Step 1: 2014 – Ukraine

After the coup in Kiev in 2014, the media across the spectrum — from right to left — started reporting events in the country with a strong bias that was favourable to the regime change and the Western-backed new government, while being very critical of the forces in eastern Ukraine and of Russia. This was noticed by many readers, listeners, and viewers, leading to massive online and offline protests. I remember it well; it felt like a sea-change in our media landscape. Suddenly, all journalists and commentators seemed to have become propagandists. It was not as blatant and brutal as it is now, but it was nonetheless a noticeable shift from the way geopolitical issues had been reported and discussed until then.

Suddenly, there was only one good side. There was very little nuance and hardly any reporting of opposing viewpoints or perspectives. Something must have happened in the background in Ukraine and Germany to prepare politicians and the media to push a very biased and sometimes openly manipulative narrative. The propagandizing was noticed by many citizens, and newspapers and television stations were flooded with comments and complaints. The term “Lügenpresse” (“lying media”) was resurrected (it had been used by the Nazis but also earlier in German history).

The public started splitting in two groups: one consisting of people who believed the standard media line and the other consisting of people who were critical of it. This led to the creation and boosting of many alternative media projects. One of the most successful was “KenFM” by German journalist Ken Jebsen, who also organised — together with Sahra Wagenknecht and others — demonstrations for peace with Russia and against the war rhetoric, which led to the first accusations of a “Querfront,” meaning a far-left and far-right alliance reminiscent of the chaotic political situation in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s in Germany. The accusation of right-wing extremism was flung against organisers and signatories of a peace manifesto to scare away members of the left that had joined or were interested in doing so, and more generally to discredit any peace activist in the eyes of the general public. The slur “conspiracy theorist” was resurrected from its marginal existence before and now took centre stage in any article covering the movement. This was the first rift, if you will: A schism between the opinion and assessment of the media and political elites and that of the people. Here it was mainly the left-wing and well-educated middle classes that rebelled against a media landscape that seemed to have shifted quite significantly to the right in the sense of adopting an anti-Russia and pro-NATO stance. I was friends with journalists at the time, and I remember discussions with them in which they could not understand the allegations of bias or propaganda and were adamant that they were indeed the free press and were reporting as objectively as ever. They were not open to the criticism and were very much of the opinion that the people criticising them were less intelligent and less informed. I think it was around this time when a new generation of journalists trained in the 1990s came to prominence in the newsrooms. These people had very much an “end-of-history”-type of political worldview and were convinced that the West stood on the right side of history. All of the political education of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s was an “old hat” for them and no longer relevant.

I remember one discussion in which I asked a group of very prominent journalists, who were writing about politics and economic measures for first-rate German newspapers whether they had ever heard of Noam Chomsky, and they confessed that they had never read anything by him or listened to one of his interviews. Many of them, along with most of their editors-in-chief, were also members of the Atlantik-Brücke (Atlantic Bridge) and/or other transatlantic think tanks that regularly engaged in the bashing of Russia, China, and Iran — basically every geopolitical adversary of the US. Everyone in the media that I knew followed their general script and nobody suspected foul play or propaganda in the stories they received via the news agencies, experts in these think tanks, or “informants” of the security agencies. Mind you, this was after a lot had come out about the disinformation campaigns and war crimes carried out by the West in the war in Yugoslavia, the Iraq war, the Syria war, 9/11, Guantanamo, and the extrajudicial renditions and torture, the Afghanistan war, and so many others. Somehow, none of these past misdeeds and lies of the West had changed their minds that Western powers were inherently benevolent and good.

Step 2: 2015/2016 The Refugee Crisis

Due to the war in Syria and other global conflicts, in 2015 there was a steep rise in refugees coming to Europe, and Germany in particular. For several reasons, Germany decided to be more lenient in accepting refugees, which led to a “run” on Germany. Then-President Angela Merkel coined the phrase “Wir schaffen das” (We can manage it), meaning Germany would be able to absorb this unprecedented number of refugees. The newspapers were mostly on board; even the normally quite right-wing/”yellow press” outlet Bild acted as a cheerleader for the pro-refugee government line. A rift now formed (or deepened) between mainly middle and upper-class Germans in urban areas in the West and lower middle and working-class Germans in small towns and rural areas in the East on this issue. The former group was predominantly for taking in the refugees on humanitarian grounds; the latter was against it due to cultural and social concerns. They were also more impacted by the influx as refugees entered their areas and social spheres to a much greater degree than those of the more privileged strata of society. In total, about 1.3 million refugees entered Germany in one year, from September 2015 until the summer of 2016.

