Neo-Nazis are still on Facebook. And they’re making money

Members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) and other white nationalists rally at Greenville Street Park in Newnan, Georgia. (File/AFP)
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Updated 26 September 2021

Neo-Nazis are still on Facebook. And they’re making money

  • By carefully toeing the line of propriety, these key architects of Germany’s far-right use the power of mainstream social media to promote festivals, fashion brands, music labels and mixed martial arts tournaments that can generate millions in sales
  • Dozens of far-right groups that continue to leverage mainstream social media for profit, despite Facebook’s and other platforms’ repeated pledges to purge themselves of extremism

BRUSSELS: It’s the premier martial arts group in Europe for right-wing extremists. German authorities have twice banned their signature tournament. But Kampf der Nibelungen, or Battle of the Nibelungs, still thrives on Facebook, where organizers maintain multiple pages, as well as on Instagram and YouTube, which they use to spread their ideology, draw in recruits and make money through ticket sales and branded merchandise.
The Battle of the Nibelungs — a reference to a classic heroic epic much loved by the Nazis — is one of dozens of far-right groups that continue to leverage mainstream social media for profit, despite Facebook’s and other platforms’ repeated pledges to purge themselves of extremism.
All told, there are at least 54 Facebook profiles belonging to 39 entities that the German government and civil society groups have flagged as extremist, according to research shared with The Associated Press by the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit policy and advocacy group formed to combat extremism. The groups have nearly 268,000 subscribers and friends on Facebook alone.
CEP also found 39 related Instagram profiles, 16 Twitter profiles and 34 YouTube channels, which have gotten over 9.5 million views. Nearly 60 percent of the profiles were explicitly aimed at making money, displaying prominent links to online shops or photos promoting merchandise.
Click on the big blue “view shop” button on the Erik & Sons Facebook page and you can buy a T-shirt that says, “My favorite color is white,” for 20 euros ($23). Deutsches Warenhaus offers “Refugees not welcome” stickers for just 2.50 euros ($3) and Aryan Brotherhood tube scarves with skull faces for 5.88 euros ($7). The Facebook feed of OPOS Records promotes new music and merchandise, including “True Aggression,” “Pride & Dignity,” and “One Family” T-shirts. The brand, which stands for “One People One Struggle,” also links to its online shop from Twitter and Instagram.
The people and organizations in CEP’s dataset are a who’s who of Germany’s far-right music and combat sports scenes. “They are the ones who build the infrastructure where people meet, make money, enjoy music and recruit,” said Alexander Ritzmann, the lead researcher on the project. “It’s most likely not the guys I’ve highlighted who will commit violent crimes. They’re too smart. They build the narratives and foster the activities of this milieu where violence then appears.”
CEP said it focused on groups that want to overthrow liberal democratic institutions and norms such as freedom of the press, protection of minorities and universal human dignity, and believe that the white race is under siege and needs to be preserved, with violence if necessary. None has been banned, but almost all have been described in German intelligence reports as extremist, CEP said.
On Facebook the groups seem harmless. They avoid blatant violations of platform rules, such as using hate speech or posting swastikas, which is generally illegal in Germany.
By carefully toeing the line of propriety, these key architects of Germany’s far-right use the power of mainstream social media to promote festivals, fashion brands, music labels and mixed martial arts tournaments that can generate millions in sales and connect like-minded thinkers from around the world.
But simply cutting off such groups could have unintended, damaging consequences.
“We don’t want to head down a path where we are telling sites they should remove people based on who they are but not what they do on the site,” said David Greene, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Giving platforms wide latitude to sanction organizations deemed undesirable could give repressive governments leverage to eliminate their critics. “That can have really serious human rights concerns,” he said. “The history of content moderation has shown us that it’s almost always to the disadvantage of marginalized and powerless people.”
German authorities banned the Battle of the Nibelungs event in 2019, on the grounds that it was not actually about sports, but instead was grooming fighters with combat skills for political struggle.
In 2020, as the coronavirus raged, organizers planned to stream the event online — using Instagram, among other places, to promote the webcast. A few weeks before the planned event, however, over a hundred black-clad police in balaclavas broke up a gathering at a motorcycle club in Magdeburg, where fights were being filmed for the broadcast, and hauled off the boxing ring, according to local media reports.
The Battle of the Nibelungs is a “central point of contact” for right-wing extremists, according to German government intelligence reports. The organization has been explicit about its political goals — namely to fight against the “rotting” liberal democratic order — and has drawn adherents from across Europe as well as the United States.
Members of a California white supremacist street fighting club called the Rise Above Movement, and its founder, Robert Rundo, have attended the Nibelungs tournament. In 2018 at least four Rise Above members were arrested on rioting charges for taking their combat training to the streets at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A number of Battle of Nibelungs alums have landed in prison, including for manslaughter, assault and attacks on migrants.
