The hundreds of thousands of Germans following Alternative for Germany, a far-right party, were in for a surprise earlier this month when the name of a Facebook page affiliated with their party changed from “Homeland Love” to “Hummus Love.” Soon thereafter, a man introducing himself as the Propaganda Leader—evoking the memory of another notorious holder of the same title—posted a video of himself, explaining the changes to his legions of fans.
“My name,” he said, “is Shahak Shapira. Don’t worry—it’s an old Prussian name.”
It is, but Shapira isn’t a loyalist of the Keiser; he’s an Israeli satirist living in Berlin, and he was alarmed by the rise of the nationalist party and its anti-immigration policies. Tuning in to social media in advance of the German elections later this month, Shapira noticed scores of online groups spreading fake news and Alternative for Germany talking points. It hardly took a computer scientist to realize that most of these groups were being run by bots, or pieces of software that post content far more frequently and repetitively than a human being would ever be capable of doing. This gave Shapira an idea: Recruiting a few friends, he signed up a few fake profiles of his own, reposting the party’s content and liking its messages on Facebook. Eventually, he and his friends were invited to join the online groups, and worked their way to become first moderators and, finally, administrators.
When that happened, it was time for a putsch. Shapira and his buddies kicked the other administrators out of the group and began spreading their own messages. To the baffled followers who’d come expecting hard-core political speech and found instead paeans to chickpea love, Shapira had a soothing messages: The new regime, he said in his video, was good news. “From now on, you’ll be messed with by real people,” he said, and not algorithms.
On a more serious note, the new pro-hummus message seems to be resonating with a far more diverse audience than usually flocks to Alternative for Germany’s social media channels. Which, Shapira told the Associated Press, may lead to some much needed dialogue between people who hold divergent worldviews. “It’s a good chance for people from both sides to talk to one another,” he said.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.