Members of Germany’s new anti-populist Schmalbart network have held their first meeting. Can left-wingers, conservatives, digital strategists and offliners work together to bring about meaningful change?
Thick snowflakes fly past outside the window; inside, there's coffee and soft drinks. The "Innospace" room on the top floor of the Betahaus in central Berlin is jam-packed. Around 100 people with name tags stuck on their chests are standing around tables in small groups, talking earnestly: young women with hemp bags, senior citizens, people in their mid-30s with laptops and hoodies.
The media are here, too. And there are clear rules for them, and everyone else: no photos without permission, no audio or video recordings, no posting sensitive information about the event on Twitter. People are being careful; Schmalbart opponents are already taking aim at the group on social media.
80 percent IT and communication professionals
10:00 a.m.: An appearance by Christoph Kappes. The Hamburg-based IT entrepreneur is the whole reason for the gathering. He recently founded Schmalbart as a platform to counteract populism and misinformation, and to foster a better culture of debate on the internet. Initially, it was a reaction to the planned expansion of the right-wing populist US media group Breitbart News to Germany. Proudly, Kappes took to the podium to present the key data. Schmalbart members hail from various regions across Germany, with some Austrian members. Around 80 percent work in IT or communications, and two-thirds of the group are male.
But Kappes says there are also members who eschew the internet completely. "We are a mixed bunch, a mini-society," he said. Initially, it was just a core group of activists involved in the planning, but because Kappes wants to see results as quickly as possible, he instigated the meeting in Betahaus. The goal: to agree on projects, strategies and formats by the day's end.
Counteracting populist arguments
In Room D, one group is brainstorming a browser add-on. The idea is to highlight mistakes in argumentation in populist online articles, based on the 9th grade education curriculum. "Populist texts on the internet are often intellectually dishonest, and that just makes me mad," said Thomas Bayer (not his real name), who suggested the add-on.
The others in the group of five are skeptical. Wouldn't the installation be too big a hurdle? Would there be an editorial team? And who is the target group? It's likely it would only reach those people who are already interested in transparency, Bayer concedes. He says he's placing his hopes in "a conservative educated middle-class that refuses to be fooled. Maybe there will be a few teachers who discover the add-on and use it in their teaching," he said.
'We have to be equally well prepared'
The neighboring room is so full that half of the participants are forced to stand. Christoph Giesa is taking questions. The 36-year old publisher is a sought-after figure at the event. Two years ago, he wrote a book about the right-wing current in mainstream society. Since then, he's been hoping for a project like Schmalbart. He says he plans on developing an app on "how to deal with right-wing disseminators."
His fellow Schmalbart campaigners have a lot of questions for him: What do members of the German right-wing AfD party or PEGIDA actually hope to achieve? When is it necessary to end a debate? Giesa says it's important to know who you're dealing with. That's why he's here. "We have to be just as well prepared as them," he said.
Us and them - those words can be heard a lot at the event. But don't such delineations lead to even more division? Won't this lead to the initiative, which was founded on the need for more objectivity and a more civil debate culture, shooting itself in the foot?
There are projects on psycho-targeting, source verification, data visualization and media skills at school. Concrete ideas are developed for a fact databank and a satirical format. There's a social media training on the agenda, as well.
Breitbart takes notice
Is Schmalbart the start of a social movement, or will the network become a fractured opposition? Even so, Christoph Kappes is satisfied. The event has helped launch plenty of new projects. He's not perturbed about the increasing headwind the project is getting, thanks to growing media interest, nor the fact that the #schmalbart hashtag is being used in conjunction with verbal attacks on the group. One day later, it happens: Breitbart News reacts for the first time to Schmalbart. On its website, there's talk of "cash-strapped lefties" demanding money for an anti-Breitbart website.