The media was mainly “pro-refugees” and the coverage was overall highly supportive of the government’s decisions, reporting quite positively about the situation. However, a significant part of the population was not happy with the decisions and didn’t feel their views were represented in the coverage and assessment of events by journalists and most politicians. In this case, it was more “the right” that felt their views weren’t represented in the media. Accusations of biased and outright false reporting on the refugee situation and the threat they posed (i.e., violence, criminality, attacks on women, exploitation of asylum status by refugees for commercial reasons, etc.) started to be levied. The term “Lügenpresse”, resurrected during the Ukraine reporting, became more prevalent and was now raised by the (so-called) “right”. A movement called PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes/Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) was formed and organised large demonstrations against the threat to the “West” posed by foreigners. These were mainly ordinary citizens worried by the influx of an unprecedented number of foreigners from quite different cultures but also right-wing groups based mainly in the eastern regions of Germany, where the movement was strongest.

The whole refugee situation also led to a new rise in popularity for the AfD (a German right-wing party that had started out as a conservative party critical of European monetary policy and the introduction of the Euro), whose significance had waned until then. With the refugee situation, they found their new “topic” and an Islamophobic and xenophobic atmosphere arose. At the same time, a new “Feindbild” (constructed enemy) was born in the media: the ignorant, badly educated, inherently xenophobic and racist “AfD voter” — part of a wider Eastern German “mob.” I had never read such disparaging and negative coverage on any German citizens as on these demonstrators and protestors before this time.

At first, I was influenced by this as well, especially as I was at the time rather pro-refugees and considered the government’s decision was the right one. I remember reading some of the coverage and thinking: “Wow, what strange, ignorant, and hateful people. And how paranoid and unrealistic to talk about a threat to the ‘West’, they even called it ‘Occident’. What a medieval narrative. But then I tried to listen to some of the speeches at these rallies, which were hard to find. As has become the norm now, the media would only show short sound bites of rather aggressive and crazy people, and the rest of the reporting was just the journalistic commentary, which was 100% negative. But when I found some original footage, I realised that a lot of the protestors’ criticism was valid and rational and motivated more by fear and disappointment about the results of neoliberal policies and the unfairness of German politics — for example, not taking care of its own pensioners and people in need but, instead, spending so much of German resources on masses of foreigners. I wondered why the protests were so wildly misreported. These events and the method and style of the coverage and depiction of the critics deepened the rift that had formed between the media and political class on one side and parts of the population on the other further. Now, members of the press were screamed at and attacked when they covered the demonstrations because the protestors were so frustrated with the way they were being represented. The media representatives, of course, took this frustration and hate as proof of how violent and misled the “right-wing mob” had become.

These events and the way they were covered and discussed also created a deep antagonism between the “left-liberal” parts of the population and the more “right”-oriented ones, who had stood rather together on the Ukraine question in 2014. A “Querfront” had thus been avoided.

Step 3: 2016/2017: Trump and Russiagate

When Donald Trump won the US presidential elections in November 2016, the whole liberal-left in the US and Germany was flabbergasted. They had not expected this (as little as they had anticipated the Brexit decision). Their pundits had said it wouldn’t and couldn’t happen, and they themselves thought it was impossible. This incredulity and aversion led to accusations of election meddling, culminating in an investigation in January 2017 that alleged Russian interference in support of the Trump campaign. This narrative was embraced by Democratic Party supporters in the U.S. and by the German liberal and left-leaning communities as an explanation for the, to them, inexplicable election success of Donald Trump.

