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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
New York Daily News Editorial Board

Editorial: Radicalization for all: German coup plot shows power of online conspiracies

A secret group of German ultranationalists being arrested after plotting to overthrow the government, murder the chancellor and install a monarch is a situation you might expect to find in a 19th or 20th century history textbook, not contemporary headlines.

Yet in these strange times we live in, exactly that happened this week as German police arrested 25 people of a roughly 50-member group of fanatics bent on reestablishing a state modeled around the nation’s Second Reich, under Kaiser Wilhelm and Bismarck. Better that than the Third Reich under you know who. All hail the descendant of a former noble family calling himself Prince Heinrich XIII.

There are plenty of crackpot groups out there, but this one set itself apart by having members as prominent as the aristocratic Heinrich and a former German federal legislator, military officers and reservists, and plans already drawn out for the new state they would supposedly create. Most alarming though, were the ideological motivations of some of the adherents; according to prosecutors, in addition to the homegrown Reichsbürger movement, members were driven by COVID conspiracy theories that first took hold in the U.S. and the all-American QAnon conspiracy.

While we often talk about the risk of political violence posed by dangerous disinformation and conspiracy-mongering here, it’s worth remembering that this noxious cultural export, driven largely by U.S.-based social media companies and often trialed on U.S. audiences, is driving a risk of extremist violence everywhere.

QAnon began as a series of obscure postings on the far-right message board 4chan, growing out of earlier Pizzagate theories about a supposed cabal secretly controlling U.S. and global institutions. Now, this one bizarre movement is getting warped into whatever local flavor is most appealing and radicalizing people into violence, highlighting the fact that content moderation and efforts to combat the spread of disinformation online have global implications. The reckless actions of tech titans like new Twitter owner Elon Musk have consequences around the world, and they should have to answer for that.

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