- SOCIAL SERIES
- Unbalanced Information Diet
Hazard to Democracy / Not Just U.S. As Conspiracy Theories Reach Small German State
By Kenji Nakanishi and Kazuhiko Makita / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondents
7:00 JST, February 16, 2023
Unbalanced information diets can impede sensible decision-making, divide societies and threaten democracy. This is the second installment in a series of articles looking into cases around the world in which people have been radicalized through polarized information.
BERLIN/WASHINGTON — A 19th-century castle stands silently on a snow-covered hill in central Germany’s Thuringia State. In December, authorities swooped in on this castle after uncovering an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the German government that was hatched there.
“I sometimes saw limousines going in and out of the place,” a 70-year-old woman who lives near the castle said. “But I didn’t know what those people were doing.”
The castle’s owner is a 71-year-old named Heinrich XIII, who was arrested on suspicion of being a ringleader of the planned coup. He is a descendent of the Reuss family, who were once nobles that ruled the area.
According to Peter Hagen, a local journalist who continues to report on the family, the man’s unusual behavior, such as delivering to neighbors leaflets detailing links to videos of his own speeches, started raising more eyebrows after the COVID-19 pandemic started. He reportedly was an ardent admirer of the far-right Reichsburger (citizens of the Reich) movement that advocates the revival of the German empire.
The plot allegedly involved storming the German parliament building, detaining cabinet ministers and lawmakers, instigating an uprising across the entire nation, seizing power and installing Heinrich XIII as ruler. Members of the group sympathized with each other on social media and kept in contact through Telegram, an online messaging service that allows anonymous messages to be sent. Deleted Telegram messages are difficult to recover.
On Dec. 7, German authorities arrested 25 people on suspicion of involvement in the planned coup. Among them were a female judge and a former lieutenant colonel of the German military.
The judge had entered politics in 2017 as a member of a right-wing party and served as a member of parliament for four years. After losing reelection in 2021, she returned to her previous position as a judge. However, her controversial anti-immigrant comments made while she was a lawmaker were among the reasons behind attempts to force her into retirement, although this situation remains unsettled.
In an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Lena Kreck, the senator for justice in the Berlin state government, said the judge was a “far-right extremist” who should not hold public office.
Andreas Speit, a German expert on right-wing extremism, said: “Radical conspiracy theories are no longer finding traction on just the fringes of society. They are also gaining support among people from the middle of society.”
Many of the group’s members had been influenced by QAnon, a U.S. conspiracy theory movement that originated online and claims that a deep state of Satan worshippers controls the world from the shadows.
Tony Podesta, a Democratic Party lobbyist, and his younger brother, John, who was White House chief of staff during the administration of President Bill Clinton, continue to be wrongfully slandered on social media as “criminals” in a child abuse case. They have been called “the devil,” among other things. John Podesta has also been falsely portrayed as having ties to the deep state.
On Dec. 4, 2016, an armed man entered the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., and started firing his weapon. The then 28-year-old gunman believed an online conspiracy theory that Democratic Party officials ran a child abuse ring at the restaurant.
The “pizzagate” conspiracy theory falsely claimed the Podesta brothers were child abusers. Some online posts even claimed the brothers had been responsible for the disappearance of a girl who went missing in Portugal in 2007. All those claims are untrue, but the brothers’ phone numbers and other personal information were circulated on social media.
“You become a murderer, you become an outlaw in the minds of millions of people,” Tony Podesta said during an online interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.
More than six years have passed since the shooting at the pizzeria, but he still gets insulted on social media.
“I think [social media companies] could do a better job of policing,” Podesta said, casting a question on what constitutes the freedom of speech.
Conspiracy theories spread quickly in the digital space. Once they spread, they never vanish.
“These conspiracies grab attention because they are more sensational than regular news stories,” said Keio University Prof. Tatsuhiko Yamamoto, a constitutional law expert. “If this issue isn’t seriously addressed, I feel there is a risk that a similar incident could occur in Japan.”
In May 2020, Google searches for “pizzagate” suddenly spiked. The increase was fueled by false information spreading among Instagram and TikTok users in their teens and 20s that popular singer Justin Bieber had been a victim. The hashtag #savebieber even started trending.
The growth of social media has helped to embellish and spread conspiracy theories. Another factor behind the growth of these conspiracies appears to be that people have become more reliant on social media, amid feelings of increasing isolation after losing their jobs or staying home more during the spread of COVID-19.
QAnon, which has spread conspiracy theories through social media, started in October 2017 after a user named “Q” began posting on the 4chan internet message board. “Q” claimed the deep state controlled the U.S. government and financial circles, and that then President Donald Trump was the savior who would stand up to these forces.
After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, QAnon believers started efforts to obstruct procedures for selecting the next president. This triggered the January 2021 storming and temporary occupation of the U.S. Capitol. QAnon also has been fertile ground for theories denying the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
Georgia State University Prof. Mia Bloom, an expert on QAnon, said that the movement stands out because it continues to subsume many conspiracy theories, and because it swiftly disseminated these theories around the world by taking them from online bulletin boards to social media platforms.
According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Public Religion Research Institute, 18% of Americans believed in the main tenets of the QAnon movement as of March 2022.
In January, several classified documents were found at the home of U.S. President Joe Biden. False stories claiming that Biden’s son Hunter, who is suspected of irregularities in his overseas business dealings, had paid expensive rent for this house also started spreading online.
A tabloid newspaper journalist tweeted that an image of a real estate form posted anonymously on Twitter appeared to be evidence showing Hunter had made those payments to his father. In fact, the document was for another property. The reporter walked back the claims, but Fox News and some other media outlets extensively covered this issue, essentially turning the rumors into widely accepted “facts.”
Trump, who has announced his 2024 presidential election bid to return to the White House, also weighed in.
“Who actually owns the house?” he wrote on social media.
During a speech in South Carolina on Jan. 28, Trump again trumpeted a raft of conspiracy theories.
“We are going to find the deep state actors who have burrowed into government, fire them and escort them from federal buildings,” he said.
When a person with significant influence over society espouses conspiracy theories and false information, it creates a synergy that accelerates the spread of those theories and rumors in what is called a feedback loop.
China and Russia also use false information to conduct cognitive warfare designed to sow turmoil in society. In the social media world, where inaccurate information spreads unhindered, conspiracy theories and disinformation could potentially create divisions in society.
“Conspiracy theories have been around since before the internet, but back then it was hard to meet people who shared those ideas,” said University of Tokyo Prof. Fujio Toriumi, a computational social science expert. “Social media has made it easier to find like-minded people and for people who previously were uninterested in conspiracies to come across them. People need to make sure they can accurately tell where information has come from.”
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