It all began with a leak by WikiLeaks of 19,000 emails from DemocraticParty officials in July 2016. Soon, this news was overshadowed by accusations that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had been hacked by Russian hackers and that the Trump campaign had colluded with them. There were also speculative accusations of massive Russian meddling via Facebook ads and groups aimed at influencing the American public. Although many of these accusations later proved to be baseless (Taibbi, 2019; Mate, 2021), the mainstream media and even Wikipedia still more or less cling to the old story to this day. In hindsight, it appears more like an elaborate psychological operation to divert attention from the Clinton team’s misdeeds, fuel Russophobia, and ultimately prevent President Trump from considering détente with Russia.

Nevertheless, the paranoia it generated spread to Europe and Germany, and suddenly terms like “Russian disinformation”, “fake news”, “cyber-hacking” and “cyber-influencing” were on every political commentator’s and media expert’s lips.

There are likely extensive Russian cyberwarfare operations and troll farms, as well as comparable operations by all Western and other major countries, but the extreme media reaction to these rumors and accusations laid the groundwork for the draconian regulation of the online sphere that was to come. These events and the fears they stirred up led to the view of the online public debate space as a war zone that needed to be regulated.

An opposing point of view is now often seen by politicians, the establishment, and many in the media as more likely to be a Russian bot or propaganda planted by a hostile foreign government rather than a valid critique worth considering. This helps avoid the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise arise when people deeply attached to their respective “reality bubbles”, fostered by the increasingly partisan media landscape, encounter opposing views. It is no longer necessary to question one’s own perception of reality; one can dismiss these views as “fake news” to be, at best, fact-checked and discarded and, at worst, censored and punished by law.

Many in the left-liberal segment of society, particularly the professional-managerial class and people in my Berlin bubble working for NGOs, foundations and political parties, uncritically adopted this narrative as it fit snugly into their carefully cultivated worldview now impervious to critical self-reflection. Concurrently, a significant amount of government and mainly US and European money flowed into programs aimed at “promoting democracy”, “combatting media distrust” and, more overtly, “fighting disinformation”.

Adopting this new narrative became a savvy career move, leading to job opportunities and funding. I remember discussing with friends and acquaintances in my bubble, as well as with higher-ups in the Green Party, whom I was consulting at the time, that “distrust of democracy” and “distrust of the media” should not be combated by assuming those distrusting were simply wrong or propagandised. Instead, we should understand where this distrust came from (the reasons were obvious to me) and where it might be justified, then address those issues.

However, no one in my circle, which included many decision-makers in the political and NGO spheres, seemed open to this strategy; and the schism between the powerful and their aides, on the one hand, and large parts of the population, on the other, grew.

Censorship was not yet openly or widely discussed as a solution to these problems; we were still in the preliminary “pedagogic phase”, if you want to call it that, where those who felt well-informed and on the side of democracy saw the need to “educate” the unwilling parts of the public that were inexplicably (to them) drifting to the right and adopting anti-democracy, anti-press, and anti-EU sentiments, and among whom conspiracy theories were taking hold.

Because they were unwilling to question their own premises — that Western democracy was performing well, that the EU was a democratic, benevolent, and peaceful project, that the government was making mostly good decisions, and that the media was reporting diligently and without bias — they looked desperately for other explanations for why a growing part of the public saw these things differently. Additionally, I suspect they were guided by very smart communication strategies in the background, mainly developed by the U.S. and British intelligence communities and think tanks. Foundations and NGOs, increasingly funded by government or oligarchic money (Soros, Clinton, and Omidyar, to name a few), pushed explanations such as: the critics (never called ‘critics’ for a good reason) are uneducated and stupid, inherently racist, their reactions are emotional, irrational, and most of all, they are indoctrinated by Russian propaganda or that of some other authoritarian country or group. It boiled down to the same utterly simplistic explanation that George W. Bush gave as a reason for the September 11th attacks back in 2001: “It’s because they hate our freedom.”

Step 4: 2018 – Cambridge Analytica Scandal

In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke when it was revealed that the company had sold the data of 87 million users for use in election ads and other political influence campaigns, including those benefiting Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the US. Cambridge Analytica was owned by Robert Mercer, his daughter Rebecca, and Steve Bannon, who was also managing the Trump campaign. The company was also involved in Brexit, as the “Leave” campaign organisers had used their services. Although the exact impact of this data on either Trump’s election campaign or the Brexit vote (which happened in 2016) cannot be proven, the information sparked widespread discussion and fear internationally, especially in German media and among the left-liberal class. It heightened awareness of the potential for right-wing and nationalist groups to use data to influence people on social media on an unprecedented scale. This further prepared the ground for censorship measures justified as combatting disinformation and the manipulation of citizens in the name of “saving our democracy”.

