we still feel isolated and face difficulties solely communicating online. However, widespread Internet access, faster speeds and everyone owning smart devices means we have built a real online community that would have been impossible in a pandemic 10 years ago. Presented with a challenge like never before, the Internet has unified for a change. People are posting advice on how to exercise at home, or setting Instagram challenges to pass the time. We are finding new ways of communicating with each other. However, will this community spirit carry on after the pandemic is over and the rebuilding begins?
I am doubtful it will last much long after quarantine ends and the economic depression starts raising questions and finger pointing begins. But it was a good peak into what the Internet can achieve when human connection is not possible. And at least we will be ready for the next pandemic.
Meanwhile, stay smart, stay safe and don’t dismay at the lunatics buying out all the toilet roll. Marvel instead at how we have come together and created imaginative ways of supporting each other. Sharing funny memes or heart-warming videos of quarantined German and Italian citizens singing together on balconies gives a sense of us being together. That, at least, is a very real feeling worth holding on to.
I teamed up with the Free Hong Kong exhibition group after attending their event in Berlin. Noticing the similarities between the pro-democracy Hong Kong movement and Ukraine's EuroMaidan revolution, we came together to produce a powerful collaborative exhibition in Kyiv's Kurenivka Palace of Culture.
However, 2 days before the event opened, a letter from the Chinese embassy arrived at the gallery, warning us not to go ahead with the exhibition under the guise that this was none of our business and we were meddling in Chinese affairs. But we went ahead with it anyway, refusing to be unlawfully intimidated. Fortunately the show was a success and the letter actually ended up attracting people instead of deterring!
Over the week we had panel discussions and lectures, with guests including Citizens' Press Conference, Arthur from Free Hong Kong Centre, Nastya Stanko and Azad Safarov. We covered a range of topics including the history of Hong Kong, the fraternal relationship towards Ukraine that has grown in Hong Kong, and the abuse of journalists during the Maidan and the pro-democracy protests.
The exhibition was a reflection on Hong Kong's ongoing political crisis and provided a platform for the protestors to share their feelings, emotions and thoughts. The exhibition will continue to tour throughout Europe, so watch this space.
Exhibition ran from 11-17th January.
Follow the group here for more events https://web.facebook.com/freeHKexhibition/