A recent report from the United Nations Security Council warns that extreme right-wing groups and individuals in the US have sought to exploit the pandemic to “radicalize, recruit, and inspire plots and attacks”. This sentiment is echoed in a note from the Council of the European Union, which warns that it is “highly likely” right-wing extremists are now “capitalising on the corona crisis more than on any other issue”. It adds that this focus may have led to an expansion in target selection, with sites like hospitals being viewed as legitimate targets for large-scale attacks.
The far right’s focus on coronavirus has been reflected across social media. One recent report showed that between January and April 2020, hundreds of thousands of far-right posts about coronavirus were made to public Facebook groups. Meanwhile, conspiratorial narratives relating to “elites” – a staple of far-right discourse – steadily increased from mid-March.
Similarly, far-right groups on the encrypted messaging app Telegram have set up a range of channels dedicated specifically to the discussion of coronavirus, often amplifying disinformation. In March, Telegram channels associated with white supremacy and racism attracted an influx of over 6,000 users, with one channel, dedicated to the discussion of coronavirus, growing its user base by 800%.
One of the key ways the far right is doing this is by taking advantage of the staggering extent of misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus. The “plandemic” narrative is one example, but there has also been a significant risein social media activity relating to the QAnon conspiracy movement, which has also amplified misinformation about the pandemic.
A number of these conspiracies have also been influential within the Reopen movement, which advocates for the lifting of lockdown restrictions. This momentum has been harnessed by some far-right actors, particularly the Proud Boys, an alt-right, “pro-west fraternal organisation”.
This group has historically attempted to market itself towards the Republican mainstream on platforms such as Facebook by deliberately avoiding the use of overtly racist symbols. Now a number of Proud Boys have been spotted taking part in anti-lockdown protests, with the group’s president, Enrique Tarrio, framing the Florida protests as the point where “the battle for the 2020 election starts”. This suggests he is using the protests as a propaganda opportunity for his movement.
Indeed, the spirit of the protests accords closely with narratives being propagated by some more overtly extreme facets of the right, suggesting the Reopen movement has presented an opportunity to popularise extreme anti-state messaging. For example, one alt-right figure used his Telegram channel to paint the lockdown measures as a “power grab” by the state, and an orchestrated attempt to ensure citizens – particularly men - remain “slaves” to society and the government.