In response to these scandals and developments, representatives of online platforms, leading tech companies, and players in the advertising industry agreed to a self-regulatory “Code of Practice” in October 2018 at the EU level to address the spread of so-called “online disinformation”. Tech companies and advertisers committed to changing their algorithms, deleting content, and pulling advertising from websites that publish “fake news”. An important shift was that censorship was now seemingly administered by private companies rather than state powers, making it legally harder to fight against these measures.

Step 5: 2020 – Covid

Then, the Covid crisis hit and the term “disinformation” took over as the dominant concept. Before that, the focus had been more on the term “fake news” (an accusation levelled from both sides of the political spectrum against each other) and “manipulation”.

As we now know from “Event 201” in October 2019 and other preceding pandemic exercises, a predetermined communication strategy was in place. Most journalists and media executives were already on board to “combat disinformation” during a pandemic, which was identified as one of the great political risks of such a situation beforehand. It is not too much of a conspiracy theory to speculate that this issue (disinformation) played a prominent role in planning because they rightly anticipated that not everyone would believe the factual basis for declaring a health emergency or agree with the unprecedented and harsh restrictions of personal freedoms imposed by governments. The framing here was that “disinformation costs lives”, meaning that misinformed people would not adhere to the “life-saving” government Covid measures or be discouraged from taking the vaccine, which, in their narrative, would lead to people actually dying as a consequence.

While the fear of nationalists and right-wingers, Trump, Russia and their fake news and voter manipulation posing risks to “our Western democracy” was more like thunder rumbling in the distance, the crisis now engulfed all our lives. Voices became shriller, and the matter seemed much more urgent. It was a “life-and-death” situation now, and one could watch and listen as those on board with the official Covid story grew more hysterical as the months went on. We were in a state of emergency, fear and stress levels rose, and there seemed to be no time or room for discussion. The anti-disinformation warriors achieved a significant step forward in the complete change in our social atmosphere, where quite suddenly questioning official or governmental information or narratives was viewed as a threat rather than a sign of healthy and democratic public discourse.

This atmosphere was used to ramp up censorship to an unprecedented level. Independent media outlets, such as KenFM, were threatened, attacked, and effectively shut down. Huge YouTube channels were unceremoniously erased, and social media postings and YouTube videos were slapped with disinformation warnings, if not outright banned or shadow-banned. Big tech companies started collaborating with health ministries and institutions like Johns Hopkins and established partnerships with so-called “fact-checkers” to monitor “the truth”. All this was accompanied by witch-hunts and media smear campaigns that were equally unprecedented in scale and viciousness. This was made possible by new legal and institutional moves, like the European Digital Media Observatory, an “interdisciplinary network to counter disinformation” established in June 2020, and a change in German media law that allowed, for the first time, the regulation of independent media through state regulatory offices with ample powers, including shutting down websites. In August 2021, YouTube announced that it had deleted three million videos with Covid-related content.

I remember one striking situation in the early weeks of the Covid crisis in early spring 2020. I had listened to an interview with Wolfgang Wodarg, an extremely renowned and knowledgeable German doctor, public health expert, and prominent politician, where he essentially said that Covid was no more serious than a bad case of the flu. I felt reassured.

What followed in the days after that was a barrage of articles smearing and berating him on an incredible scale and tone. The articles must have been in the hundreds, pouring in from all platforms and newspapers across the board. Everyone was in complete lockstep in shutting him up. A few weeks later, I met up with an acquaintance in Berlin-Mitte for lunch. This acquaintance was active in European democracy promotion and a very smart and idealistic person. Our conversation naturally turned to the pandemic, and my friend recounted that they were on the board of a big important NGO, as was Wolfgang Wodarg. In the last meeting, the whole board had voted to evict Dr. Wodarg from his position because of his “Covid misinformation”. When I asked if that wasn’t a bit harsh and premature, considering that it was such a new virus and it wasn’t clear yet what exactly was going on scientifically, so Dr. Wodarg’s estimate might be as good as anyone’s, my friend wasn’t fazed in the slightest. They repeated all the slurs from the hundreds of articles they must have read about him, saying he was obviously a charlatan, giving interviews to right-wingers, and spreading medical disinformation. The board’s actions, they believed, were absolutely right. This was my first intimation of how far the brainwashing had already progressed in my bubble and how naïve very intelligent and otherwise critical people can be when it comes to media campaigns and propaganda. They simply did not question the media articles or the information put out by the government at all.

