The anti-vax movement targeting German children

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Querdenken supporters protest against coronavirus restrictions in StuttgartImage source, EPA
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Querdenken supporters protest against coronavirus restrictions in Stuttgart

A German anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine movement with links to the far right has recruited hundreds of children into a private online group, reports Jessica Bateman.

The girl with the loudspeaker doesn't look much older than 15.

"I've spoken at these demonstrations [before]," she says, before launching into a tirade against the German government's lockdown restrictions and vaccination programme.

"They say, 'We have to lock them up! Have them vaccinated! Only then will they be allowed out again!'" she bellows, adding that she was escorted from her school by police for refusing to comply with restrictions.

The girl was speaking at one of a series of demonstrations organised by Querdenken, Germany's anti-lockdown movement.

Roughly translated as "lateral thinkers", it's a loose-knit coalition that pushes baseless conspiracy theories - such as the idea masks are deadly or that vaccines will alter your DNA.

And YouTube videos like this one, and others of other teenagers speaking at events, are frequently shared on social media.

How have children become so heavily involved in a controversial movement? We've been investigating a private group for under-18s on the chat app Telegram, run by one of Querdenken's most popular figures.

Who are they?

The Querdenken movement first sprung up last summer and gained international notoriety when one of its Berlin demonstrations ended with protestors attempting to storm the German parliament.

The group claims to have no party political affiliation, but several of its key figures have well-documented far-right connections. Querdenken draws in a range of supporters - not only from the far-right, but a motley crew of hippies, spiritualists and some evangelical Christians.

It has spawned a new crop of social media celebrities who push disinformation, sell branded merchandise and solicit donations from their followers.

One of these is Samuel Eckert, a former evangelical preacher, who runs a public Telegram channel with more than 120,000 subscribers.

Image source, Telegram
Image caption,
Samuel Eckert is targeting young people on social media

According to computer scientist Josef Holnburger, who has studied the movement's rise, it's one of the most popular Telegram channels in Germany.

And Eckert also regularly promotes a second, private channel called SE Youngsters, which he says is for children and teenagers aged 10 to 17 - even though the minimum age for using Telegram is 16.

On Eckert's website, there's a sign-up page and a verification process to ensure the interested child really is under 18. Telegram did not respond to our questions about the group.

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Inside information

The BBC spoke to an online activist who gained access to the channel via an insider.

He describes an echo chamber of increasingly extreme Covid conspiracy theories, alongside talk of deteriorating mental health, school exclusion and bullying.

Our source remains anonymous for safety reasons and goes by the name DatenLiebe ("Data Love") online. He's been accessing the group - which has more than 300 members - since last autumn.

"What surprised me was that the children were having very casual conversations, they were talking about the weather, or about their pets… like totally undangerous stuff," he says.

"But they are also forwarding content from dangerous Telegram channels, like QAnon."

Image source, Telegram
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'Stop mandatory masks' and other slogans: Pictures of graffiti posted in the SE Youngsters Telegram group

According to DatenLiebe, practically "every type" of anti-vax or anti-Covid conspiracy you can think of is circulating in the group.

"They say pretty clearly that they either don't think that coronavirus exists, or that it's just the flu," he says.

He also says the members have "a strong distrust in state institutions" and most believe Covid-19 vaccines either don't work or are more harmful than the disease itself.

And he's also tracked stories of the children's beliefs causing them trouble in their personal lives.

Several members of the group have said that they dropped out of school because they can't handle the pressure around mask regulations, or have been bullied by their classmates.

We spoke to the mother of two girls who are members of the group. Like her daughters, she also believes Covid-19 is no more dangerous than flu, even though overwhelming evidence indicates it's both more deadly and can result in long-term health problems.

The mother also says she doesn't plan to take a Covid-19 vaccine.

However, she's adamant that her daughters came to their views independently and aren't being influenced by her or exploited by Samuel Eckert and the Querdenken movement.

"We always taught them to think for themselves," she says.

She says her children changed schools - which she describes as a "traumatic" experience for them - after disputes over masks and their involvement in Querdenken demos.

Children as propaganda

The safety of children has long been a powerful narrative in conspiracy theories, from the anti-Semitic "blood libel" which falsely accused Jews of murdering children, to the present day QAnon which claims world leaders are involved in child sex trafficking.

At the same time, many parents have legitimate concerns about how lockdown measures, including school closures and social distancing, have affected their children's mental health and education.

Journalist Marc Röhig, from the German magazine Der Spiegel, believes Eckert is trying to exploit these fears.

"His main target is concerned parents," he says. "You can have two narratives. One is to fight for your own freedom… But you can also say, let's fight for our children and for their future."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Protesters march in Stuttgart, a stronghold of the Querdenken movement.

Eckert did not respond to any of our requests for comment. However, he says on his social media accounts that the Telegram group is simply for Covid-sceptic young people to meet and support one another.

He's not shy about using them for his own content, too. He set up a dedicated YouTube channel for videos of their speeches, and the children often appear with him at events or on his video livestreams.

While experts say the Querdenken movement doesn't appear to be getting much bigger, it may be becoming more radical.

Officials in the state of Baden Württemberg, in Germany's south-west, have put the group under surveillance as a potential security threat. And protestors are becoming more extreme in their actions, attacking journalists at demonstrations and even targeting vaccination centres.

"I'm really concerned about it, because those are real kids," says DatenLiebe, the inside source. "And they go to real schools and they feel physical pain from a reality that doesn't exist."

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