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German Far Right Party Attacks 16-Year-Old Greta Thunberg Ahead of EU Elections

Politics
German Far Right Party Attacks 16-Year-Old Greta Thunberg Ahead of EU Elections
Simona Granati / Corbis / Getty Images

The far-right German party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is increasing its climate denying rhetoric as it prepares for the European elections later this month, singling out 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg for particular attack.


AfD has long denied that climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, but it has chosen to emphasize that message more and more in the past year, according to a joint investigation by Greenpeace's Unearthed and counter-extremism group the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

"Even going back on their 2016 posts about climate change, the AFD denied human-made climate change on their social media pages. So while the AFD has not shifted its position, the party has decided to communicate it more frequently," ISD extremism researcher Jakob Guhl said.


AfD barely mentioned climate change on its social media channels when it was first founded in 2013, The Guardian reported. That number rose to 300 between 2017 and 2018, then shot up to more than 900 between 2018 and 2019. Much of that focus has been on Thunberg, who was mentioned in nearly 800 posts on the group's Facebook pages in the last year, the investigation found.

The social media focus has been matched by attacks on the Swedish teen from AfD politicians.

"This is not a 'woman of the year' but at best a teenager with autistic prehistory who is burned by her 'advisers' and by willing MSM as a new icon for the 'climate church,'" AfD Member of Parliament (MP) Frank Pasemann tweeted of Thunberg in March.

AfD andidates in the EU parliamentary elections have compared her to a member of the Nazi youth. One candidate, Maximilian Krah, said she had a "psychosis," The Guardian reported.

In the investigation report, Guhl explained why AfD has exploited Thunberg's fame to spread its climate denying agenda:

"The emergence of Greta Thunberg as public figure provided them with a welcome target to communicate their position in a way more appropriate to the dynamics of social media.

"The fact that many mainstream politicians, in particular from the AfD's key political opponent, the Greens, but also CSU-candidates such as Manfred Weber, supported a 16-year old female activist who was virtually unknown until a few months ago, allowed the party to present belief in climate change as irrational, hysteria, panic, cult-like or even as a replacement religion. Attacking Greta, at times in fairly vicious ways, including mocking her for her autism, became a way to portray the AfD's political opponents as irrational."

But attacking Thunberg isn't the only strategy AfD is using to spread its message. AfD environmental spokesperson Karsten Hilse was seen distributing climate denying leaflets at a school strike for climate in Berlin in March. Hilse also invited a slate of speakers who challenge mainstream climate science to speak at Germany's parliament Tuesday.

"The AfD is using the Bundestag [German parliament] as a stage for its dissemination of climate lies. They invite fake experts to a so-called symposium on climate change to generate content for mass dissemination via social media channels and stir up hatred and anger on the internet," Greenpeace Germany climate campaigner Karsten Smid told The Guardian.

While the right has long spread misinformation about the existence and causes of climate change in the U.S., this has been less common in the EU until recently. The investigation also found a link between climate denying U.S. think tanks and their German counterparts. Tuesday's event was publicized by German think tank the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE), and the group's vice president advises Hilse. EIKE also co-sponsors an annual climate conference with the U.S. Heartland Institute, which funds the spread of misinformation about climate change. For example, it sent a book and DVD set called Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming to at least 200,000 K-12 teachers in the U.S.

However, the vast majority of Germans are greatly concerned about climate change. While support for AfD is growing, the Green Party is now polling in second place, in Germany, behind its current ruling party.

"Climate change is a major concern among German voters ahead of the European elections," Green Party climate spokesperson Lisa Badum told Unearthed. "A recent poll has shown that 3 out of 4 potential voters in Germany consider climate protection an important factor in their voting decision."

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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