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Will Breitbart's 'alt-right' news work in Germany?

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Resisting the alt-right: A placard at a Women's March against Donald Trump in Washington DC, January 2017. Mark Dixon under a Creative Commons Licence

For many people, headlines such as ‘Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy’ and ‘Political correctness protects Muslim rape culture’, would be considered hateful, insidious and factually incorrect. But for millions in the US, it’s headlines like these, and the agenda they’re pushing, that have kept them coming back to US conservative, ‘alt-right’ website Breitbart News.

Established as an aggregating site in 2005, its founder Andrew Breitbart launched the news website shortly after, with the aim of being the ‘Huffington Post of the right’. Breitbart News went on to gain considerable traction for its pro-Israel, anti-establishment and populist agenda, targeting Washington’s elite and the US mainstream media.

The site was taken over by one of its board members Stephen Bannon after Breitbart’s death in 2012. Under Bannon, the site turned further to the right, embracing white nationalism and the ‘alt-right’ movement – an alternative ideology that rejects mainstream conservatism and media.

During the US election Breitbart News was unashamedly pro-Trump and its readership kept growing. Between May and June 2016, it overtook major news outlets like CNN, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal for levels of social media interaction with political content. Bannon was rewarded for his efforts, with Trump later naming him chief strategist in his administration.

But Breitbart News may find it difficult to replicate this success when it launches its German language edition later this year. Following the defeat of the Nazis, Germany implemented tough regulations that made hate speech a criminal act. German law includes the concept of Volksverhetzung or ‘the incitement of popular hatred’, capable of disturbing public peace, including racist agitation – exactly the type of content Breitbart News is accused of publishing.

Despite its growing popularity, the site has courted much controversy and criticism. The New York Times described it as an organization with ‘ideologically driven journalists’, producing material labelled ‘misogynist, xenophobic and racist’. The site has also been accused of homophobia, with one of its star columnists, a gay man named Milo Yiannopoulos, openly denouncing gay rights and calling for gay people ‘to go back into the closet’. Yiannopoulos has been permanently banned from Twitter for leading a racist campaign against actor Leslie Jones.

Rejection of hate speech

Recent developments in Germany suggest that Breitbart News is entering the German market at a time when the pushback against online hate speech is getting stronger.

Late in 2016, a Munich-based lawyer Chan-jo Jun lodged a complaint against Facebook, accusing it of violating German hate speech laws, supporting terrorist organisations and sedition, in a case that German prosecutors are still considering.  

Jun said, ‘We are pushing for this because Facebook must comply with German law. While it’s not clear yet if Breitbart News will be based here, in which they will be subject to German jurisdiction, they may learn from what’s currently happening with Facebook.’

Two years ago, Justice Minister Heiko Maas set up a task force that included representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter to address the issue of hate speech and fake news. The government is now looking at specific laws that would force the social media sites to play a bigger role in policing the hateful and illegal content that’s shared on their sites.

Towards the end of last year, police in Berlin raided the homes of 10 people suspected of publishing offensive and hateful images and posts, directed towards refugees and immigrants. At the time, Berlin's top security official Frank Henkel said authorities ‘won't turn away if racism or incitement is being spread on the Internet’.

There’s also a movement among left-wing activists in Germany, who have been targeting far-right groups online and transforming their activities into donations for their causes.

Andrew Breitbart talks at the Americans for Prosperity Defending the American Dream Conference in 2011.

Mark Taylor

Tense times in Europe

But Breitbart News, which also has plans to launch a French site, enters the European market at a tense time. The continent is currently facing a refugee crisis that has been unprecedented in the number of people fleeing war and poverty in search of a better life. Britain is preparing to divorce from the European Union after a referendum campaign dominated by fear and far right parties from France to the Netherlands are gaining in popularity.

One of the leaders of the far right movement in Germany is Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) or AfD. The party, which has called for tighter controls on immigration and has adopted an anti-Islam policy, missed the five per cent mark needed to enter parliament in the last federal elections in 2013, but made gains in regional elections last year and is set to be a big political force in September’s elections.

Director of the European Journalism Observatory Stephan Russ-Mohl said, ‘The right wing populist movement is getting stronger and it could endanger democracies across Europe. And what we are seeing is a market for half-truths and misinformation. Breitbart News may be able to get a good market share because of its experience.’

The AfD is openly hostile towards the mainstream media, banning journalists from its events – most recently from a conference it hosted for other European far right leaders in Germany. It often accuses journalists of bias and misreporting. It’s a sentiment shared by nearly half of the country's population: a recent poll found that 44 per cent of Germans distrusted the mainstream media.

