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A Germany-based online platform is being launched to combat populist-fueled disinformation. Called "Schmalbart," the network is forming in secret: an idealistic and mammoth undertaking in support of democracy.
While Schmalbart is forming out of the public eye, a website and funding campaign have already been launched
The conservative US website Breitbart News made headlines with a New Year's report about a mob of male migrants attacking police in the western German city of Dortmund with fireworks and setting fire to a church. Elements of the original reporting by a German local newspaper were distorted and exaggerated by Breitbart - a common practice for the organization. It is considered a mouthpiece for the so-called alt-right, a rebranding of far-right and white supremacist movements.
'Breitbart Watch' for Germany?
Until recently, he says, Christoph Kappes would not have dreamed he'd become a political activist in his mid-fifties
Christoph Kappes isn't taking fake news lying down. "Breitbart News twists complex issues in a way that I find completely shocking," he said.
The 54-year-old IT consultant offers online strategies for business from his Hamburg-based agency. He knew it was time to act when Donald Trump won the US presidential election and Breitbart announced plans to open an office in Germany. Kappes feared a "political earthquake," he wrote in a November blog post, should Breitbart gain a foothold in Germany. Based on its US reach, Breitbart "could have 6 million users in five years." His initial plan: a "Breitbart Watch." And what better name for a page that draws attention to problematic articles on Breitbart - whose name literally translates to "broad beard" in German - than with a play on words: "Schmalbart," that is to say "narrow beard" or a beard that leaves a lot to be desired.
Fact versus fake
The announcement of the planned launch received a resounding response. Nearly 200 video producers, programmers, PR consultants, content optimization experts and lawyers heeded the call.
"We are many, so we also want to do a lot," Kappes said. In the works are a YouTube channel, a Twitter feed and a fact database to help find arguments for debates on social media. To reach people, Schmalbart seeks to insert itself directly into Facebook conversations, where it will remain objective and fair. Kappes has called for an "arrogance ban." An envisioned watch blog would extend beyond Breitbart to monitor the conservative populist and fake news sector.
Kappes said he sees democracy at stake. The core of the idea revolves around shaping public opinion, which in turn requires a "proper culture of debate."
Juliane Krause-Akelbein looks forward to using professional skills to stand up for her vision of a tolerant society
He is not alone in his desire to improve the tenor of online discourse. Juliane Krause-Akelbein, a digital developer, followed the US election closely and the souring conversation surrounding it. The trend is similar in Germany, she said, where there is "no longer discussion, just people shouting." The 31-year-old is interested in working with Schmalbart as a "counterweight to the so-called alt-right."
Schmalbart still operates like an underground movement, whose participants communicate via chat groups and share information with lists of links and a Wiki. There is also a security plan. Instead of competing with similar groups, Krause-Akelbein said they want to "form a network" with those working on issues of open society.
Be louder than the populists
Carsten Rossi, manager of a content marketing agency in Cologne, had been planning his own initiative. "If we can't be louder than the populists, then we are all in the wrong line of work," he wrote on Facebook, where of all his contacts - consisting mainly of media professionals - could see it. Shortly thereafter, he happened to stumble upon Kappes' announcement and joined in.
For the 48-year-old, it is all about diversity of opinion. There should be more than just populist sources appearing in search results on a given topic, he says. Rossi wants to change this with a "blog parade" - encouraging bloggers to refer and link to one another, thereby influencing Google search results. "That's how we can help shape the agenda."
Who controls the debate?
"In order to become a critical mass, we need to find the right tactics," says Schmalbart activist Carsten Rossi
Conservative populist media are already doing this. They position themselves as an alternative to the "mainstream," claiming to deliver the truth being covered up by establishment media.
Many of his friends have slowly fallen into despair that "now the other side" has discovered the internet, "our nice world-saving machine," Rossi said. Dialogue is necessary, but it is also about who controls the debate, he says. Those taking on populists should not use their tactics, he warns, but "we are free to use professional campaigns to ensure statements we deem false do not go uncontested."
'We may crumble like the Pirates'
Financing will play a large role in the direction Schmalbart takes. Uncovering fake news requires staff. Money is expected to come in part by way of payment platforms and crowdfunding campaigns for specific projects.
Still, Kappes has his doubts. Schmalbart represents a diversity of sexual orientations, political opinions and social backgrounds. "I don't believe it is political opinion dividing society, but more a question of what milieu one belongs to. We may crumble like the Pirates at some point," he said, referring to the rapid rise and fall of a largely internet-focused political party founded in Germany in 2006.
But Breitbart's exaggerated report about Dortmund reinforced Kappes' belief in Schmalbart's mission. The platform's next steps will become clearer on January 14, when supporters hope to meet for the first time in Berlin.