Using apparently subversive strategies, the video campaign of the ‘Refugees Welcome’ initiative confronts viewers of xenophobic videos with opposing perspectives and thus calls for more tolerance – albeit with dubious success.

During the peak phase of the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’, the ‘Flüchtlinge Willkommen’ (‘Refugees Welcome’) initiative, a project of the ‘Mensch Mensch Mensch’ association, in cooperation with the advertising agency FCB Zurich, took advantage of the growing popularity of right-wing populist online videos. Their purportedly subversive campaign called ‘Search Racism. Find Truth’ was based on exploiting YouTube’s own advertising mechanisms and infiltrating them for their own purposes. The campaign’s goal was that anyone who wanted to consume hate videos (‘Search racism’), must first deal with the refugees’ perspective (‘Find truth’) in order to be encouraged to be more tolerant and to rethink in the end.

How it works: If monetization is permitted by the respective uploader, advertising is played ahead of the uploader’s videos – these advertising spaces can be booked at given conditions independent of the content of the video. Therefore, it is also possible to place ads in front of videos with xenophobic content, although such advertising space will most likely be quite unattractive for most companies. The campaign makers took advantage of this lack of interest, booking a number of free slots themselves and filling them with specially created advertising clips. During the week the campaign ran in April 2016, anyone who watched the videos – for example of rightist speeches and Pegida demonstrations – had to watch a commercial first, which could not be skipped manually. In each of these commercials, a refugee appeared – including familiar faces such as the Syrian YouTuber and filmmaker Firas Alshater – who confronted the viewers with ideas that were tailored to the content of the following video, even diametrically opposed to it. For example, the refugee Arif countered Lutz Bachmann’s diatribe about allegedly criminal migrants by saying that he himself had never been in prison, whereas Bachmann had.

Since the audience for right-wing hate videos is so stuck in their views that they no longer perceive opinions outside their ‘bubble’, the primary goal of the campaign was to confront these people with an opposing opinion, the initiators said. Apart from a handful of statements and an explanatory video on the campaign channel, however, many details about the planning, financing, and implementation of the campaign remain unclear. Neither the website of ‘Flüchtlinge Willkommen’ nor FCB Zurich provides more information. Only a number of YouTube comments indicate that the campaign was not – as might be assumed – financed by donations, but was based on cooperation with Google and YouTube. A prearranged cooperation between human rights activists and a commercial video platform, however, puts the apparently subversive guerrilla nature of the campaign into question – not to mention that the uploaders of the hate videos were themselves able to gain income from the advertisements, even if only a small amount.

In fact, it is also doubtful what the campaign was able to achieve in the long term. Although some viewers of radical right-wing videos could certainly be reached during its one-week run, quite a few will have used an adblocker. Moreover, due to the short duration of the campaign, it was not the actual action itself that attracted attention, but rather an explanatory compilation video, which was addressed at sympathisers and supporters of the initiative after the campaign, and in doing so appeared more like a professional image video. The actual advertising campaign had long since ceased at this point – instead, the video about the campaign now received attention. It is questionable whether placing the educational advertisements was actually the main goal of the campaign, or whether the production of a viral retrospective video was the main focus.

Even considered favourably, the effectiveness of the advertising clips remains unclear. It is not apparent whether viewers of right-wing YouTube videos could actually be persuaded to rethink their views – or whether the preceding advertising clips were just an irritation for them, just ‘do-gooder counter-propaganda’, that merely reinforced existing negative views about refugees. The second possibility is supported by a conspicuously high number of negative evaluations of the tutorial video as well as a number of comments criticising that an attempt is being made here to propagate a certain opinion by force: ‘The more you want to force the Refugees-Welcome-Madness on people’, writes one user, ‘the more you make them resist it.’ Taking the same line, others questioned the basic credibility of the campaign: the portrayal of the refugees as heroes damages the campaign, because ‘model immigrants’ are chosen as protagonists, while the ‘other, bad ones’ are left out. Moreover, the advertising videos often did not present facts, but personal experiences of fleeing or humorous anecdotes.

In view of the professional production standards of both the individual advertising clips and the retrospective explanatory video, the criticism was able to fall on fertile ground: Those who were critical of refugees from the outset will hardly have been moved to rethink their position through this campaign, while in the worst case it may have strengthened their resentment. While the campaign was, of course, also received positively, this approval came primarily from those who were already open-minded about refugees beforehand – the effect of the campaign was merely a reinforcement. What for some people was the great strength of the campaign was its greatest weakness in the eyes of others – because although the campaign’s primary goal was to provide an enlightening counter-foil to xenophobia and hostility towards refugees, in the end it itself remained blatantly one-sided. There was no real consideration of the arguments of either party.

Natascha Flammann