Deaths in Nuremberg Spun for Hate

Fringe media outlets spread hate speech and politicize deadly incident in Nuremberg, Germany

(Source: @DFRLab)

Racism and Islamophobia dominated the media narrative among a group of fringe media outlets and far-right Facebook pages regarding a deadly incident in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, Germany.

On January 28, a confrontation among teenagers on a train platform turned deadly when a pair of teens pushed three of their peers in front of a moving train, killing two of them. In the days that followed, a report emerged alleging that the two teenagers responsible for the assault were descended from families of Turkish and Greek origin, respectively. Fringe media outlets immediately seized on the story, fomenting a narrative of the incident steeped in Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

@DFRLab’s open-source investigation revealed that the far-right anti-immigrant narrative related that the Nuremberg incident ricocheted throughout the fringe media ecosystem and reached a significant number of social-media engagements (more than 60,000 in one case) and also appearing on far-right and populist Facebook pages, as well as in discussions on 4chan and Reddit.

The spread of a distorted and highly biased version of the story was further evidence of fringe media inciting social division using hateful and harmful rhetoric.

Fringe Media Sparking Hate Speech

On January 30, pi-news.net (“politically incorrect news”), an online German fringe media outlet, published an article (in German) that claimed the two teens had immigrated to Germany and, in part, attributed their actions to their alleged immigrant status. The article cited another article published on January 28 by BILD, Germany’s largest and most popular tabloid. Infamous for its sensationalist reporting, BILD was the first source to allege the two teens had families coming from outside of Germany. Unlike the author of the BILD article, however, the pi-news author employed Islamophobic and racist language in reference to the teens’ alleged foreign origin, a detail that the article’s author referred to as a “harsh reality.” The pi-news author also criticized several German media outlets for omitting information on the teens’ immigration background.

The cover of the BILD article. Translated from German: “Pushed in the Train Tracks after Disco: Dispute at Train Tracks — Two Soccer Players Dead!” (Source: BILD Online/archive)

The pi-news article also mentioned the print version of the BILD article as its source, supporting its take using an unclear, illegible photograph of the front page. The online version of the BILD article did not provide any reference to the alleged immigrant background of the two teenagers, whereas the print article mentioned the foreign origins of their parents. Neither of the two BILD articles, however, referred to the two teenagers as “migrants” or immigrants. It was likely difficult, though technically possible, for readers of the pi-news article to verify its contents through its sources due to a paywall around the online BILD article and the illegible photograph in the print article.

The story further spread across far-right and populist Facebook pages, on 4chan, and on Reddit — the latter two platforms are infamous for harboring active far-right online discussion communities. The discourse and speculation about the teens’ immigrant background and religious affiliation, however, demonstrates how fringe media uses irrelevant factors around already complicated events as a pretext to incite fear of minority populations.

The Prophet of Islamophobia

The pi-news article includes the sensationalist headline: “Nuremberg: Turk and Greek Push Three 16-year-old Germans on Train Track — Two Dead!” Using racist language, the author laments the “Mohammedanization” of Europe through an influx of Muslim immigrants and decries the threat “Mohammeds” pose to “real” or “bio” Germans. The article is contradictory and claims that the two “migrants,” while born in Germany, are not necessarily German: “a cow will not become a horse just because it was born in a stable.”

The author of the pi-news article, Michael Stürzenberger, is well-known to the German intelligence service. The German domestic intelligence service, Der Bundesverfassungsschutz, includes information about Stürzenberger on its website, where it describes him as a far-right blogger and political activist, a former leading figure in the now-defunct right-wing populist party DIE FREIHEIT, and a frequent, Islamophobic contributor to the media outlet pi-news.

Sensation Sells

@DFRLab used the analytics tools CrowdTangle and BuzzSumo to measure the performance of the pi-news and BILD articles on social media. CrowdTangle measures the Facebook engagements of a specific article and discloses the Facebook pages linking to the article in one of their posts. BuzzSumo, on the other hand, can be used to measure the total social-media engagement of an article, while further providing insights into backlinks (links from a referring website to the page in question) and the engagement rate for a particular topic. While BILD’s paywall permitted a CrowdTangle analysis, it precluded a BuzzSumo analysis.

