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From Russia with hate: Fake news’ attack on democracy as Europe heads to the polls

This flag burning was in Pakistan, but was used by Right Wing websites as "proof" of Sweden's collapse

If you’re a long-time expat in Europe, or even newly arrived, it might come as a surprise to learn France is on the verge of collapse.

And so are Sweden and Germany!



The fact that all three – Germany in particular – are among the most robust economies and stable societies on Earth would make such assertions laughable if it weren’t for the fact such anti-Europe propaganda is jumping from the United States, where it helped elect a demagogue, and infecting Europe itself.

The Gatestone Institute, a “think tank” headed by a right-wing former ambassador under George W. Bush, posts “research” each week showing every secular country in the European Union has collapsed, is collapsing or will collapse. France and Belgium already have collapsed into anarchy.

This photo of a flag burning was taken in Pakistan. But it was used by Right Wing websites as proof of Sweden's collapse.


But Sweden is the favorite Gatestone target, with “facts” documenting the migrant chaos and blood in the streets:

Sweden is fast approaching a complete collapse. More and more municipalities are raising the alarm that if the migrants keep coming at this pace, the government can no longer guarantee normal service to its citizens. In addition, ominous statements from government officials have left Swedes in fear of what tomorrow may bring. If the migrant wave keeps coming, in 10-15 years, Swedes will be a minority in their own country.

So, the premise is, Sweden will collapse … if immigration continues apace for 15 YEARS.

A post-truth reality

If you actually visit Sweden as I did in May, reality bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Gatestone scare tactics. But this is essentially a post-truth world where facts are increasingly vilified in favor of the revealed wisdom of strong men. Wisdom shaped by fake-news and Russian agitprop.

Former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon helped Donald Trump win the presidency by tapping into the angst, rage and biases of uneducated white Americans through a 24/7 barrage of extreme right propaganda via fringe “media outlets” such as Breitbart, conspiracy theory websites such as InfoWars, conservative talk radio shows and, to a lesser extent, Fox News.

Russian President Vladimir Putin funded multiple pro-Trump sites churning out fake news stories that might have actually swung the 2016 presidential election to Trump.

From a Washington Post report:

The final weeks of the campaign featured a heavy dose of stories about supposed election irregularities, allegations of vote-rigging and the potential for Election Day violence should Clinton win, researchers said.

“The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy,” said the executive director of PropOrNot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers. “It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign. . . . It worked.”


Trump won because Bannon and other right-wingers figured out a simple media strategy: Reach those most affected by globalization including white Americans in low-skilled jobs and people in rural areas most receptive to messaging built on fear … and to a strongman as their savior.

Now, just days before crucial votes in Austria and Italy, that masterful strategy is being replicated in Europe, retargeted at French, Italian, Austrian and Dutch voters worried about immigration and globalization.

_92796768_express2-12A peculiar media trinity sends out essentially the same populist message that put Trump in the White House: Globalization is bad. Liberal democracy is through in Europe. Only Far Right authoritarian governments can hold off the Muslim hordes that have already taken over most of the EU.

Those themes are echoed by far-right populist Norbert Hofer, who’s favored to win Sunday’s re-vote for the Austrian presidency. It would make Hofer the first extreme-right leader in Europe since Adolf Hitler.

Also on Sunday, Italians will vote on constitutional changes aimed at streamlining the country’s complex political system. If the vote fails, the centrist Renzi government is likely to fall, possibly replaced by the populist, pro-Putin and anti-EU Five Star moment.

As we stated in an earlier post, perhaps the most influential of the trinity is the Far Right European newspapers such as Daily Express, owned by Richard Desmond.

The Express runs comically biased headlines such as this from its website today:

The Express has a daily circulation of just over 400,000, far behind market leaders such as the Daily Mirror, which mixes celebrity news, sports and middle-brow (at best) news.

In the Express, any Brit who wants to remain in the EU is always a “remoaner” in headlines and stories. Muslims and all non-“Europeans” are at the root of every problem.

Donald Trump is a hero, as is Brexit architect and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Eccentric conservative Boris Johnson is a traitor for insufficiently reactionary positions such as supporting free movement in Europe.

Five Star has its own misinformation media network

But far more relentless and well-funded are the pro-Russian fake news sites.

Buzzfeed has an in-depth look at how Italy’s Five Star Movement has created its own network of fake-news websites and social media sites.

From the post, “Italy’s Most Popular Political Party Is Leading Europe In Fake News And Kremlin Propaganda”:

Under lurid, all-capped headline phrases such as “THE TRUTH THEY ARE TRYING TO HIDE FROM US”, the party’s blogs, TzeTze, and other sites in the network have crossposted scores of fake stories. These include claims that the US is secretly funding traffickers bringing migrants from North Africa to Italy, and that Barack Obama wants to topple the Syrian regime to create instability across the region so China cannot get access to its oil.

Stories are often sourced to Kremlin-owned sites such as Sputnik, and the M5S editorial line is sympathetic to Putin and highly critical of the US and mainstream EU leaders.

“The drumbeat is incessant. Every day, all day,” one Italian journalist told BuzzFeed News.

Add to that Russian-funded RT, Sputnik and Speisa, and it’s clear that Putin in concert with Far Right allies could end up pulling off in Europe what he accomplished in the U.S.

Under the guise of legitimate research

The least influential part of the anti-EU media trinity are faux think tanks such as Gatestone Institute. What is the Gatestone Institute? On the surface, it appears to be legit:

Gatestone Institute, a non-partisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank is dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report in promoting:

  • Institutions of Democracy and the Rule of Law;
  • Human Rights.
  • A free and strong economy
  • A military capable of ensuring peace at home and in the free world
  • Energy independence
  • Ensuring the public stay informed of threats to our individual liberty, sovereignty and free speech.

In fact, Gatestone is completely partisan. Gatestone is funded by Nina Rosenwald, a descendant of Julius Rosenwald, an early investor in Sears & Roebuck. It’s an anti-EU effort run by George W. Bush’s renegade former UN ambassador John Bolton, a site that uses anti-Muslim scare tactics to weaken pluralistic, multi-ethnic governments in favor of far-right nationalism.

The kind of far-right nationalism that has infiltrated the Trump staff in the form of Steve Bannon and others.

Instead of actual research, Gatestone recycles in 17 languages (including, oddly enough, Arabic) Fox News tropes about “no-go zones” where heavily armed Jihadis impose Sharia law. Though Fox News eventually retracted the “no-go zones” assertions, Gatestone refers to them as gospel. So what’s the point? It’s so rightists can cite what looks like a reputable research institute and say, “See! Here’s proof Jihadis have taken over Europe.”

What does this mean for expats?

For expats, the stakes are high. We are, after all, just another flavor of immigrant and many of us are Muslim. We might soon find that instead of escaping extremists at home, we’ve simply moved to countries that are suddenly merely Russian puppet states.

Do we think that’s likely? No, for one reason.

If xenophobic nationalists start to revert to isolated tribal states, multinational businesses – so reliant on the free flow of talent – will suffer. And if business suffers, we all suffer.

Another big difference between Europe and the U.S. is that even the far right here is more liberal than moderate conservatives in the U.S. who oppose any publicly funded social services, mass transportation or environmental protections.

At least for those of us expats allowed to stay in Europe, the trains will still run on time.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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