This story of extremism begins, like many people in Germany, with Hitler. In particular, the Hitler meme. Someone posted a meme – illegal under German law because of its Nazi content– along with some other racist comments, on the school’s digital bulletin board.
Memes are just one of the social media tools in the toolbox used by media-savvy extremist groups. With “lighter content,” they are expanding their digital reach from the dark corners of the web to popular channels such as YouTube, Instagram and gaming platforms.
And their audience includes teenagers, says Lisa Kiefer, who heads a project called CleaRTeaching, which was launched in 2016 to help stop teenagers in Germany from becoming radicalized. The Hitler meme incident took place at one of the project’s partner schools.
Posting offensive, or for that matter, potentially illegal memes, doesn’t necessarily mean radicalization, Lisa Kiefer points out. However, this points to a disturbing trend among the underage population: They are now more likely to share extremist content, in many cases without realizing it.
That’s not unusual for students to share videos and other content that it “seemed completely harmless to them,” Kiefer said. “But it becomes a bigger problem when you know what’s really behind it. And there’s a lot going on.”
Radicalization in the era of COVID-19
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing teens to stay at home, it is less likely that teachers will find out about problematic content such as Hitler memes circulating among students at school. And without teacher support, some students may become more vulnerable to online extremist groups.
Radicalization efforts have grown rapidly in Germany in recent years thanks to the internet, with the greatest concern not only around right-wing extremism, but also Islamist group.
And this effort becomes much more subtle.
Right-wing extremists, for example, have abandoned old school recruitment efforts by handing out Nazi music CDs. In fact, the “New Right” doesn’t really recruit in the classic sense of the word, according to right-wing extremist Andreas Speit, a prolific writer and reporter for the left. taz newspaper.
“They want to change the way people think and act in the pre-political realm in the hope of weakening the status quo,” said Speit. “And that is precisely their strategy on social media. They want to reach young adults with their right-wing hatred.”
That means distributing games promoting ideas to protect Europe, with protagonists conforming to the laws for an “ethnic-state”. That also matters adopt a slick Instagram accountwith subtle hints for anti-Semitic and xenophobic beliefs.
Neosalafi, an Islamist group in Germany, have also adopted an equally subtle strategy. In YouTube videos and social media posts, for example, they manipulate the fight against racism and exclusion to shore up Muslim solidarity. They may seem less extreme in appearance and message, but experts warn that’s not the case.
“I will say it again and again: What is behind this is a brutal / hardcore ideology,” said Bernd Ridwan-Bauknecht, a longtime teacher in the German public school system and who himself converted to Islam.
Since 2004, Bauknecht has taught Islamic religion classes, which are offered at several public schools, and has seen propaganda reach youth, whether from the Neosalafi scene in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, or from supporters of ISIS. further in recent years.
According to Bauknecht, radicalization is a complex process with many factors to consider. At the same time, he warned that more refined social media endeavors should not be underestimated. “They are a means to an end,” he said.
Identifying at-risk youth
However, when it comes to helping students navigate those murky waters, things are not always as clear-cut as Hitler’s memes, which are clearly a violation of German law.
CleaRTeaching, which recently launched a national program to implement the findings of its pilot project, wants to introduce a holistic approach to combating radicalization. It combines awareness among students and teachers of their own beliefs and biases when dealing with ideological content. The emphasis is on context, dialogue and respect – and putting systems in place that can prevent radical violence in a worse case scenario.
Currently, Kiefer is concerned about a marked increase in “existential fear” among students at the vocational school where Clearingeaching operates.
Experiencing a crisis can be a catalyst for radicalization, along with a number of other problems, ranging from developmental problems during puberty to family problems to experiencing discrimination or exclusion.
The students most at risk, says Kiefer, are those who are “looking for meaning and are also angry with the condition of society. And right now, we are at a point where a lot of people are angry about a lot of things.”
This Islamist Instagram post claims the spread of diseases like COVID-19 is a punishment from God
Extreme content in a pandemic
COVID-19 itself has become a food for online propaganda. Islamist posts identified by the German internet watchdog for the safety of children, jugendschutz.net, has equated a pandemic with punishment from God for sinful behavior and has prophesied the end of time.
The far-right post has also used the crisis to spread conspiracy theories that the lockdown was the beginning of a dictatorship under Chancellor Angela Merkel. They also mix up pandemic conspiracy theories anti-Semitic and xenophobic beliefs.
But how often do teens see this? That’s a question that’s nearly impossible to answer, according to Julia Klatt, who works with Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus NRW, a mobile counseling program tasked with eliminating right-wing extremism and promoting anti-discrimination efforts in North Rhine-Westphalia.
What Klatt can confirm is that prior to the pandemic, most requests for counseling were when students were exposed to “right-wing or racist memes, or generally, pictures or messages in a WhatsApp group classroom.”
And despite the pandemic’s constraints, this demand is not slowing down noticeably.
The emergence of alternative groups
One thing that looms large for programs like mobile counseling and Clearingeaching is the emergence of conspiracy theories through alternative groups such as Lateral thinker, QAnon and anti-vaxxers.
According to a study this month by the Commission to Protect Minors in the Media (KJM), more than one in three posts from alternative groups, including influencers, were found to be illegal or dangerous for minors. Their sample examined 800 posts and videos and also found that this was true for more than half of the content taken from Telegram and VK, nearly 40% from YouTube and just under 30% in the case of Twitter and Facebook.
There is also a growing concern that engaging with “less dangerous content” may eventually result in more extreme views. Comprehensive study 2019 surveying more than 330,000 videos on nearly 350 YouTube channels shows that this occurs partly through indoctrination as well as through algorithms.
Both Kiefer of CleaRteaching and Klatt of the traveling counseling group are seeing this trend increasing – and it’s not just students they worry about.
“I’ve had a request for help saying, for example, my mother, or my father, or my uncle is involved [in one of those groups]. What should I do, what can I do to save them ?, “Klatt said.
Klatt and Kiefer both hope this is a growing problem in the coming months, as it becomes increasingly problematic in the wider society.