The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How dirty campaigning and fake Facebook sites came to dominate the Austrian election

Pedestrians pass campaign posters for Sebastian Kurz of the People's Party and Christian Kern of the Social Democratic Party in Vienna. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)
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VIENNA — The two Facebook pages told sharply different tales, but neither looked especially favorable for Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old Austrian foreign minister who is expected to become the country’s youngest-ever chancellor following elections Sunday.

One cast itself as a fanboy site for the telegenic Kurz, but included dodgy accusations that nongovernmental organizations were smuggling in thousands of migrants. It also included a poll suggesting that the center-right leader might seal the country’s border with Italy to block the path of asylum seekers.

The other appeared to be a far-right attack site against Kurz, and was laced with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In the end, neither site was what it appeared. But both, according to the Austrian media, had the same unlikely creator: a former consultant for the reelection campaign of Kurz’s rival, center-left Chancellor Christian Kern.

The disclosure of the deception has rocked the normally sedate world of Austrian politics in the election’s final weeks, crowding out debate over the issues and clogging Austrian newspapers and news shows with endless discussion of who knew what, and when.

“It’s like House of Cards, but crazier,” says Stefan Petzner, a political consultant and former adviser to the far-right Freedom Party, which is competing for second place behind Kurz’s center-right People’s Party.

The starring role in the affair was played by an Israeli PR consultant by the name of Tal Silberstein, who had been hired by Kern’s party, the Social Democrats, to conduct research and data analysis for their campaign.

Silberstein had already run several campaigns for the party in previous elections, but a month before the Facebook affair, the Social Democrats fired him when he was arrested by Israeli authorities for alleged money laundering. He denies the accusations, according to his lawyer.

Silberstein is under house arrest in Israel. But according to the Times of Israel, he confirmed that his team was behind the Facebook sites and that Kern wasn’t aware of them. Silberstein told Austrian media the Facebook pages were intended to gather data and test out different campaign messages, but denies promoting anti-Semitic and xenophobic content.

Johannes Vetter, the Social Democrats’ campaign manager, called the Facebook affair a “disaster” and ascribed all responsibility to Silberstein who he said “lost touch with reality.”

“Dirty campaigning isn’t new of course,” said political scientist Peter Filzmaier, from the Danube University Krems. “But for the first time it became the dominant topic in the most decisive time of the election.”

In this week’s televised debate between Kurz and Hans-Christian Strache from the far-right Freedom Party, Kurz repeatedly stated his aim of “honing a new style of politics” which he says he’s carried out “without attacks or accusations but by trying to convince others with ideas.”

However, Austrian headlines are dominated by new accusations against Kurz’s party. Last week, a Silberstein partner told Austrian media that Kurz’s spokesman tried to poach him in mid-July to work for their team, offering him 100,000 euros (about $118,000). Kurz’s party denies the allegations.

Some voters have become immune to the political drama. “Nothing shocks me anymore,” said Laura Löchli, a 22-year old student living in Vienna. She said she has stopped paying attention to most of the campaign because “they’re all just accusing each other, and no one presents their position on concrete issues anymore.”

Although Filzmaier predicts the scandal won’t have an impact on overall voter turnout, it has soured attitudes toward politics. “There’s a general mood of distrust and political cynicism. It’s a problem for our democracy, whatever the election results will be,” he said.