According to CrowdTangle, the online BILD article received a relatively modest 6,000 engagements on Facebook, while the pi-news article garnered more than 31,000 engagements, which, in comparison, is five times larger than the engagement with the BILD article.

CrowdTangle analysis of the online BILDarticle showing overall engagement on Facebook (at top). (Source: @DFRLab via CrowdTangle)

@DFRLab used BuzzSumo to track the social media engagement of Stürzenberger’s article across platforms. His article received more than 31,000 engagements on Facebook and a few hundred more on Twitter, Pinterest, and Reddit combined, bringing its overall engagement to more than 32,600.

BuzzSumo analysis on the total engagements on social media for the pi-newsarticle. Note the number of total engagements on the right. (Source: @DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

The pi-news article received significantly more engagement than did the BILD article. Comparing the CrowdTangle analyses of the two articles, the pi-news article garnered more than five times as much engagement as the BILD article, which Stürzenberger cited as his primary source. BILD’s paywall may have lowered overall engagement for the BILD article, although @DFRLab did not find conclusive evidence to confirm that it did.

Catching Fire

On February 4, 2019, Voice of Europe, another fringe media outlet, published an English article on the incident, which in turn served as a source for up to 20 additional articles in different languages, including French, Hungarian, Greek, and Japanese. The narrative gained little traction outside of the German, French, and English stories, with total overall engagements well below 500 per article.

Overall, the Voice of Europe article received more than 61,000 engagements on social media. Like the German pi-news article, the article on Voice of Europe received significantly more engagement than the online BILD article. A BuzzSumo examination of the article’s backlinks reveals that at least 30 other articles linked to the Voice of Europe article. Overall, the English Voice of Europe article garnered twice as much engagement as the pi-news article in German.

BuzzSumo analysis of social media engagements of the Voice of Europe article, including the total engagements on the far right of the image. (Source: @DFRLab via BuzzSumo)
BuzzSumo analysis on the backlinks for the Voice of Europearticle. The picture above shows an example of three stories in French, Hungarian, and Japanese, respectively. (Source: @DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

The first xenophobic articles in French reportedly appeared on Thomasjoly.fr and alterinfo.ch. Both articles received around 3,000 engagements on social media, according to a BuzzSumo analysis. These two articles had the largest engagement among French articles.

BuzzSumo analysis of the overall engagement with the thomasjoly.frblog post, with the number of total engagements at the far right. (Source: @DFRLab via BuzzSumo)
BuzzSumo analysis of engagement on social media for the article on alterinfo.ch.Note the total engagements at the far right. (Source: @DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Engaging the Far-Right and Populists

The fringe media articles were further spread among far-right and populist Facebook pages that appeared to be German (Keine weiteren Asylantenheime in Deutschland, which means “No more asylum homes in Germany,” PEGIDA), French (France Debout, which means “France standing” or “France on its feet”), British (The Rise of UKIP), and Canadian (PEGIDA Canada). PEGIDA stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” and is a nationalist, anti-Islam, and far-right movement that originated in Germany. Some of the Facebook groups gained up to 9,000 engagements. The “Top Referrals” section of the CrowdTangle analyses reveal which Facebook pages linked to the far-right articles.

Results of a CrowdTangle analysis of the pi-news article and its top referrals. These results show only the first few Facebook pages that referred to the article, which are all in German. The top group, translated from German, is “No More Homes for Asylum Seekers in Germany.” (Source: @DFRLab via CrowdTangle)
Results of a CrowdTangle analysis of the Voice of Europe article and its top referrals. (Source: @DFRLab via CrowdTangle)
Results of a CrowdTangle analysis of an article in French on lesobersvateurs.ch and its top referrals. (Source: @DFRLab via CrowdTangle)

Names such as “France Debout,” “The Rise of UKIP,” and “Political Correctness Gone Wild” demonstrate the far-right and/or populist orientation of the Facebook pages. “France Debout” is close to the name of a Eurosceptic French party “Debout la France.”