National Socialism Today, which describes itself as a “magazine by nationalists for nationalists” has praised Battle of the Nibelungs and other groups for fostering a will to fight and motivating “activists to improve their readiness for combat.”
But there are no references to professionalized, anti-government violence on the group’s social media feeds. Instead, it’s positioned as a health-conscious lifestyle brand, which sells branded tea mugs and shoulder bags.
“Exploring nature. Enjoying home!” gushes one Facebook post above a photo of a musclebound guy on a mountaintop wearing Resistend-branded sportswear, one of the Nibelung tournament’s sponsors. All the men in the photos are pumped and white, and they are portrayed enjoying wholesome activities such as long runs and alpine treks.
Elsewhere on Facebook, Thorsten Heise – who has been convicted of incitement to hatred and called “one of the most prominent German neo-Nazis” by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the German state of Thuringia — also maintains multiple pages.
Frank Kraemer, who the German government has described as a “right-wing extremist musician,” uses his Facebook page to direct people to his blog and his Sonnenkreuz online store, which sells white nationalist and coronavirus conspiracy books as well as sports nutrition products and “vaccine rebel” T-shirts for girls.
Battle of the Nibelungs declined to comment. Resistend, Heise and Kraemer didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Facebook told AP it employs 350 people whose primary job is to counter terrorism and organized hate, and that it is investigating the pages and accounts flagged in this reporting.
“We ban organizations and individuals that proclaim a violent mission, or are engaged in violence,” said a company spokesperson, who added that Facebook had banned more than 250 white supremacist organizations, including groups and individuals in Germany. The spokesperson said the company had removed over 6 million pieces of content tied to organized hate globally between April and June and is working to move even faster.
Google said it has no interest in giving visibility to hateful content on YouTube and was looking into the accounts identified in this reporting. The company said it worked with dozens of experts to update its policies on supremacist content in 2019, resulting in a five-fold spike in the number of channels and videos removed.
Twitter says it’s committed to ensuring that public conversation is “safe and healthy” on its platform and that it doesn’t tolerate violent extremist groups. “Threatening or promoting violent extremism is against our rules,” a spokesperson told AP, but did not comment on the specific accounts flagged in this reporting.
Robert Claus, who wrote a book on the extreme right martial arts scene, said that the sports brands in CEP’s data set are “all rooted in the militant far-right neo-Nazi scene in Germany and Europe.” One of the founders of the Battle of the Nibelungs, for example, is part of the violent Hammerskin network and another early supporter, the Russian neo-Nazi Denis Kapustin, also known as Denis Nikitin, has been barred from entering the European Union for ten years, he said.
Banning such groups from Facebook and other major platforms would potentially limit their access to new audiences, but it could also drive them deeper underground, making it more difficult to monitor their activities, he said.
“It’s dangerous because they can recruit people,” he said. “Prohibiting those accounts would interrupt their contact with their audience, but the key figures and their ideology won’t be gone.”
Thorsten Hindrichs, an expert in Germany’s far-right music scene who teaches at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, said there’s a danger that the apparently harmless appearance of Germany’s right-wing music heavyweights on Facebook and Twitter, which they mostly use to promote their brands, could help normalize the image of extremists.
Extreme right concerts in Germany were drawing around 2 million euros ($2.3 million) a year in revenue before the coronavirus pandemic, he estimated, not counting sales of CDs and branded merchandise. He said kicking extremist music groups off Facebook is unlikely to hit sales too hard, as there are other platforms they can turn to, like Telegram and Gab, to reach their followers. “Right-wing extremists aren’t stupid. They will always find ways to promote their stuff,” he said.
None of these groups’ activity on mainstream platforms is obviously illegal, though it may violate Facebook guidelines that bar “dangerous individuals and organizations” that advocate or engage in violence online or offline. Facebook says it doesn’t allow praise or support of Nazism, white supremacy, white nationalism or white separatism and bars people and groups that adhere to such “hate ideologies.”
Last week, Facebook  removed almost 150 accounts and pages linked to the German anti-lockdown Querdenken movement, under a new “social harm” policy, which targets groups that spread misinformation or incite violence but didn’t fit into the platform’s existing categories of bad actors.
But how these evolving rules will be applied remains murky and contested.
“If you do something wrong on the platform, it’s easier for a platform to justify an account suspension than to just throw someone out because of their ideology. That would be more difficult with respect to human rights,” said Daniel Holznagel, a Berlin judge who used to work for the German federal government on hate speech issues and also  contributed to CEP’s report. “It’s a foundation of our Western society and human rights that our legal regimes do not sanction an idea, an ideology, a thought.”
In the meantime, there’s news from the folks at the Battle of the Nibelungs. “Starting today you can also dress your smallest ones with us,” reads a June post on their Facebook feed. The new line of kids wear includes a shell-pink T-shirt for girls, priced at 13.90 euros ($16). A child pictured wearing the boy version, in black, already has boxing gloves on.


