13 December 2023
This Dispatch is also available in German.
Following previous ISD investigations into the far-right scene in Germany, this Dispatch investigates anti-feminist discourses on Telegram channels operated by German-speaking far-right extremists and conspiracists. The 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar serves as an event-related case study. An intersectional analysis of messages regarding the World Cup shows the rhetorical and metapolitical strategies of actors from the far-right and conspiracist spectrum, including the use of misogyny, bigotry towards LGBTQ+ people and anti-Muslim hate.
The German federal programme “Live Democracy!” emphasises that anti-feminism “is not only against feminism and equal opportunities”, but also exposes itself as an “anti-gender movement” that opposes the “diversity and equality of ways of life and identities related to sexual orientation, gender, love and family”. Increasingly, anti-feminism and the manosphere, a conglomeration of various online communities that share a misogynistic, anti-feminist ideology, have become the subject of research into the far right and what has been labelled “Neue Rechte” (literal translation from German: “new right”). The so-called new right conveys its nationalist and ethno-nationalist ideologies through more subtle and intellectual concepts such as “identity”, with anti-feminist worldviews frequently serving as a vector for radicalisation.
In order to examine anti-feminist discourses, this Dispatch focuses on the messaging service Telegram, which has become the most important platform for conspiracist and far-right mobilisation in German-speaking countries. The platform can be used for direct communication between individuals as well as for networking and communication, for example, users can create channels with an unlimited number of subscribers.
This analysis uses the FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar as a case study and is based on a seed list of 238 public Telegram channels from the far right and conspiracist spectrum. The messages on these channels were collected using Method52, a software created by CASM Technology. Initially, messages with a keyword related to the Qatar World Cup in the period between 13 November and 25 December 2022 were collected. The result was a dataset of 592 messages, which were viewed by hundreds, sometimes thousands of subscribers. These messages were qualitatively assessed for anti-feminist content, which is often connected to racism, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hate, and other forms of discrimination. This observation of multiple axes of discrimination is best described by the term “intersectionality”, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. In order to take into account the multi-dimensional nature, anti-feminist messages were analysed from an intersectional perspective. Thereby, a total of 191 messages (32 percent) were categorised as anti-feminist.
In the build-up to the Men’s World Cup, media outlets discussed German captain Manuel Neuer’s wearing of the OneLove armband, a symbol with which the German men’s team wished to show their support for diversity and human rights. The armband was not conceived specifically for the World Cup and had already been worn by captains of teams involved in the campaign during UEFA Nations League games and warm-up games for the World Cup. At the Qatar World Cup, FIFA issued a short-notice prohibition of the armband, threatening sporting sanctions. On the Telegram channels investigated, the German men’s national team were described as “champions of the woke”, “heroes of woke” and “the woke glitterati”. Expressions such as “gender madness” and “heroes of virtue-signalling” were used to belittle the wearing of the OneLove armband or discredit it as “rainbow propaganda”.
Anti-woke rhetoric showcases a strategy applied by the new right: the appropriation and reinterpretation of terminology and theoretical concepts. One well-known example is “political correctness” (PC), which was coined in the USA during the late 1980s and was successfully adopted by the right as a call to arms. Donald Trump continued this tradition of decrying political correctness when he ran for the 2016 US Presidential Election. In doing so, neither Trump nor his supporters defined precisely what political correctness meant or who was supposedly enforcing it. By repeatedly making himself out to be the victim of political correctness, Trump established a myth of leftist forces that were supposedly attempting to suppress uncomfortable truths and control language.
The German-speaking new right has also adopted this term, one example being the Islamophobic blog PI-News (Politically Incorrect News), which the German domestic intelligence services (BfV) categorised as “demonstrably extremist”.
Increasingly, the term “PC” is being supplemented or even replaced by the terms “woke” and “wokeness”, which covers an even wider range of subjects (for example, climate change). The term “woke” was coined by the African American writer William Melvin Kelley, in his 1962 essay for the New York Times “If you’re woke you dig it”. In this essay, Kelley wrote about “black slang” and its (re-)discovery as a reaction to appropriation by white people. The concept was taken up by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to protest against racist police violence. Since then, woke has been instrumentalised, presented as a threat and used sarcastically by far-right actors. As such, a negative connotation is given to being woke and wokeness as a collective and a mindset, provoking frustration among the target audience. Aggressive and intolerant motives, which stand in contrast to the actual fundamentally anti-racist attitude of the concept, are attributed to the associated persons.
Appropriation of arguments of post-colonial criticism
Some messages categorised as anti-feminist appropriated arguments of post-colonial criticism. The expressed goal of post-colonial criticism is to highlight inequality in structures of global power and the experience of colonialism. These messages claimed to have exposed and deconstructed Euro-centric discourses by depicting legitimate criticism of the host country Qatar’s human rights record (which includes structural discrimination against women and the LGBTQ+ community) as an entirely Western “woke ideology”.