The articles proliferated beyond Facebook pages: the Voice of Europe article also appeared on the “/pol/ — Politically Incorrect” channel on 4chan (since deleted) and on Reddit, where it incited mostly far-right and racist comments.

On 4chan, the published post mistakenly refers to the teenagers as “refugees.” On Reddit, the article was upvoted 258 times at the point of our analysis on the known, far-right subreddit r/The_Europe, which has roughly 6,700 subscribers. (@DFRLab has previously reported on this subreddit.)

The Virality of Xenophobia

@DFRLab’s analysis reveals that the German article on pi-news from January 30 and the English article on Voice of Europe from February 3 served as inspiration for many subsequent articles on fringe media outlets reporting on the Nuremberg incident. These websites often referenced each other, while also citing BILD, pi-news, and Voice of Europe as sources. As before, while the online BILD article is only accessible via subscription and the photograph of the print article in pi-news is illegible, other outlets nevertheless cited both versions of the BILD article as sources.

Plot visualizing the spread of the information in select fringe media outlets, starting from the purported originating story in BILD. (Source: @DFRLab)

There were also cases of false referencing. Two articles seemingly linked to the BILD article as their source but actually linked to an English-language blog, which in turn referenced a YouTube video (the account has since been deleted by YouTube). The video showed a self-proclaimed “German ex-cop” who “exposes the two migrants” in German. The false hyperlinks were likely to have been intentionally placed to drive traffic to the blog as well as to the YouTube video. The video has received more than 21,000 views and was also posted in the subreddit r/ConspiracyisNews.

Screenshot of the now-deleted YouTube video. The number of views, as of writing, was more than 21,000. (Source: YouTube)
Results of a CrowdTangle analysis for the YouTube video and its top referrals. (Source: @DFRLab via CrowdTangle)

As seen in the “Top Referrals” section, some of the top referral pages also targeted the Canadian public. “White People World Wide 1” and “Pegida Canada” demonstrate the far-right nature of the Facebook pages.

Conclusion

Fringe media outlets reporting on the incident cross-referenced each other in articles. The outlets also cited the most popular tabloid in Germany, BILD, in a possible effort to build credibility, but added details which were not mentioned in BILD itself. They called the two teenagers “migrants” and implied their origin to be the rationale behind their actions. The two versions of the BILD article, however, were difficult to access: a photograph of the print version was illegible, and the online version of the article was behind a paywall. As a result, discerning readers likely had difficulty verifying the information.

The fringe media’s apparent attempt to incite fear and hatred with regard to immigrants, and those of an immigrant background, maintained a level of emotional intensity around the issue of immigration in the build-up to May’s European Parliament elections. That the articles proliferated among far-right and populist Facebook pages, 4chan, and Reddit suggests that a subset of media outlets and accounts on the far-right aimed to maximize existing far-right sentiment, though in many cases with only limited success. That the media outlets often referenced one another across different mediums as well as social networks further supports this conclusion.

Screenshot of the banner of noack-finsterwalde,afringe media outletthat copied the pi-newsarticle. It depicts the logos of established German media outlets and calls them the “lying press.” The line on the left of the banner reads, in German: “Do not forgive them because they know what they do,” referring to the two public broadcasting channels in Germany ARD and ZDF. (Source: noack-finsterwalde.de)

The far-right groups accused mainstream German media outlets of failing to provide information on the teens’ alleged foreign origin, in line with their established practice of attacking the “mainstream media” and claiming to offer their readers privileged insights into the real state of affairs.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor and expose the interaction and comingling of false narratives and anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout the European media landscape.


Daniel Weimert is a Mercator Fellow currently assigned to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.