Call to Arms: Social Media and Far-Right Narratives of COVID-19

Call to Arms: Social Media and Far-Right Narratives of COVID-19
18th May 2020 Peita Richards
Peita Richards
In Coronavirus, Insights

Whilst most of us isolating due to COVID-19 trawl social media for factual information, updated guidelines and messages of hope to counter fear, the far-right instead see this fear as the perfect storm for accelerationism. Accelerationism in simple terms is a deeply held far-right ideology, which aims to exploit events of great magnitude and suffering to hasten the collapse of society as it stands; further allowing it to be rebuilt in a superior manner and one which supports the core tenants of white supremacist movements – ‘we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children’. COVID-19 is an opportunity of timing, origin and consequence, ideal for such exploitation by the far-right.

Racial Narratives

Further emboldened by US President Donald Trump’s use of the term “the Chinese virus”, COVID-19 has allowed the far-right to disseminate propaganda and misinformation across their existing widespread social media networks. Targeting more mainstream individuals and preying on their fear, the xenophobic messaging has seen a spike in targeting of Asian communities across the UK, USA and Australia. From verbal attacks, filmed and posted online as a means of normalizing the behaviour, to an escalation in targeted hate crimes, the far-right have capitalized on the opportunity to return an even harsher xenophobic policy agenda under the banner of security policy. Indefinite bans on immigration only further fuel their argument that they are, indeed, correct that the virus is to blame on the Chinese people.

Additionally, established extremist forums such as Stormfront have seized the opportunity to label the virus as “the Jewish virus.” Noting the low number of deaths in Israel (and ignoring strong and early quarantine measures by the Israeli government), Stormfront encouraged its followers to weaponise the virus against the Jewish community. In their forums, the belief in the Aryan race as superior, and therefore more able to recover from the disease, advocating that those infected should deliberately force contact and, where possible, transfer bodily fluids to members of the Jewish community.

Anti-Government and Anti-Law enforcement Narratives

Not dissimilar to the anti-semitic messaging promoted on Stormfront, anti-government and anti-law enforcement narratives have also been prominent throughout COVID-19.

Stormfront forums that advocate for the weaponisation of the virus against the Jewish community, simultaneously call for the targeting of law enforcement officials. Increasing the spread of the virus through communities necessary to enforce lockdown measures, and general rules of law and order feeds into the accelerationism narrative and aims to expedite the collapse of society.

Drawing on its ability to rapidly mobilise individuals through social media, the far-right highlighted tweets by President Trump on 18 April 2020, where he called for the uprising against Governors who he believed had been too harsh in their quarantine measures. In a sequence of tweets he called to ‘Liberate Minnesota!’, ‘Liberate Michigan!’, and ‘Liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!’. Within 24 hours, Proud Boys had used the rhetoric to unite with gun rights groups on Facebook, recruiting more than 200,000 online supporters, to mobilise protests in direct violation of lockdown measures. Whilst the rallies themselves drew no more than a few dozen individuals to each event, the media coverage magnified the protests and propelled further engagement in online chatter by those sympathising with the core positions of the protestors.

Responses and Threat Management

Whilst denialism was a recurrent theme throughout the far-right community in the early stages of the pandemic, this rapidly transferred to a disaster based communications strategy, focused on blame allocation and contesting government legitimacy. In doing so, the particular focus on racial groups and promotion of antisemitic and xenophobic positions implied a call to arms; to mobilise- potentially violently– against the identified target groups.

Rapidly, disinformation appeared across social media platforms at such magnitude that both Twitter and Facebook dedicated significantly resourced teams to identifying and removing propaganda, false narratives and posts promoting hate. However, the far-right is nothing if not adaptable, and the early damage and seeds of mistrust and fear had already been sown.

Initially downplayed by federal agencies, in February FBI Director Christopher Wray declared that any individual deliberately spreading the COVID-19 virus would be charged under domestic terrorism legislation, with the Department of Justice echoing such behaviour would fall under criminal jurisdiction. At the time of writing, two charges have been laid under this mechanism. Whilst neither case is believed to be directly linked to individuals affiliated with extremist ideology, there is a notable rise of targeted hate crimes across the United States.

For the government to successfully manage the response to the crisis, public trust is paramount. And in a time where the use of social media by extremist groups outweighs the successful use of social media by those seeking to promote a calm and reasoned response, tackling the far-right head on is a critical issue in restoring order and confidence as we move into the post-crisis response period.