One message claimed the West should not ‘indoctrinate’ the Qataris and instead come to terms with the “culture and customs of a foreign country”. Direct comparisons were made to colonialism and references to “neo-colonialist do-gooders”. It was also claimed that the rhetoric of critics of Qatar constituted “a one-to-one fit with the colonial era, a time when people wanted to impose Western values and Western thinking on Africans”. Messages also shared a link to a popular conspiracist blog by Boris Reitschuster, which claimed that in calling for the Qataris to “heal [the Qataris’] world with their West-European values”, the “leftist-green-woke guardians of morality” were behaving like “colonial masters of yore”. This provocatively paraphrases a line from an 1861 poem by Emanuel Geibel [“Am deutschen Wesen mag die Welt genesen”], which was in turn used as a political catchphrase by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The new right repurposed the line again to compare the alleged “moral tyranny” of left-green politics to Nazi Germany and colonialism.
Like the terms “politically correct” and “woke”, messages appropriated concepts that did not originally come from the far-right milieu. Arguments were re-purposed and used incorrectly to discredit political opponents and at the same time LGBTQ+ and women’s rights.
Some messages in the dataset spread anti-Muslim sentiment. A shared quote from Markus Wagner, spokesperson on domestic issues for the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), alleged cultural relativism with reference to Qatar: “Woke is criticising Islam in Qatar and celebrating it in Europe”. Yet, the AfD and new right actors propagate the concept of cultural relativism in the form of ethnopluralism, a worldview this milieu developed itself. Ethnopluralism is the modern far-right counter-concept to universalism, which the new right claims is a suppressive form of levelling down. According to ethnopluralism, different peoples have an unchangeable identity that should be upheld and is tied to the region and culture from which they originate. For the new right, this means that non-Western countries’ demands for universal human rights should be denied, as these rights do not correlate with their culture. As in the case of the appropriation of arguments of post-colonial criticism, this worldview discredits human rights as “woke values”, countenances the suppression of minorities and marginalised groups, and ignores and denies the existence and voices of LGBTQ+ persons in countries such as Qatar.
Hegemonic masculinity and national identity
Hegemonic masculinity, a term coined by the sociologist Raewyn Connell, describes a dominant model of masculinity that asserts itself against alternative constructions of masculinity and ensures the maintenance of patriarchy. It subordinates women and LGBTQ+ people as well as men who do not conform to the prevailing ideal of masculinity.
This subordination is clear in some of the messages analysed. In the context of the OneLove armband, football was described as “a stupid, gay sport” and the German men’s national team as “queer clowns” and “castrated puppets”. One message asserted that “men today have no balls anyway”. Transphobic and misogynist content was also shared. Women were derogatorily described as “half-naked bitches” and Germany’s Federal Minister of the Interior and Community, Nancy Faeser, as an “LGBTQ dominatrix”.
Some of the messages made reference to national identity and the supposed suppression thereof. Cynthia Enloe’s feminist research into international politics explains how nationalist ideologies can also serve to privilege patriarchal structures. For example, the national team was described as a “de-Germanised team of tepid little wimps” and “troop of multiculti do-gooders”. The maintenance of the patriarchy is central for the extreme right and its programme of reconstructing a supposedly lost sense of national community. For the far right, the demographic component of such an imagined reconstruction is reason alone for the necessity of patriarchal gender norms, hegemonic masculinity and the attendant subordination of people capable of bearing children.
Anti-feminist discourses during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup
The channels investigated also made predominantly anti-feminist remarks, albeit to a lesser extent, during the FIFA Women’s World Cup. A total of 62 messages regarding the Women’s World Cup were collected, of which 22 were categorised as anti-feminist. The reaction to the incident in which the then President of the Spanish football association, Luis Rubiales, overstepped boundaries by kissing the Spanish player Jennifer Hermoso on the lips during the award ceremony on 20 August 2023 was dismissed as “theatrical man-hating”. Other messages played down the criminal complaint Hermoso later filed against Rubiales, describing it as a “farce”. In addition to these messages, the analysis also discovered anti-queer sentiments (“Bitch fight at the lesbian kick-about”) and, similar to messages during the Men’s World Cup, noted anti-Muslim messages that propagated a “culture war”, alleging an “Islamisation of women’s football”.
This Dispatch outlines the use and dissemination of anti-feminist discourses by German-speaking far-right and conspiracist Telegram channels. While discussion of the FIFA Men’s World Cup (about 600 messages) and the FIFA Women’s World Cup (a mere 62 messages) constitutes a niche discourse on the platform, the proportion of anti-feminist posts (32 percent in the context of the Men’s World Cup and 35 percent in that of the Women’s World Cup) is noteworthy.
Importantly, the analysis identifies rhetorical and metapolitical strategies of the new right within these anti-feminist discourses. These include the appropriation and reinterpretation of theoretical concepts and ethnopluralist approaches that are concomitant with the erasing of queer persons in countries in which they are suppressed by the government. The firmly anchored role of masculinity and national identity in the context of new right discourses was again apparent.
In the context of an increase in anti-feminism and bigotry against homosexuals and trans persons in Germany, further research into far-right ideologies and the links to misogyny is necessary to understand the different strategies of the new right and to develop appropriate options for interventions and political action.