(Editor’s note: We posted this last month and – what do you know – President Donald J. Trump has caught up with our reporting.)
Adolf Hitler, who knew a thing or two about propaganda and war, had an interesting take on fake news:
“Go big, or go home.”
Okay, he didn’t use those exact words. But long before the tanks rolled, Hitler advised in “Mein Kampf” that when undermining democratic governments, lie big because it would “never come into (non-totalitarian opponents’) heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
Hitler got it: The Big Lie unchallenged becomes the Big Truth.
Seventy-two years later, Far Right ultra-nationalists and Russia are using the Big Lie to destabilize Europe with fake news and propaganda so laughably absurd thinking people don’t initially take it seriously. But, the undiscerning eat it up, spreading the most sensational on social media.
In this reverse universe of political polarity, Sweden – the most affluent, peaceful and high-functioning society in the world – has collapsed into anarchy. (My personal favorite is Alt-Right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s post about Sweden “banning Christmas lights in public to avoid angering Muslim refugees.”)
Germany, the most orderly country in Europe, has surrendered to Muslim mobs.
Sharia law is the law of the land from London to Athens.
Russia, a crumbling dictatorship run by its former spy master, is a light of freedom in a dark world.
None of these things are true … except to the minds of the thousands and thousands of people primed to believe them.
The war for Europe’s hearts and minds
This is all part of a digital war against the European Union, Scandinavia and the Christian-Democrat-style governments of Western Europe through fake news websites such as Breitbart and the Daily Express, and through hacking.
Fake news stories might seem silly to the sophisticated, but appeal to people who distrust the establishment, experts and facts, preferring the warm blanket of revealed knowledge and the certainty of simple, clear and repetitious messaging from authoritarian leaders.
They buy into the irresistible semantical snare in the Big Lie narrative: “Only we tell you the truth. If other media report anything different, it’s because they’re controlled by The Man.”
Though far right media such as the Daily Express and the Sun got Brexit passed, only after fake news and Russian hacking got Donald Trump elected president of the United States are European officials finally starting to wake up.
Calling out Breitbart
Last week, German officials called out Breitbart, whose former executive chairman Steve Bannon is now Trump’s chief strategist, for a fake news story about an attack that never happened.
Breitbart reporter Virginia Hale wrote a post, “Revealed: 1,000-man mob attack police, set Germany’s oldest church alight on New Year’s Eve,” about a mob of migrants chanting “Allahu Akbar!” as they set fire to the oldest church in Germany on New Year’s Eve, injuring dozens of people.
Of course, the story spread across conservative and Alt-Right websites in the U.S. And of course, it wasn’t true, but a mashup of minor incidents distorted into a sensational post.
Stray fireworks did start a small fire at a church – NOT the oldest in Germany – burning a netting covering a scaffolding, according to the local newspaper. The fire was out in 12 minutes. Police described it as a nothing incident in a year during which crime was down dramatically. “We shook our heads in disbelief when we saw how this operation was politicized” a police spokesman told the Washington Post.
But Breitbart saw the opportunity to trumpet its favorite theme – Europe is collapsing under migrant violence.
How much has Sweden collapsed today?
My guilty pleasure is going to Far Right websites to see how much Sweden has collapsed today. The Daily Express, owned by UKIP supporter Richard Desmond, has a thing about Sweden, and is the most – shall we say – “creative” at dreaming up sensational stories of anarchy and chaos.
For instance, just a couple of days ago, the Express had a “scoop” about how “rampaging migrants” (code for Muslims) turned Sweden’s No. 3 city Malmo into a war zone on New Year’s Eve, screaming “jihad!” as they attacked locals with firework in Möllevången Square. Overwhelmed, all police could do was look on in terror from their vehicles.
From ” ‘Jihad! Jihad!’ Migrant gang turns Swedish city into war zone”:
Continuing, the photographer claimed police, who were out in force as NYE celebrations in the area are known to get out of hand, were too afraid to leave their cars. “Malmo is a lost city,” Mr Mardell added as he said even journalists decided to leave out of fear for their own safety.
As with Breitbart’s German church burning, every other publication missed a yuuuge story about gangs of migrants destroying a city. How could that be?
So I sent a message to the reporter, Lizzie Stromme, via LinkedIn.
It was with great interest I read your story about the terrifying New Year’s Eve attacks in Malmo by gangs of migrants. As a former war correspondent covering Iraq and Afghanistan, I know how scary that must have been. I also noted that somehow, no other media had that sensational story. I’d love to talk to you about the Express and your coverage of Sweden.
As with Breibart’s German church attack fabrication, there are other accounts of what happened in Malmo, though none nearly as juicy as the Express story. The truth appears to be pretty prosaic: About 25 people gathered in a square to shoot off fireworks. And police actually were on the scene, as you can see in this video. That video of kids randomly shooting fireworks at people has sparked a debate in Sweden about banning rockets.
But it was Lizzie’s war story that ended up on Jihad Watch, the Alt-Right website run by Robert Spencer, who so famously led his group in the Nazi salute to honor newly elected Donald Trump.
Putin and Far Right have different motives, tactics and goals, but seek the same outcome: to use the omnipresent threat of Islamic terror to turn Europe back into a unstable cauldron of rival states and renew the age-old tensions.
The loser, I freely admit, would be expat entrepreneurs such as me, who depend on stable governments, open borders and free trade to make a living.
Our bet with Dispatches is that the European Union will survive because the free movement of talent is crucial to innovation … and because memories of World War II are still fresh.
Putin is betting he can repeat in Europe what the U.S. intelligence agencies say he did in the U.S.: Use his technical superiority and propaganda prowess to literally change the course of history.
The messaging from the Far Right and Putin’s propaganda network is disciplined and sustained:
• Europe is in crisis because of migration and Islamic radicalism, which they portray as the same thing. European leaders, especially in liberal societies such as Sweden and Scandinavia, are either secretly sympathetic to Islam, or are too “politically correct” and weak to resist.
• Putin is a real leader, unlike those wimpy heads of state such as Angela Merkel. Putin has never been shy about his ambitions to restore Russia to empire starting with the invasion of Ukraine. n Europe, the Russian strategy is much like the pre-World War II German strategy – create a series of bogeymen as an excuse to intervene while targeting Germany with propanda through his RT/Speisa propaganda network.
• Migrant violence is out of control across the continent.
• It might be too late to save Europe because migrant gangs have already conquered those countries. The cities are “No-Go Zones,” ruled under Sharia law by Muslim gangs affiliated with the Islamic State.
• Political institutions are corrupt including centrist political parties, as is the entire democratic process.
• An international cabal of financiers is behind everything.
• Countries such as the U.S. and UK can only “return to greatness” if they “take back control.”
As we move closer to crucial elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands, we can look forward to more fake news. In its coverage of the faux church burning, Bild warned that Breitbart will “seek to aggravate the tense political climate in Germany.” Duh.
The biggest mistake the European can make is underestimating the Far Right and Vladimir Putin.
Because if you think about it, no one could ever make up a fake news story as crazy as the truth about what happened in the U.S.: The Russians hacked the entire election process, manipulated the head of the FBI, bombarded the electorate with fake news and got a crazy man elected president of the most powerful nation on earth.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.