On Sept. 3, 2017, around 180,000 members of German far-right Facebook groups found something unusual when they logged on.
They were greeted by a video of a man dressed all in black, who described himself as the “Reichs Propaganda Minister” of a political party called simply, The PARTY (Die PARTEI). Over four minutes, he explained how the groups were being run by bots controlled by two people affiliated with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. “Do you understand? You’ve been fooled by robots—like in the Matrix,” said the man.
All was well, however. The man and his co-conspirators had infiltrated the 31 groups and were now taking them over and changing their ideologies. The group “Homeland Love” was thus renamed “Hummus Love”; “AfD friends” became “Die PARTEI friends.” (Die PARTEI is in fact a real, if satirical, German political party, founded in 2004.)
“This is a good message for you: from now on you will only be fooled by ‘real’ humans,” said the man. The groups were soon flooded with thousands of non-extremist members and defanged as talking shops for the far right.
Shahak Shapira (“don’t worry, it’s a name of old Prussian descent,” he quips in the video) is a 29-year-old Israeli-German comedian and artist. He and his co-conspirators had joined the groups 11 months before the takeover and actively began posting the sort of right-wing content you might expect on the pages.
“We didn’t post any serious hate, more like regular AfD positions,” Shapira said in a phone interview. “So we were just being nice, friendly, got along with people, and we sucked up to the admins so then they made us moderators.” The only instructions the groups’ administrators gave them was to delete any posts that were negative about the AfD, and any pictures of Hitler. (Nazi symbols are illegal in Germany.)
After months of monitoring the groups, he says it became clear that the profiles running them were bots. He alleges that two people—Benjamin Haupt, a low-ranking AfD official, and Anne Teska, a party member—would create fake profiles with Russian fitness models as their profile pictures (“I’m not sure why but they’re always Russian fitness models,” Shapira says, noting that it’s “at least ironic” given the allegations that Moscow has been hacking Western elections). Then they would start adding friends until they reach Facebook’s limit of 5,000 people.
“Once they have 5,000, they start creating groups—all kinds of groups. Then they start filling groups with content, fake content in all those groups,” he says. Once the group is up and running they hand over administration to a loyal member, since they know Facebook tries to delete fake accounts and groups run by them. For 31 of those groups, the “loyal” members became Shapira and his allies.
They kept the groups running for three weeks until the federal election on Sept. 24, in the hope of bringing useful dialogue to an otherwise closed Facebook world. There was a lot of dialogue, Shapira says, but not all that helpful: “It was kind of like what’s going on under every Trump tweet but a little bit more constructive.”
The AfD didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.
The 11 months spent trawling these groups meant living in the far-right’s online world. Shapira says most of the groups’ members were men aged between 45 and 55: “people who weren’t born with the internet.” “They probably started using it a few years ago, started a profile on Facebook, don’t know shit about Facebook, then maybe an old friend from school invites them into one of these groups,” he says.
Once you’re in one group, a fake profile adds you as a friend and invites you to more groups. After that, Facebook’s algorithm surrounds you with adverts, posts and other groups connected to the far right. “You get no chance of bursting that bubble,” Shapira says.
“All you see is fake news, propaganda, and hate speech,” he says. “It’s very fear-based… lots of fake news about how refugees are raping people all the time, how they’re striking down people. Lots of fake numbers and stories about how America is about to get 10 million new refugees to the country.” You get the impression that “Islamization is everywhere, even though only 5% of Germany’s population is Muslim. It’s making people really afraid of what’s coming.” (Germany’s Muslims made up about 5.4% to 5.7% of the population in 2016.)
The aftermath wasn’t pretty for Shapira. He received death threats, says someone tried to dox him (publish his private information), and he got an email from someone who had his parents’ and brother’s addresses. “These were old addresses but they weren’t anywhere on the internet. My mother was under police protection for two weeks,” he says.
Shapira isn’t new to online abuse. He hit the headlines this summer for spray-painting antisemitic slurs he’d been sent on Twitter in front of the tech giant’s German headquarters in Hamburg, protesting that he had sent official complaints about 300 of them but no action had been taken. After that piece, activists in Japan printed out hateful comments and spread them in front of Twitter’s Tokyo office. A few days before our interview, Twitter adopted a stricter policy on hate speech and speech that glorifies violence.
“When people threaten your mom that’s where it starts turning into a problem—on the other hand, I’m not gonna let people shut me up, especially not neo-Nazis, or racists or fascists,” Shapira says. “My mom’s also not a big fan of keeping quiet just because Nazis want us to. We’re not afraid.”
Shapira first gained international attention with his Yolocaust project in January 2017. Troubled by the trend of people taking selfies in front of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, he took 12 of the most egregious from Instagram and photoshopped actual images of the Holocaust onto the background. The resulting collages were horrifying and the site went viral. Within a few days, all 12 offenders had written to him (at email@example.com) apologizing and asking to be removed. Satisfied that he’d caused enough of a ruckus, Shapira took the photos down (you can still see them at other sites).
The comedian-cum-artist attributes his knack for attention-grabbing projects to his previous career. “Lots of techniques I’m using now I learned in advertising,” he says. “I’m just a little bit more sophisticated than most people [at understanding the internet] but not especially… I know how comedy works, because I worked with it in advertising. I know what people don’t want to see or hear.”
As for what’s next: Shapira has a stand-up tour in 2018 and is surreptitiously plotting his next big prank. “There’s an organization I have in mind which someone needs to piss on their back a little bit, but I’m not going to tell who they are because I want it to be a surprise,” he says. “It’s a very big, powerful organization, so it’s gonna be tough—so let’s see.”