Step 6: 2022 Ukraine War

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, it felt like the “2014” situation all over again, but on steroids. The coverage and commentary were completely one-sided in favour of Ukraine, NATO, and the U.S., to the point of being factually incorrect and omitting an incredible amount of information and context. The “other side” and their perspective was not reported at all, only maligned, distorted, and fabricated. While the coverage of events in Ukraine in 2014 had been noticeably biased and bordering on propaganda, we had now reached the level of all-out wartime propaganda, even though Germany was not — at least not openly — at war.

The crackdown on dissent became even more vicious and legalistic. The scope of laws forbidding hate speech, questioning or trivialising atrocities, and approving of genocide, wars of aggression, and terrorism (a German specialty, the laws I mean) were all widened. It became illegal to wave a Russian flag at a protest, display the letter “Z” (a symbol for Russian forces in Ukraine) anywhere on your person, car, house or on social media (Tagesschau, 2022). Most alarmingly, it became illegal to question reports of alleged Russian atrocities, such as those in Bucha or Mariupol. This was not trivial. Now, dissenters did not merely face censorship, smearing, marginalisation, or job loss, as they did during Covid, but instead risked high fines and even prison sentences for what was fundamentally political/geopolitical dissent.

Dissenters began leaving the country, and more websites, online magazines and YouTube channels were cancelled or erased. Accessing Russian news outlets online was banned Europe-wide, making it increasingly difficult to find any information that challenged the governmental, European, and transatlantic line. Well-trained by the Covid years, the part of the population trusting in the mainstream media, considered dissenting opinions on the Ukraine war to be dangerous Russian disinformation and propaganda. People voicing these opinions were not listened to or debated factually but were merely disparaged as “Putin trolls,” if not subjected to disgusting sexually explicit images posted by NAFO trolls. Almost everyone who had a different opinion on the conflict and its possible resolution than the increasingly hardline politicians and journalists, who all seemed to be in complete lockstep as they had been during Covid, was busy deleting social media posts and editing any statements that might bring them into conflict with the law. Censorship was back in full force in Germany. And of course, it was officially denied that any of this was happening at all.

We are now deep into a highly censored information landscape, and since the attack of Hamas on October 7th 2023 and the beginning of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, it has become even worse. The media and all major political parties are in lockstep, and still about half of the population and all German NGOs do not notice or do not want to notice what is going on. They point firmly at the US’s geopolitical adversaries, like Russia, China, Iran or Belarus, when it comes to censorship and lack of press freedom. The rebranding of censorship as “fighting disinformation” was successful and is now complete.


Maté, Aaron, (2021) ‘CrowdStrike one of Russiagate’s ‘biggest culprits’: ex-House investigator’ The Grayzone.

Tagesschau, (2022) ‘Zeigen des “Z”-Symbols kann strafbar sein’.

Taibbi, Matt. (2019) ‘The Press Will Learn Nothing From the Russiagate Fiasco’ RollingStone.

(Featured Image: Lügenpresse by Opposition 24 is marke with CC BY-SA 2.0)


  • Maike Gosch

    Maike Gosch is a communication strategist and former lawyer. She is the founder and director of story4good, where she has led communication and strategy projects for leading NGOs and political entities in Germany and Europe. Her extensive experience includes advising the German Green Party, Wikimedia Germany, the Stopp TTIP Campaign and the European Parliament on high-stakes issues such as Green Energy Transition, European Trade Agreements and multiple election campaigns. Maike's articles have been featured in prominent trade publications such as Politik + Kommunikation. She has taught storytelling and political communication at institutions like Quadriga Hochschule and Hamburg Media School.

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