Germany's far-right extremists use the Internet to reach young people - and are using more and more foreign providers in order to avoid the law. Meanwhile, big sites like Facebook are taking action against extremism.
While still active in the far-right scene in the state of Lower Saxony, one former neo-Nazi spent all day looking after the extremist network's online presence. It was his main source of income, paid by "some funds from the scene," reports Martin Ziegenhagen, a qualified pedagogue and now project leader for an organization called Online Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus (Online Counseling against Far-right Extremism).
Ziegenhagen often finds parents turning to the advice center he works at because their children have drifted into the far-right milieu, which often finds its first contact to the young people via the Internet - through YouTube videos, Facebook chats, or Twitter. Often the parents seem fairly helpless.
"They barely know what Facebook is," he told DW. "Often they don't know what their children are doing on the Internet."
German neo-Nazis are spreading hate propaganda primarily and pointedly through the social media networks popular with young people. That was revealed in an annual report from the state-financed organization jugendschutz.net ("youthprotection.net") presented on Tuesday (09.07.2013) in Berlin. The group trawls the Internet for criminal and "youth-endangering" content.
In 2012, the report said, it found 1,600 criminal items - 80 percent of which discovered on social media sites. Last year, jugendschutz.net also found 5,500 far-right contributions on social media in Germany - an increase of almost 50 percent on 2011. Twitter is also playing a much bigger role for far-right organizations and individuals - here again, jugendschutz.net found close to 200 far-right accounts in 2012, as opposed to 141 in 2011.
At first glance - harmless
Often the Facebook profiles of far-right groups seem fairly innocuous at first glance.
"Right-wing extremists don't stand out with pure, clumsy propaganda," says Thomas Krüger, president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb). He has seen that the far-right has become more adept at disguising itself on the Internet. "At first glance they just sound things out with content that young people always like: lifestyle, music, events."
Racist and discriminatory aspects are often hidden, and often only appear after several clicks. "Most of what is on offer is not legally assailable," confirms Stefan Glaser, deputy director of jugendschutz.net.
On top of that, racism is often presented as "black humor," such as anti-Semitic jokes, explains Glaser. Providers like Facebook tend to leave such content up, since it doesn't directly violate their guidelines. "Facebook must draw a clear line on this," said Glaser.
Cooperation with Facebook
But both Glaser and Krüger underline the fact that their cooperation with major Internet platforms like Facebook and Google has improved. Such sites react with "more and more sensitivity and readiness" to complaints from individual users or organizations like jugendschutz.net, says Krüger, who reports that content is often removed from sites, and profiles are often blocked fairly quickly.
That's one reason why many far-right Internet users have begun to prefer lesser-known servers - particularly that of Russian provider VK.com, a social network which claims to have more than 100 million users, including Polish and Czech neo-Nazis, as well as Germans.
"The hardcore neo-Nazi scene has been advertising extensively from VK.com beginning in the middle of last year," said Glaser - particularly by users whose content has been blocked by Facebook and other services. But in the past few days, Glaser says his organization has established "direct contact" with the operators of VK in order to remove hate content as quickly as possible. He said the service had been "willing and grateful for the information."
But hate videos and propaganda tirades will likely simply migrate to other corners of the Internet - Ziegenhagen is convinced that far-right extremists have started to create new Internet presences. For instance, there are already smart phone apps to help extremists download far-right radio broadcasts and podcasts - developments that Ziegenhagen says are difficult to combat.
That's why political education remains important for groups aiming to counter extremists. "It's about shaking people awake both inside and outside the school," says Ziegenhagen, adding that he believes all Internet users should ask themselves what they are doing to oppose hateful content online.