Spam with everything in Germany's election

About the author
Alan Connor is a freelance writer on politics and technology. His writing can be found at the London News Review and he is the Internet Correspondent for BBC Live Political Programmes. He is researching a doctoral thesis on the sociology of belief, and moonlights as a wedding DJ.

The offline repercussions of the 22 May election in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, are potentially huge in terms of national politics. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has brought forward the federal election by a year – a very unusual, perhaps even unconstitutional development in German politics. His Social Democratic Party (SDP) has lost a stronghold which it had held for nearly four decades, and the political limelight continues to shift towards the main opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

But as these repercussions play out, aspects of the online campaign, which point to uncomfortable trends for the future of e-democracy, should not be ignored.

The central issue in Sunday’s election was unemployment – 12% across the country – epitomised online in the website JobDumping, which shows unemployed workers in competitive bidding to work for the lowest wages. As elsewhere in Europe, far-right groups have sought to make political capital from these problems, tying German economic problems to an “anti-foreigner” manifesto. The Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) and the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU) forged what is becoming a habitual alliance (similar to agreements in the Saxony state elections in September 2004) that saw only the NPD field candidates in an attempt to achieve the minimum 5% of the vote needed to gain entry into the parliament under German electoral law.

Such alliances will never be enough in themselves to win elections. Credibility and visibility are characteristic barriers for extremist parties: NPD and other far-right representatives are routinely shouted down or ostracised in the state parliaments where they have managed to acquire a foothold (far-right groups are yet to find a place in the federal parliament). The party is trying to shed its image of skinheaded bootboys, sending its members to parliament in suits and ties. But it’s the public who are the victims of the newest and most ingenious attempt to propagate the far-right message.

If you sprechen nicht sehr gut Deutsch, but have been receiving a flood of German-language spam email in the last week or so, you’ve probably been wondering what’s going on. What you’re receiving is spam generated by a variant of the computer virus known as Sober, whose content ranges from links, through potentially inflammatory news stories, to outright race-hate.

Sober first appeared in 2003 and is spread by email: if your computer is infected, it becomes a machine for sending out email to recipients from your address book, or to people whose addresses appear in other programmes and documents. One report suggests that an infected machine may be able to send 10,000 spam emails per hour. The security company Sophos recently estimated that Sober accounts for more than 5% of all email traffic worldwide.

What is unusual about this new Sober virus is the use to which it has been put. Normally with an email “worm” like Sober, the human-readable content is much less relevant: propagation is the aim, and the body and subject line need do little more than dodge spam filters. In this case, though, the virulence of the email is being used wholly to perform a new and perverted form of electoral campaigning. Because the virus has accrued the addresses of your family, friends and colleagues, a new email looks at a first glance to have come from a trusted source, and generally takes the form of some suggested reading, with hyperlinks. Put another way, it makes you look like a Nazi to your nearest and dearest.

But again, the approach is cannier than you might expect of an illegal and underhand operation. The links are generally to articles from establishment news sources, though some are to the NPD’s site, or to URLs which will expose you to more viruses. The idea seems to be to normalise racism and xenophobia: the website of the reputable magazine Der Spiegel has featured frequently – though as you might expect, only for references to some crime that was perpetrated by a foreigner or a Muslim. It doesn’t look like spam or intemperate rabble rousing: the sneakiness of the virus is matched by a savvy approach to content.

If you think your computer has been infected, a word of advice:

Sober may be able to turn off the Windows XP firewall, and to disable existing antivirus protection. A visit to Symantec may be in order, but protection only works when it’s constantly updated: reaction is no protection. Don’t trust any emails you get suggesting a cure, even if they’re apparently from friends and family. And (of course) the best protection of all is not to use Windows.

Put all the millions of emails together and an unsavoury picture results. Among the seventy-two variants reported so far, the same images recur time and again: ethnic groups are involved with organised crime, Dresden was a “German holocaust”, the Turks are out to get the Germans, school places are going to foreigners, the European Union is bringing foreigners closer ... and so it goes on. A few headlines suggest the content and tone: “60 years of Freedom: Who’s Celebrating?”; “Turkish Tabloid Enrages Germany with Nazi Comparisons” and, charmingly, “The Whore Lived Like a German”.

An embarrassed Der Spiegel smartly apologised for something that wasn’t its fault: users were confused, some assuming that the mails had come from the newspaper itself, others potentially misunderstanding that Der Spiegel’s articles were being recontextualised in order to promote xenophobia. But it’s the scale of the confusion that makes this a different kind of propaganda.

There was some discussion in the recent UK election over whether the incumbent Labour Party’s campaign emails counted as spam, since they addressed the recipients as supporters and friends, but were sent far and wide, seemingly to anyone who’d ever got in contact with any government scheme on the internet.

Any nuisance caused here, though, pales in comparison to the German far-right mails. Spam is one thing, but to start using viruses as a political tool is to abandon any interest, in the long-term, in your own credibility or in fairness and truth. Although many political parties could be accused of all those things, this observation has led a few to assume the spam did not, in fact, originate from anybody within or close to NPD – and was instead a canny foil for some apolitical black-hat hacker (or cracker) group.

Yet the very diligence of the content points to the NPD’s political motive. From a campaigner’s point of view, if your aim is to climb up to a 5% share of the vote, this approach makes grimly rational, short-term sense. In the event the NPD only received 0.9% of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia (most of them gained at the expense of other far-right parties). But since Sober-style viruses spread globally, hijacking other people’s computers to spread their message further and wider, it’s not an overstatement to say that this new use of Sober marks an abandonment of civic society.