Facebook’s oversight board seeks details on VIPs’ treatment

Facebook is generally not bound under the oversight board’s rules to follow its recommendations. (File/AFP)
Updated 22 October 2021

Facebook’s oversight board seeks details on VIPs’ treatment

  • Facebook's oversight board says the company has failed to fully disclose information on its VIP exemption rules
  • “XCheck,” or cross-check, is an internal system that exempts high-profile users from some or all of Facebook's content rules

WASHINGTON: Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says the company has failed to fully disclose information on its internal system that exempts high-profile users from some or all of its content rules.
Facebook “has not been fully forthcoming” with the overseers about its “XCheck,” or cross-check, system the board said in a report Thursday. It also said it will review the system and recommend how the social network giant could change it.
The board started looking into the XCheck system last month after The Wall Street Journal reported that many VIP users abuse it, posting material that would cause ordinary users to be sanctioned — including for harassment and incitement of violence. For certain elite users, Facebook’s rules don’t seem to apply, according to the Journal article.
Facebook is generally not bound under the oversight board’s rules to follow its recommendations.
“We believe the board’s work has been impactful, which is why we asked the board for input into our cross-check system, and we will strive to be clearer in our explanations to them going forward,” Facebook said in a statement Thursday.
The report said Facebook wrongly failed to mention the XCheck system when it asked the board earlier this year to rule on its ban on former President Donald Trump’s accounts following the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
“Facebook only mentioned cross-check to the board when we asked whether Mr. Trump’s page or account had been subject to ordinary content-moderation processes,” the report said.
In May, the board upheld Facebook’s suspension of Trump’s accounts, which came out of concern that he incited violence leading to the Jan. 6 riot. But the overseers told Facebook to specify how long the suspension would last. Facebook later announced that Trump’s accounts would be suspended for two years, freezing his presence on the social network until early 2023, to be followed by a reassessment.
The board said Thursday that for its review, Facebook agreed to provide the internal company documents on the XCheck system that were referenced in the Journal article. Facebook documents were leaked to the newspaper by Frances Haugen, a former product manager in the company’s civic integrity unit who also provided them to Congress and went public this month with a far-reaching condemnation of the company.
Haugen’s accusations of possible serious harm to some young people from Facebook’s Instagram photo-sharing platform raised outrage among lawmakers and the public.
The board said in its report that in some cases, “Facebook failed to provide relevant information to the board, while in other instances, the information it did provide was incomplete.”
In a briefing to the board, “Facebook admitted it should not have said that (XCheck) only applied to a ‘small number of decisions,’” the report said. “Facebook noted that for teams operating at the scale of millions of content decisions a day, the numbers involved ... seem relatively small, but recognized its phrasing could come across as misleading.”


Senator asks Facebook CEO to testify on Instagram and kids

Updated 22 October 2021

Senator asks Facebook CEO to testify on Instagram and kids

  • US senator asks Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify on Instagram’s effects on children
  • The Federal Trade Commission has also filed a major antitrust lawsuit against Facebook

