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)
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

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


Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage
Updated 16 October 2021

Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage
  • An Iranian-government aligned group has tried to steal personal information and passwords of notable individuals across Europe and the US through 2021
  • Iran set to continue on the same cyber-espionage path despite the exposure of their tactics, expert tells Arab News

Tech giant Google has exposed how Iranian-backed groups attempt to use its platforms to carry out espionage on behalf of the government in Tehran.

In a blog post released on Thursday, Google’s Threat Analysis Group exposed the work of APT35, a shady hacking group that Google said is linked to the Iranian government.

Ajax Bash, of TAG, said: “This is the one of the groups we disrupted during the 2020 US election cycle for its targeting of campaign staffers. For years, this group has hijacked accounts, deployed malware, and used novel techniques to conduct espionage aligned with the interests of the Iranian government.”

APT35 “regularly conducts phishing campaigns targeting high risk users,” Bash said.

In one instance, he said, Iranian hackers targeted lecturers from a British university — the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London — and impersonated them in an attempt to trick others in the academic community into divulging their personal information and passwords. This form of cyber espionage is called credential phishing.

“APT35 has relied on this technique since 2017 — targeting high-value accounts in government, academia, journalism, NGOs, foreign policy, and national security,” said Bash.

“Credential phishing through a compromised website demonstrates these attackers will go to great lengths to appear legitimate — as they know it’s difficult for users to detect this kind of attack.

“One of the most notable characteristics of APT35 is their impersonation of conference officials to conduct phishing attacks,” said Bash. He explained that Iranian-backed operatives impersonated officials from the Munich Security Conference and an Italian think-tank to steal passwords and information.

Amin Sabeti, the founder of Digital Impact Lab and an Iran-focused cyber security professional, told Arab News that Google’s blog exposes how Iran continues to build on its national cyber security strategy.

“This report shows again that Iranian state-backed hackers are very good in social engineering and they have improved their technique,” he said.

“For example, using a legitimate website to convince the target to enter the credential details of their online account is something new that we didn’t see a few years ago.”

Sabeti also said that, despite Google unmasking Iran’s cyber-espionage activity, it is unlikely that they will change their strategy entirely.

“I think we will see the same techniques but with new ideas.”

Google’s Bash said: “We warn users when we suspect a government-backed threat like APT35 is targeting them. Thousands of these warnings are sent every month, even in cases where the corresponding attack is blocked.  

“Threat Analysis Group will continue to identify bad actors and share relevant information with others in the industry, with the goal of bringing awareness to these issues, protecting you and fighting bad actors to prevent future attacks.”

Decoder

Credential phishing

It is a form of cyber attack in which hackers impersonate a reputable entity or person to steal user ID or email addresses and password combinations, then use the victim's credentials to carry out attacks on other targets.


Goal of new UAE-based creative agency to prove role, value of empathy to balance humanism with capitalism: Mimi Nicklin

The goal of FREEDM is to prove the role and value of empathy to balance humanism with capitalism, says Mimi Nicklin. (Supplied)
The goal of FREEDM is to prove the role and value of empathy to balance humanism with capitalism, says Mimi Nicklin. (Supplied)
Updated 15 October 2021

Goal of new UAE-based creative agency to prove role, value of empathy to balance humanism with capitalism: Mimi Nicklin

The goal of FREEDM is to prove the role and value of empathy to balance humanism with capitalism, says Mimi Nicklin. (Supplied)
  • Virtual, hybrid agency FREEDM aims to bring togetherness to advertising world

DUBAI: FREEDM is a new UAE-based creative agency that was launched last month. Headquartered in Dubai, the majority of its team is spread throughout the world in countries including the US, Singapore, India, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Backed by investors Sean McCauley and Richard Aybar of The Devmark Group, who are founding board members, FREEDM is led by Mimi Nicklin, who has worked in the advertising industry for 15 years and is the author of “Softening the Edge,” which explains why empathy is critical to turning around businesses.

Nicklin told Arab News: “When I arrived in the Middle East three-and-a-half years ago, I took over a business that needed a substantial amount of turnaround and I decided to do that with empathy at the core.

“It worked against all sorts of criticism, and we turned around to be a phenomenal small business — with empathy at the heart.”

She pointed out that empathy levels had been declining for three decades, a situation that has had far-reaching consequences, such as mental health issues.

“We have over 300 million people with depression, which is one of the heaviest costs on our healthcare services worldwide today; and anxiety issues are almost out of control — even the World Health Organization has recognized burnout as an official workplace-related illness,” she said.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has made many mental health issues worse inspiring Nicklin to combine the learnings of the global health crisis, her past work experiences, and research on empathy, to create a new kind of agency.

