Thomas Haldenwang, president of the German intelligence service “Verfassungsschutz”, claimed that “the Internet channel RT Deutsch and the news agency Sputnik advertised so-called Hygienedemos and exaggerated them afterwards“. Our research doesn’t prove Haldenwang right but it’s possible that the Verfassungsschutz uses different sources which is why we assess the claim as uncheckable.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (German: Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz/BfV) is the domestic intelligence service of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is meant to protect the internal security of the country. The agency’s president, Thomas Haldenwang, released a statement for the presentation of the Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution on July 9th, 2020. Below you can see the translation of Haldenwang’s complete statement regarding Russia’s efforts to influence the public opinion in Germany:
“In addition to its espionage interests, Russia strives to influence the political and public opinion in Germany in favour of Russian politics. Russian authorities also try to do this through non-intelligence structures: For example, we recently observed that the Internet channel RT Deutsch and the news agency Sputnik advertised so-called Hygienedemos and exaggerated them afterwards.“
What is a „Hygienedemo“?
„Hygienedemo“ is a term for protests relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. “They are a collection of conspiracy ideologists, critics of preventive measures, right-wing extremists and “alternatives”. Many participants attend their first demo and have never been involved in politics before. The corona measures are the first time they feel that political decisions restrict their freedom“, says Miro Dittrich from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a non-governmental organization to strengthen democratic civic society.
According to Thomas Kliche, political psychologist at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences, it is obvious that some of the participants downplay the danger of the virus or even deny its existence. “One group denies it and another sees it as a bioweapon used for ethnic replacement. Contradictions do not play a role here. The virus is compared to the Flu, the media coverage is depicted as a hoax in order to patronize the people and a compulsary vaccination is painted as the devil on the wall.“
Russian news agencies operate in different countries
Russian news agencies and networks like Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today) operate in several countries like Germany, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. RT owns regional sister channels like “RT America“, “RT France“, “RT UK“ and “RT Deutsch“.
In his statement Haldenwang doesn’t clarify how RT Deutsch and Sputnik have advertised Hygienedemos and where they did it. Although the Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution mentions both RT Deutsch and Sputnik in the paragraph below, there is no concrete evidence given for the claims about the advertisement of Covid-19 demonstrations:
“Russian agencies use propaganda and exert influence with a view to shaping the opinion of and spreading misinformation among a range of target groups. The most important role in this is played by the Internet channel RT Deutsch, the Sputnik news agency, social networks and state or private institutes (“think tanks”). In comparison with previous years, these activities have decreased somewhat in relation to Germany“.
A lack of transparency
During the press conference for the presentation a Sputnik reporter asks for an explanation from Haldenwang and Horst Seehofer, the Federal Minister of the Interior. The reporter also accuses the Verfassungsschutz of interfering with the freedom of the press and damaging Sputnik’s reputation. In reply, Haldenwang speaks of falsified information by Sputnik (for example exaggerated attendance figures at these demonstrations).
Upon our request, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution replied that it is only obliged and allowed to report to the Federal Government and that it is unable to release information about its methods and the way of working. Unfortunately, that means that we don’t know for sure how the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution came to the conclusion that Russian news services advertise so-called Hygienedemos, exaggerated them and made them seem more dramatic.
Exaggeration and dramatization?
Our own research has revealed that RT Deutsch repeatedly reported about Hygienedemos and other anti-government demonstrations regarding the pandemic on their YouTube channel. Sputnik also regularily covers Covid-19 demonstrations for example by broadcasting livestreams of the protests. On April 27th, 2020 RT Deutsch published a report about a so-called Hygienedemo in Berlin titled „Corona-Krise: Politiker gewinnen an Profil, kritische Meinungen werden untersagt“ (English: „Corona-crisis: Politicians gain in profile, critical opinions are prohibited“). The video description says: „What happened on Saturday, how politicians win ground and how critics of the government are intimidated is shown in the report of RT Deutsch editor Maria Janssen“. The video shows scenes from the demonstration, police actions and interviews with attendants. The images are partly underlayed by dramatic music (0.50-1.10, 1.40-2.15). The use of the music could be interpreted as unnecessary dramatization although it’s not unusual for TV channels and other media outlets to use certain music for certain scenes.
In general, most of the videos published by RT Deutsch about Covid-19 demonstrations broadcast scenes from demonstrations in places like Berlin, Munich or Madrid without the use of any effects, dramatization and exaggeration. It is impossible for us to check every single RT Deutsch and Sputnik video, livestream, article and tweet on Hygienedemos and compare the coverage with official numbers or other news sources. Apart from that, articles can be edited afterwards and estimations of attendance figures can vary.
A Sputnik writer has advertised a Hygienedemo
We have found no evidence that both RT Deutsch and Sputnik actually advertise Hygienedemos or protests against government policies in general but Sputnik provides a platform for people who promote these demonstrations. Uli Gellermann, a journalist, filmmaker and writer for Sputnik, runs a website where he undoubtably advertises a so-called Hygienedemo in Berlin and appeals to the public to attend the protest. It is important to note that Gellermann’s own views do not necessarely represent the views of Sputnik. Gellermann advertising a so-called Hygienedemo on his own website doesn’t mean that Thomas Haldenwang’s claim that Sputnik and RT Deutsch advertise these demonstrations is true.
Sputnik denies the allegations
Sputnik officials deny the allegations of the Verfassungsschutz strenously: “If media coverage alone is classified as advertisement for something and enough to be mentioned in the Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution, then every media that covers it should be mentioned there. There is not a single case in which we have called for participation in these Hygienedemos or reported about them in a way that could be interpreted as encouragement to join them“, says Andreas Peter, managing editor of Sputniknews Deutschland, in a statement published on Sputnik’s website. Peter also addresses Haldenwang’s accusation about the exaggerated attendance figures: “Whenever we reported numbers from a demonstration, we used the numbers given by the police spokesmen who we questioned at those events. We were attacked for our coverage of the first demonstration at the Alexanderplatz because apparently the numbers we reported were too low.“
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution doesn’t reveal how Haldenwang came to the conclusion that “the Internet channel RT Deutsch and the news agency Sputnik have advertised so-called Hygienedemos and exaggerated them afterwards“. Sputnik writer Uli Gellermann represents neither Sputnik nor RT Deutsch, using music in visual reports is standard operating procedure in the media and spreading information about Hygienedemos with exaggerated attendance figures alone can’t be classified as advertisement and dramatization. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution might have additional sources and their research might have led to other results but unfortunately, it is not very transparent in its work and methods.
In short, there is no visible evidence that clearly proves that both Sputnik and RT Deutsch have advertised and exaggerated so-called Hygienedemos. Without the information from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution the claim is uncheckable.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Florian Düker
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