‘Conspiracy bingo’: Trans-Atlantic extremists seize on the pandemic

“Honestly, it’s a dream come true for any and every hate group, snake oil salesman and everything in between,” said Tijana Cvjetićanin, a fact-checker in the Balkans who has watched ultranationalist groups promoting hate-filled messages on social media about the coronavirus, often against Jewish communities.

Civil rights advocates have warned for months that the coronavirus could aid recruiting for the most extreme white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups — those actively rooting for society’s collapse. Some online researchers say they also worry about the barrage of false messages from extremist groups feeding what the U.N. has dubbed an “infodemic” that makes it hard to separate fact from fiction.

Opponents of government lockdown orders have used online platforms to organize protests across the U.S., including rallies where activists displayed guns inside Michigan’s state capitol. In Europe, rumors linking the coronavirus to 5G wireless technology have led to dozens of arson attacks on telecommunications masts — a phenomenon that now appears to have spread to Canada.

“It’s like hitting conspiracy bingo,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, which is tracking coronavirus misinformation.

From 4chan to Facebook

As the world economy craters and the coronavirus’ global death toll ticks past 280,000 people, extremist messages are finding fertile ground on fringe online platforms like 4chan, Telegram and a gamer hangout called Discord. From there, such harmful content can make its way to mainstream sites like Facebook and Google-owned YouTube — each boasting roughly 2 billion users apiece — despite the companies’ attempts to weed out violent or dangerous content.

Facebook said last week that one collection of fake accounts and pages it removed in April — tied to two anti-immigrant websites in the U.S. — had drawn more than 200,000 followers with messages including the hashtag “#ChinaVirus” and a false claim that the coronavirus mainly kills white people. Twitter announced Monday that it would begin more aggressively labeling tweets that contain misleading or harmful coronavirus information.

But plenty of other fake coronavirus content continues to thrive online. That includes a slickly produced online video, called “Plandemic,” that garnered millions of views across YouTube, Twitter and Facebook over the weekend by promoting bogus medical cures and other conspiracy theories tied to the coronavirus. The video remains in wide circulation.

One coronavirus-related term, “Coronachan,” has also exploded on social media, first emerging in January and drawing more than 120,000 shares on Twitter in one week in late April, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that tracks extremist groups. (The term is a play on the name of 4chan, a message board that is a favorite gathering spot for the global far right.) In Germany, Telegram groups where influential extremists and far-right activists attack vulnerable groups have doubled their number of followers, to more than 100,000 participants since February, according to a review by POLITICO of those accounts.

The themes of far-right posts include long-standing grievances, including allegations that migrants spread disease, support for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, antagonism toward the EU or opposition to gun control. One fake online rumor, accusing Microsoft founder Bill Gates of creating the coronavirus, echoes centuries-old conspiracy theories and Anti-Semitic tropes about global elites pulling the world’s strings.

“These aren’t new lines they are spinning,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “They will use anything they can, whether it’s coronavirus or something else, to bring people into their radical world.”

Public figures helping stoke the fires include French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, whose Facebook account has more than 1.5 million followers, and Trump, who has defended his use of the term “Chinese virus” and pushed the theory that the disease may have come from a lab in China, despite pushback from his intelligence and defense agencies.

Extremist groups on the two continents have tried before to coordinate their messaging, with middling success.

After Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, far-right online communities sprouted up across the U.S. and Europe, at first using online platforms like Facebook and Google before shifting their focus to smaller, less-regulated networks to share conspiracy theories or organize protests.

Americans like Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist, also tried to export U.S.-style online tactics in hopes of uniting European right-wing groups like Italy’s Northern League party and Le Pen’s National Rally in France, though, as POLITICO reported last year, he struggled to win over movements on the Continent.

Now, as the coronavirus gives the far right a new impetus to find audiences, many European activists are wielding the same U.S.-style tactics they have spent years learning to emulate, including the creation of online “meme banks” of photos designed to spread widely. That leaves them less in need of outside help, according to researchers tracking their movements.

“Europe’s far-right no longer needs additional resources from its transatlantic supporters,” said Chloe Colliver, who heads the digital research unit at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Blaming minorities

It does not take much digging through the online platforms to find far-right messages on the health crisis.

In Italy, extremist news outlets have flooded social media with reports blaming that country’s devastating coronavirus outbreak on migrants, including an online attack that singled out a Pakistani employee at a Chinese restaurant in a northern Italian town.

In France, activists called for sending non-white populations back to their “home” countries, while Le Pen, the far-right leader, alleged on Facebook that mosques had have “taken advantage of the confinement orders” by blaring “the muezzin’s call to Islamic prayer” on loudspeakers.

Tommy Robinson, the British anti-immigration activist, has promoted the “#GermJihad” hashtag and reposted online messages from members of India’s ruling nationalist BJP party to his more than 36,000 followers on Telegram, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s review of his posts.

Others, on sites like Facebook and Reddit, have alleged that the Chinese created the coronavirus as a bioweapon to attack the U.S. economy, and will reap the windfall if they are not stopped. “China will become even more brazen and take down western economies with more filth in the future,” one Reddit user wrote.

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