“If we don’t take the learnings of the trauma that hit our world, then we’re just going backward and I don’t understand why the business world seems to want to revert to 2019 with such ease,” she added.

On how to translate empathy to the workplace in the fast-paced agency world, she said: “It translates to elevating our people in order to balance people and profit rather than sacrificing our people in order to drive profit.”

Nicklin noted that advertising agencies have been under increasing pressure in the last two decades as client demands have increased and team sizes shrunk.

“We are an industry that doesn’t sell product, we sell creativity. And creative people need space and time that procurement can’t put a price on. As creative talent is being deprioritized, creative effectiveness is suffering.”

Today, creative businesses contribute to 3 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, employ 30 million people globally, and are the biggest job providers for workers aged 18 to 25, according to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

“That basically makes us the industry of tomorrow, and my belief is that the industry of tomorrow cannot function as it did yesterday,” said Nicklin.

FREEDM’s vision is to create an environment free of biases and restrictions that allows creativity to flourish. That includes recruiting talent from all walks of life regardless of age, gender, or economic background.

“We are not a particularly strong industry when it comes to diversity and inclusion. And this business is set to change that by being founded in a very different way,” she added.

For clients, it does not only mean access to exceptional work that addresses their marketing goals, but also being able to fulfill social and personal goals by “directly impacting human beings by creating freedom for them,” she said.

“I believe that we are all people before we are employees, leaders, or executives. And I think the last two years, particularly, have created a shift in society where we are all more aware of our collective role in improving and sustaining the world around us.”

The results speak for themselves with the agency receiving a phenomenal response within one month of its launch and winning new clients every day for at least an entire week. As of September, the agency already had nine clients with more in the pipeline.

From the outset, FREEDM has aligned its business with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and UNESCO’s International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development.

UNESCO believes that the creative economy needs to accommodate creators, through careers in the creative industry that are “viable, and characterized by dignified working conditions, decent pay, and growth opportunities.” In order to fulfill this goal, it has called on policymakers and global leaders to conduct an exhaustive policy review that includes employment, intellectual property, and education.

“That means we have to reformat our entire business and our industry. So, it’s an incredibly big challenge, but at the same time, I believe you can’t create change without discomfort,” Nicklin added.


Rights watchdog presses Houthis to release abducted journalist

Rights watchdog presses Houthis to release abducted journalist
Updated 15 October 2021

Rights watchdog presses Houthis to release abducted journalist

Rights watchdog presses Houthis to release abducted journalist
  • Youness Abdelsalam suffers from health issues, says CPJ

LONDON: The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged the Houthis to free a journalist they abducted in August and to end their “campaign against journalists.”

Youness Abdelsalam was seized in Sanaa and the CPJ said it feared he could be executed for his reporting.

His family said he had not been formally charged with a crime.

Abdelsalam, who worked for local papers, criticized the Houthis and also the Yemeni government.

“The Houthis must release Youness Abdelsalam immediately and stop abducting journalists,” said the CPJ’s senior Middle East and North Africa researcher Justin Shilad. “The Houthis’ campaign against journalists knows no bounds, and now more than ever the international community needs to take action.”

The CPJ said Abdelsalam suffered from health issues and that his family had only been able to visit him once since his arrest.

He is being held with at least four other journalists, all of whom face the death sentence, the CPJ said, adding that the Iran-backed militia had “assaulted, imprisoned, and forced out journalists from areas under the group’s control over the last several years.”

Imprisoned journalists experienced torture, isolation, and the deprivation of critical healthcare services while in detention, their familes warned.

They said the brother of Abdulkader Al-Murtada, who is the head of the Houthi prisoner affairs committee, tortured the journalists himself or incited other captors to mistreat them. They also said they had been forced to bribe Houthis to deliver life-saving injections to one diabetic journalist.

“We bribe the Houthis to allow us to send him an injection every 20 days. We do not know if he received them or not,” a family member said.

The Houthis have committed human rights and other abuses since they took power from the internationally recognized Yemeni government in 2014. 

Since then, and with the assistance of Iranian weapons and training, they have executed a bloody campaign in order to control the whole country. 