Robert Mudge, a planning editor at broadcaster and news website Deutsche Welle, said: ‘The timing is obviously no coincidence, with several crucial elections coming up this year in Europe that could see a significant political shift towards the far-right.

Breitbart News is tapping into a sentiment felt very keenly that the mainstream media is out of touch with the problems of ordinary Germans and do not reflect their aspirations and anxieties – hence the term "Lügenpresse" (lying press) – and are seen as part of a larger conspiracy along with the mainstream political parties.

While the hate speech laws are in place, it doesn’t mean they are being implemented to their fullest potential. ‘The obvious problem is that while we have these wonderful laws, we don’t have the police force or the justice system to follow through’, said Russ-Mohl. ‘The challenge will be how to ensure that young people aren’t influenced by a site like Breitbart News.’

As Breitbart News prepares to spread its brand of journalism across Europe, all eyes will be on the reaction of Germany, a country so determined not to repeat past mistakes.

A different goal

Joyce had heard there were many opportunities in South Africa for someone like her. Her parents couldn’t afford her school fees and she had little hope of finding a job in her rural village in Zimbabwe. The only option Joyce had was getting over to South Africa to look for a job.

So one night, without telling their parents where they were going, Joyce and her three friends followed in the footsteps of many Zimbabweans before her and left for South Africa with the help of a local guide.

Joyce's ambition now is to make school uniforms.

Plan

But Joyce’s dream quickly turned into a nightmare. Once the group had crossed the border, she and her friends were kidnapped by the notorious guma guma, gangs who pray on Zimbabweans coming into South Africa. The guma guma are gangs of Zimbabwean and South African men who roam between the borders of the two countries. Their victims are beaten, robbed, raped and sometimes sold to other gangs.

Joyce and her friends were kept as prisoners there for a month and were subjected to sexual abuse on a daily basis. It was only when their next door neighbours broke in and let them out that they managed to go to the police and get sent home.

The stronger economy and the job opportunities that many think they will find in South Africa appeal to youngsters in search of a better life

Joyce, now 19 years old, said: ‘We contemplated killing ourselves because we were so hungry and scared. The only time we ate was when the men brought home food at night. There were two girls staying in each room and two men would pair up and go to each room.’

Joyce isn’t the first person to have made the dangerous journey. The International Labour Organisation estimates that nearly 2,500 children pass through one border crossing to South Africa and neighbouring countries every month.

For young Zimbabweans like Joyce, job prospects look bleak and boredom sets in if they are forced out of school early. The stronger economy and the job opportunities that many think they will find in South Africa appeal to youngsters in search of a better life. But the journey to their richer neighbour isn’t an easy one. Youngsters brave lions, crocodiles, the swollen treacherous Limpopo River, miles of dangerous bushland and human traffickers just to get across.

Even if they make it, they are usually without proper documents, so are at risk of being abused by their employers, the police and traffickers and often forced to live in squalid conditions. Most child migrants work in the informal, illegal or unregulated sectors including prostitution, sale of drugs, domestic work, vending, begging, petty crime and garbage scavenging.

Victor, 19 years old, was in a similar situation to Joyce. With no money to pay for school and bored of having nothing to fill his days up with, he decided to head to South Africa and find work on a farm. But on his way, Victor and the group of boys he was with were met by a pride of lions, which ate some of them and forced the survivors up a tree, where they remained for three days.

When Victor eventually got to South Africa, he found work on a vineyard picking grapes. He was paid 400 Rand ($50) for the first month but his boss refused to pay him the second month. When Victor and his friends threatened to leave, their boss called the police and they were deported back to Zimbabwe.

International children’s NGO Plan is offering young people like Victor and Joyce alternatives to migrating – income-generating and skills training, and has enlisted returnees to talk to other youngsters about the dangers that can await young people in South Africa.

When Joyce returned home, she joined the Nyanyadzi training centre where she was taught dressmaking. Joyce was given a sewing machine and her ambition now is to make school uniforms.

Victor enrolled himself in the Plan goat project where he learnt how to look after goats and manage a business.

‘What I like about goats is if they begin to multiply, we will be able to buy cows, or we can use the money to do other courses to help us in life,’ said Victor.

Joyce said: ‘What would I be doing if I didn’t have this course? Nothing, as I had dropped out of school. The course is going to sustain me and I am confident I am going to look after myself.’

Gouri Sharma works at Plan International.