WASHINGTON: The senator leading a probe of Facebook’s Instagram and its impact on young people is asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the panel that has heard far-reaching criticisms from a former employee of the company.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who heads the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, called in a sharply worded letter Wednesday for the Facebook founder to testify on Instagram’s effects on children.
“Parents across America are deeply disturbed by ongoing reports that Facebook knows that Instagram can cause destructive and lasting harms to many teens and children, especially to their mental health and wellbeing,” Blumenthal said in the letter addressed to Zuckerberg. “Those parents, and the twenty million teens that use your app, have a right to know the truth about the safety of Instagram.”
In the wake of former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen’s testimony early this month, Blumenthal told Zuckerberg, “Facebook representatives, including yourself, have doubled down on evasive answers, keeping hidden several reports on teen health, offering noncommittal and vague plans for action at an unspecified time down the road, and even turning to personal attacks on Ms. Haugen.”
Blumenthal did offer, however, that either Zuckerberg or the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, could appear before his committee.
“It is urgent and necessary for you or Mr. Adam Mosseri to testify to set the record straight and provide members of Congress and parents with a plan on how you are going to protect our kids,” he told Zuckerberg.
A spokesman for Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, confirmed receipt of Blumenthal’s letter but declined any comment.
As public discomfort and scrutiny of the social network giant has grown in recent weeks, the focus has homed in on Zuckerberg, who controls more than 50 percent of Facebook’s voting shares.
Haugen, who buttressed her statements with tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit, accused Facebook of prioritizing profit over safety and being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation.
“In the end, the buck stops with Mark,” Haugen said in her testimony. “There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
On Tuesday, the attorney general of the District of Columbia added Zuckerberg as a defendant in a 2018 lawsuit he filed against Facebook on the privacy of users’ personal data. The action by Attorney General Karl Racine seeks to hold Zuckerberg personally liable in addition to Facebook in the case involving data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which gathered details on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.
The Facebook users’ data is alleged to have been used to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.
“These allegations are as meritless today as they were more than three years ago, when the District filed its complaint. We will continue to defend ourselves vigorously and focus on the facts,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said.
Racine’s office said it was the first time a US regulator specifically named Zuckerberg in a legal action. He and the company could face millions of dollars in penalties if violations of law were found.
The Federal Trade Commission has filed a major antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, and various state attorneys general also have taken legal action against the company.
“Based on the evidence we gathered in this case over the past two years ... it’s clear Mr. Zuckerberg knowingly and actively participated in each decision that led to Cambridge Analytica’s mass collection of Facebook user data, and Facebook’s misrepresentations to users about how secure their data was,” Racine said in a statement. “The evidence further demonstrates that Mr. Zuckerberg also participated in misleading the public and government officials about Facebook’s role.”


Changing Facebook’s name will not deter lawmaker or regulatory scrutiny, experts say

Facebook will continue to confront the same pressures even after a rebrand, the experts said. (File/AFP)
Updated 21 October 2021

Changing Facebook’s name will not deter lawmaker or regulatory scrutiny, experts say

  • Changing Facebook's name is unlikely to enable the tech giant to distance itself from public scrutiny
  • This comes after a whistleblower leaked thousands of internal documents that showed it contributed to increased polarization online

Renaming Facebook Inc. is unlikely to enable the tech giant to distance itself from regulatory and public scrutiny around the potential harms caused by its social media apps, marketing and branding experts told Reuters.
Tech publication The Verge reported on Tuesday that the California-based firm is planning to change to reflect that as well as owning the social media platform that made it a global household name, it also now includes other thriving businesses like Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus.
The company declined to comment regarding the report on the possible rebranding. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
Facebook is battling intense scrutiny after a whistleblower leaked thousands of internal documents that showed it contributed to increased polarization online when it made changes to its content algorithm, failed to take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy, and was aware that popular social media app Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls.
The US Senate held a hearing earlier this month into the effect of Instagram on young users.
“Legislators and politicians are sufficiently smart to not be fooled by a rebranding,” said James Cordwell, an Internet analyst at Atlantic Equities.
Renaming can be an effective strategy to allow subsidiary brands to maintain their own reputations, said Marisa Mulvihill, head of brand and activation at Prophet, a branding and marketing consultancy. But the media and regulators “are not going to stop investigating or creating reforms just because you rebranded,” she added.
The new parent company name could reflect Facebook’s focus on building the ‘metaverse,’ The Verge reported, referring to a proposed digital world where people can use different devices to move and communicate in a virtual environment.
It could also prevent a possible negative perception around the Facebook name from affecting WhatsApp, the messaging app used by nearly 2 billion people globally, and Oculus, its virtual reality brand, experts said.
According to Prophet’s annual ranking, Facebook’s brand relevance to US consumers has dropped “precipitously” over the past several years, Mulvihill said.
“What you don’t want is for that to proliferate and have a negative halo effect on other parts of your business,” said Deborah Stafford-Watson, head of strategy at brand consultancy firm Elmwood.
Other major companies have taken similar steps. Google reorganized under a holding company called Alphabet in 2015, as the company best known for Internet searches increasingly pursued ambitions like autonomous driving technology.
In 2003, cigarette seller Philip Morris rebranded itself as Altria, at a time when the company owned Kraft Foods. It later spun off the food division.
While the move to rebrand as Altria didn’t remove the negative connotations of tobacco from the cigarette brands itself, it did help to limit the effects on Kraft, Mulvihill said.
Facebook will continue to confront the same pressures even after a rebrand, the experts said.
“I don’t think it’s going to help Facebook mitigate regulators’ scrutiny or the general public’s skepticism, if not distrust,” said Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram, a design studio that does advertising and communication work. “Trust is something you need to earn.”


Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest

Updated 21 October 2021

Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest

  • One foreign journalist was struck with the butt of a rifle by one Taliban fighter
  • Afghans have staged street protests across the country since the Taliban returned to power

KABUL: The Taliban struck several journalists to prevent media coverage of a women’s rights protest in Kabul on Thursday.
A group of about 20 women marched from near the ministry of education to the ministry of finance in the Afghan capital.
Wearing colorful headscarves they chanted slogans including: “Don’t politicize education,” as traffic drove by shortly before 10 am.
The women held placards saying: “We don’t have the rights to study and work,” and” “Joblessness, poverty, hunger,” as they walked with their arms in the air.
The Taliban authorities allowed the women to walk freely for around an hour and a half, AFP journalists saw.
However, one foreign journalist was struck with the butt of a rifle by one Taliban fighter, who swore and kicked the photographer in the back as another punched him.
At least two more journalists were hit as they scattered, pursued by Taliban fighters swinging fists and launching kicks.
Zahra Mohammadi, one of the protest organizers, said the women were marching despite the risks they face.
“The situation is that the Taliban don’t respect anything: not journalists — foreign and local — or women,” she said.
“The schools must reopen to girls. But the Taliban took this right from us.”
High school girls have been blocked from returning to classes for more than a month, while many women have been banned from returning to work since the Taliban seized power in mid-August.
“My message to all girls and women is this: ‘Don’t be afraid of the Taliban, even if your family doesn’t allow you to leave your home. Don’t be afraid. Go out, make sacrifices, fight for your rights’,” Mohammadi said.
“We have to make this sacrifice so that the next generation will be in peace.”
Children walked alongside the protest in downtown Kabul, although it was unclear if they were part of the organized group.
Some Taliban fighters policing the march wore full camouflaged combat gear, including body armor, helmets and knee pads, while others were wearing traditional Afghan clothing.
Their weapons included US-made M16 assault rifles and AK-47s.
Unthinkable under the hard-line Islamist group’s last rule in the 1990s, Afghans have staged street protests across the country since the Taliban returned to power, sometimes with several hundred people and many with women at forefront.
But a ban on unauthorized demonstrations has meant protests against Afghanistan’s new masters have dwindled.


Trump announces plans to launch new social network ‘TRUTH Social’

Updated 21 October 2021

Trump announces plans to launch new social network ‘TRUTH Social’

WASHINGTON: Former US president Donald Trump announced plans Wednesday to launch his own social networking platform called “TRUTH Social,” which is expected to begin its beta launch for “invited guests” next month.
The long-awaited platform will be owned by Trump Media & Technology Group (TMTG), which also intends to launch a subscription video on-demand service that will feature “non-woke” entertainment programming, the group said in a statement.
“I created TRUTH Social and TMTG to stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech,” Trump, who was banned from Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the Capitol insurrection carried out by his supporters on January 6 this year, was quoted as saying in the statement.
“We live in a world where the Taliban has a huge presence on Twitter, yet your favorite American President has been silenced. This is unacceptable,” he continued.
The Trump Media & Technology Group will merge with blank check company Digital Acquisition Corp. to make TMTG a publicly-listed company, the statement said.
“The transaction values Trump Media & Technology Group at an initial enterprise value of $875 Million, with a potential additional earnout of $825 Million in additional shares (at the valuation they are granted) for a cumulative valuation of up to $1.7 Billion depending on the performance of the stock price post-business combination,” it stated.
Ever since he was banned from the world’s dominant social networks as punishment for stirring up the mob that ransacked Congress on January 6, Trump has been looking for ways to reclaim his Internet platform.
In May he launched a blog called “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” which was touted as a a major new outlet.
But Trump, who was also banned from Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat in the wake of the Capitol mayhem, canceled the blog just a month later.
Former Trump aide Jason Miller launched a social network called Gettr earlier this year, but the former president has not yet joined it.