Disgraced BBC religion editor asked Pakistani PM if he was ‘ashamed’ to be Muslim after 9/11

Disgraced BBC religion editor asked Pakistani PM if he was ‘ashamed’ to be Muslim after 9/11
Updated 15 October 2021

Disgraced BBC religion editor asked Pakistani PM if he was ‘ashamed’ to be Muslim after 9/11

Disgraced BBC religion editor asked Pakistani PM if he was ‘ashamed’ to be Muslim after 9/11
  • Journalist criticized for “deceitful” treatment of Diana, Princess of Wales
  • Politician said question was part of West's “rising Islamophobia”

LONDON: The BBC’s former religion editor Martin Bashir asked Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan if he was “ashamed of being a Muslim” after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Khan revealed in his autobiography that he was “shocked” by Bashir’s line of questioning when he was contacted after the tragedy.

“After 9/11, I will never forget he (Bashir) rang me up and he said: ‘Aren’t you ashamed of being a Muslim,’” said Khan, who was interviewed by the journalist in Pakistan.

“‘As a Muslim, aren’t you embarrassed by the attacks?’ was his immediate question. I was shocked,” Khan wrote.

“Implying all the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims should feel responsible for an act of a handful of criminals is like asking a Christian to feel responsible for Hitler or Stalin’s atrocities, or asking a Catholic if they support the IRA blowing up children at Omagh. I expected a backlash after 9/11, but had not anticipated its ferocity,” he added.

It was part of the “rising Islamophobia” in the West that falsely portrayed all Muslims as “baddies,” said Khan, who was elected as Pakistan’s leader in 2018.

He said the phone call with Bashir, who then worked for ITN, was an example of how some in the West used the Sep. 11 attacks to put “all Muslims on trial” and merely “alienated many normal Muslims.”

Bashir, Khan concluded, was “not the best of journalists.”

The journalist, who retired from the profession in May this year citing health reasons, has also been the subject of significant scrutiny for his reporting methods in other cases, most prominently with his treatment of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper revealed last year that Bashir had used forgery and deception to trick her into giving him an interview in 1995 that some blamed on her eventual split from Prince Charles. She died in 1997 in a car crash.

Following an inquiry, the BBC found that Bashir had used “deceitful” methods to secure an interview with her and that a “woefully ineffective” internal investigation had covered his tracks.

Khan and Diana were friends and she visited Pakistan numerous times. He attended her funeral alongside Hasnat Khan, her former boyfriend and a distant relative of the cricket star.


Abu Dhabi Media to create Arabic versions of popular reality game shows

Abu Dhabi Media to create Arabic versions of popular reality game shows
Updated 15 October 2021

Abu Dhabi Media to create Arabic versions of popular reality game shows

Abu Dhabi Media to create Arabic versions of popular reality game shows
  • Dori Media Group’s unscripted formats “The Selfie Challenge” and “Win the Crowd” expected to be popular with younger audiences

DUBAI: Dori Media Group has signed an agreement with Abu Dhabi Media to create Arabic versions of two unscripted shows, “The Selfie Challenge” and “Win the Crowd”. Both show formats were originally created by Israeli content house Studio Glam.

Abu Dhabi Media has ordered 15 episodes of each format, which will be adapted for its flagship channel, Abu Dhabi TV, and the ADtv app.

“The Selfie Challenge” is a modern reality game show filmed that draws inspiration from the selfie phenomenon. Two groups of three friends must quickly replicate selfies they receive. The competition has five rounds, which become progressively tougher and more daring.

“Win the Crowd” is a talent competition series where the street is the stage and the public is the audience. There are no votes and no judges—contestants simply have to win the crowd. Artists from a variety of art forms are invited to perform on a busy street corner, covered with hidden cameras. Each performer has seven minutes to attract as many viewers as possible. For every person that stops to watch, they score one point. The performer who has the largest crowd will win a cash prize.

“We are confident these two unique formats by Studio Glam will be successful, especially among young adult audiences. We are very excited about this new relationship and we look forward to introducing more content to the UAE market in the near future,” said Haitham Al-Kathiri, Acting Executive Director of TV at Abu Dhabi Media.

The step is in line with the media group’s “international ambitions in the region” and reinforces Abu Dhabi TV network’s strategy to “expand its partner pool and target a wide base of regional and international audiences through the provision of unique and compelling content that is entertaining, informative and engaging,” he said.

“We are delighted to be collaborating once again with Dori Media Group (DMG) on two of our innovative formats. It has been said that television speaks the universal language. These two shows are an excellent example of that, and networks from around the world will find the shows very flexible and easily replicable,” said Ilan V. Glam, CEO & Head of Business Development of Studio Glam.

The Arabic version of “The Selfie Challenge” is slated to air at the end of this year and will be produced by Highways Arabia, while “Win the Crowd” will air at the start of 2022, with the production company soon to be announced.