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.