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Disclose.TV: English disinformation made in Germany

February 8, 2022

Disclose.TV uses grains of truth and English content to mask the way it operates, delivering far-right and conspiracy content to its millions of followers.

Screenshot of Disclose.TV's Twitter account
Image: twitter.com/disclosetv

Germany-based Disclose.TV has millions of followers – on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and far-right social media networks like Gettr and Gab. What began as a conspiracy forum for swapping UFO stories has turned into a popular news aggregator dispensing conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine content, unique not only in its influence but also the way it operates.

A new report has shown that Disclose.TV hosted multiple Telegram and Discord channels where "hate speech and Holocaust denial" proliferated. At the same time, experts believe it was also trying to obfuscate its German origin.

History of conspiracy

"Accessing archived versions of their website going back to 2007, we found that it began primarily as a forum of user-generated content discussing theories about aliens and paranormal activity," said Ernie Piper, who was part of the team at British research firm Logically.AI that published a recent report charting Disclose.TV's trajectory.

In the 2010s, the site took on a political bent, with posts casting doubt on Russian election interference and criticizing "social justice warriors."

Then, in September 2021, Disclose.TV gave itself an overnight makeover. Old versions of the site, its Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook account were wiped. They announced to their mass of followers that they were pivoting, becoming exclusively a news site and using vetted writers in what appeared to be a bid at cultivating legitimacy as a source of information.

How dangerous are conspiracy theories?

Disclose.TV's unique position

Other fringe websites have undergone similar evolutions, but what makes Disclose.TV unique is not only its large audience – it has over 4 million followers across its channels – but the fact that it is based in Germany and operates in English.

"It is not, in my experience, very common for a channel based in Germany to be producing a lot of content for an international audience, or in another language, such as English," said Stephan Mündges, head of the Journalism Institute at the Technical University of Dortmund and an expert on disinformation in Germany.

"It is more common that items from the English-language media, for example the 'Stop the steal' narrative, are taken and translated into German," he added, referring to a movement in the United States that held the results of the 2020 election to be invalid.

Miro Dittrich, senior researcher at the online extremism monitoring agency CeMas, agreed. He said that Disclose.TV "is an exception in terms of its reach" but also in the way "trying to portray itself as not being a German outlet" and "recycling talking points" from American far-right sources.

Braving the pandemic of conspiracy theories

For Ernie Piper and fellow researcher W.F. Thomas, the language in Disclose.TV's posts and articles suggests that its articles "are written by a native German speaker," but who is behind the keyboard remains mysterious. It has a US-based phone service for taking calls, but its registered business address is a law firm in Passau, Germany. The website is owned by Cologne-based entrepreneur Uwe Braun, but he has never publicly acknowledged this connection.

Hate speech and Holocaust denial

When they announced the site's retooling, they said that it was becoming exclusively a news site and using vetted writers, in what appeared to be a bid at cultivating legitimacy as a source of information.

"Despite that, they listed only four writers, without last names, on their site. The writers had no public profiles and their photos were AI-generated fakes," Piper said. Moreover, much of the content was directly plagiarized from other sources, and promoting skewed narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the causes for alarm ran deeper than false author profiles. Piper and Thomas found what they described as"hate speech and Holocaust denial" flourishing in Disclose.TV's groups on the Discord app and Russia-based messaging service Telegram.

"They had a disclaimer saying 'no Nazi BS,' but were at best negligent and at worst freely allowing extreme anti-Semitism on their channels," Piper explained.

Promoting or providing a platform for Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany, punishable by up to five years in prison. The Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) told DW that Disclose.TV was "known" to them, but declined to comment further on to what extent its channels were being monitored, or how closely it surveils Telegram.

Germany threatens to get tough on Telegram

Germany is home to increasingly inflammatory anti-vaccine agitation and the second-biggest QAnon following after the US – as such it is a logical host for Disclose.TV.

Telegram, too, makes sense as a hotbed of Holocaust denial. According to Mündges, it rapidly becoming the choice outlet for the growing number of individual "disinformation influencers."

Expert Miro Dittrich elaborated that "Telegram has been critical for the far-right scene in Germany ever since the Identitarian movement migrated there in 2018, having been kicked off Facebook and Instagram."

The Identitarians are a far-right group who promote pan-European ethno-nationalism.

Understanding conspiracy theories

'A dangerous vector'

But Disclose.TV's YouTube channel has been wiped clean, and moved to close its Telegram and Discord channels following Logically.AI's report.

The outlet did not respond to Piper, he said, but it did issue unsigned statement saying that it had "lost sight" of the content being added, despite claiming it had dozens of moderators and bots trawling for such posts. The statement also apologizes for the examples of plagiarism listed in the investigation.

The statement, part of which which is ironic and mocking in tone, is "not a normal way for a media organization to respond to critical coverage" Piper said, adding that it was "alarming" that they published his name to their millions of followers, "which is in and of itself a threat."

Both Dittrich and Mündges stressed that the biggest threat of outlets like Disclose.TV is its ability to dress up conspiracies, misleading stories, or disinformation as factual news.

For example, the site presented a story claiming that "Germany's lockdown ruled unconstitutional." Behind the incendiary headline was the more banal reality that part of Bavaria's short-term lockdown in April 2020 was retroactively declared illegal months later.

"Often they create content that doesn't look like its conspiracy-driven, and sometimes its shared by apolitical people or people on the left who don't know its true purpose," Dittrich said.

Speaking on the phenomenon of blending fact and fiction, Mündges explained that it was increasingly common and contributing to the larger atmosphere of distrust in media, institutions, and governments: "They call themselves 'alternative media.' And not everything they publish is completely false, there can be a true story that is then given a strong slant in a certain direction."

"Completely fake information being distributed is not the core of the problem," he said, it is "much more of a gray zone."

Uwe Braun does not have publicly accessible contact information, and Disclose.TV did not respond to DW's request for comment.

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Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.