News reports in recent days have forced the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) to admit that one of its paid staffers was involved in covertly setting up Facebook pages that sought to discredit conservative front-runner Sebastian Kurz.
On Saturday, Austrian magazine Profil revealed that two Facebook pages used to attack and discredit Sebastian Kurz were linked to a former SPÖ election advisor named Tal Silberstein.
Silberstein is one of Israel’s most prominent political consultants, advising leaders across the political spectrum from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon and, more recently, prime minister Binyamin Netanjahu and Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko, the Irish Times noted.
Silberstein has business interests in property and mining across Guinea, Angola and Sierra Leone and one of his firms appeared in the Panama Papers scandal, involving property deals that cost the Bucharest government more than $160 million. In March an international arrest warrant was issued in his name.
The SPÖ has been trying to diminish Silberstein’s role in the election campaign since his arrest, but documents show that he had set up an office in Vienna that had planned and carried out dirty campaigns for the party. The employees were still active and ran the Facebook pages until very recently.
The media reports about the Facebook ruse from its Israeli campaign advisor, Silberstein, has not been disputed by the ruling party, suggesting that they have hard substance. The Social Democrats (SPÖ) have promised an investigation into social media posts attacking rival Sebastian Kurz, but have denied knowing that they had been put online.
The pages called “We for Sebastian Kurz” and “The Truth About Sebastian Kurz” claimed that the US investor George Soros was behind Kurz in attempt to link Kurz to the globalist elite. The SPÖ cut ties with Silberstein in August after he was caught up in the international money laundering probe in Israel. He had conducted polling and public policy research for the ruling party.
The revelations about fake Facebook accounts that smeared candidates in Austria’s election race have dealt a severe blow to social democratic Chancellor Kern’s efforts to prevent a shift to the right in the coming parliamentary vote on 15 October.
On Sunday evening, five of the leading candidates in the election took part in a live TV debate. The Facebook scandal cast a huge shadow over the debate with the FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache saying: “This is no longer a Silberstein issue. This is a Kern issue.”
The party’s new campaign manager, Christoph Matznetter, admitted on Monday, two days after his predecessor resigned due to the scandal, that “with 14 days to go to the election, the SPÖ is faced with more than a depressing situation”. The Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s biggest tabloid, similarly declared: “The SPÖ is going down in total chaos.”
Christoph Matznetter, whom Kern had put in charge of investigating the affair, told Austrian radio show Ö1 Morgenjournal on Monday: “We woke up in the middle of a tsunami.”
“This is not our style, we don’t want this type of politics,” Matznetter said, claiming that he and other senior party members were not aware of the Facebook pages. He promised that the results of his investigation would be published before the election on October 15, Kleine Zeitung reported.
Kern is lagging behind Foreign Minister Kurz in polls, as the conservative People’s Party leader dominated the race with his tough policy proposals on immigration and asylum seekers.
One of the fake Facebook accounts contained overtly racist and anti-semitic content, apparently designed to look as if they were posted by “far-right” or “extremist” Freedom Party (FPÖ) sympathisers.
On Saturday, Georg Niedermühlbichler, who had been on the SPÖ’s executive board, resigned. The Freedom Party described Niedermühlbichler as a “sacrificial lamb” and urged Kern to step down, according to a report in the German daily, Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Kern’s party has been in third place in recent polls, at 24 percent, with Kurz’s ÖVP on 33 percent and the FPÖ on 26 percent.
Kurz noted on Facebook: “We don’t want to cast aspersions on others but . . . I warned many times about Silberstein’s problematic past and dirty campaigning methods.”