Click here to read GNET's latest report Researching Extremist Content on Social Media Platforms: Data Protection and Research Ethics Challenges and Opportunities.

‘Crisis and a Loss of Control’ – Digital Extremism in German-Speaking Countries During the COVID-19 Crisis

‘Crisis and a Loss of Control’ – Digital Extremism in German-Speaking Countries During the COVID-19 Crisis
17th December 2020 Jakob Guhl
Jakob Guhl
In Coronavirus, Insights

COVID-19 and the Extremist Hijacking of Anti-Lockdown Protests

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to drastic changes to our lives and great uncertainty with regard to healthcare, social cohesion and the economy. In parallel, major protests against the policies implemented by governments to prevent the spread of the virus have erupted. In Germany, large-scale demonstrations of lockdown-opponents brought together a broad spectrum of groups, from conspiracy theorists and QAnon supporters to Reichsbürger (a far- right movement that denies the legal and moral legitimacy of the post-WWII German state), vaccination sceptics, AfD members, Identitarians and neo-Nazis. Criticism of the implementation and cost-benefit calculation of government policies may of course be legitimate. The failure by the organisers of these protests to credibly distance themselves from known extremists has however cast a shadow over the anti-lockdown movement. In early December, the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence services, announced that it had put the ‘Querdenken’ (English: ‘lateral thinking’) group under surveillance. ‘Querdenken’, which has been instrumental in organising massive anti-lockdown demonstrations across Germany, had been ‘infiltrated by extremists’, the BfV claimed.

The case of ‘Querdenken’ demonstrates how political, social, economic and medical concerns that are shared far beyond extremist constituencies have been hijacked by extremist groups. The crisis represents an opportunity for extremists to benefit from the insecurity that resulted from the unprecedented changes imposed upon everyday life because of the virus. Through disinformation and conspiracy theories, the far-right in particular seeks to exploit these insecurities to divide communities and create a breeding ground for their political agendas. Given the increase in Internet consumption through temporary school closures and the increasing work from home offices, the Internet and social media are key resources for these efforts.

COVID-19 and Digital German-Language Extremism

To better understand this extremist co-option of the virus, ISD’s research report ‘Crisis and Loss of Control’, published in early November in German and now available in English, analysed the networks and narratives of German-speaking far-right, far-left and Islamist extremists actors in Germany, Austria and Switzerland on mainstream social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), alternative platforms (Telegram, 4chan) and extremist websites in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report documents what narratives extremists across the ideological spectrum are emphasising in order to instrumentalise the uncertainty arising from the crisis. It becomes clear that extremists interpret the COVID-19 pandemic along pre-existing ideological patterns, draw upon previous narratives and scapegoats and link these to the current crisis.

The far-right takes the most vocal stance against their respective governments’ lockdown measures, but also uses COVID-19 to mobilise against minorities, especially migrants and refugees. The far-left on the other hand views the pandemic through economic and anti- capitalist frames. Some groups additionally accuse the government of attempting to create an ‘authoritarian state’, while others mobilise against the (far-)right and the police or even express sympathies with undemocratic anti-Western regimes such as China, Cuba and Venezuela which are supposedly superior at managing the virus. Islamist extremists on the other hand put a lot of emphasis on the religious interpretations of the pandemic, while expressing their rejection of Western, liberal and secular societies and making claims about the alleged superiority of ‘Islamic’ states in preventing health crises. While the model for alternative governance proposed by different extremist groups diverges, it is interesting to note these parallel claims about the alleged superiority of ‘socialist’ or ‘Islamic’ states compared to liberal democratic states in responding to health crises.

A Story of Growth, but not all Extremisms are Made Equal

Whatever their specific narratives and interpretations of the COVID-19 crisis may be, our results show that extremists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, across the ideological spectrum, have been able to increase their online reach since the introduction of the lockdown measures.

On a more granular level, we can see however that the digital growth of extremist movements has been unequal in four ways: first, the far-right, which already had the most sizeable online presence, grew more (18% more followers) than the far-left (+10%) and Islamist extremists (6%). Second, the far-right grew more on alternative platforms than on mainstream platforms, with even the biggest Telegram channels growing by 350% during the first six months after the introduction of the lockdown measures. Third, far-right Telegram channels dedicated to conspiracy theories grew more than channels focused on ethnonationalist, Nazi and anti-Muslim content. For example, the biggest German-language QAnon channel, which describes itself as a ‘Swiss blog about current Q-Drops’ grew by 560%. And fourth, extremist channels grew most rapidly during the two months immediately following the introduction of the lockdown measures in mid-March. Afterwards, the rate of growth slowed down again.

‘Loss of Control’ and the Challenge of Conspiracy Theories

The results suggest that insecurity and far-reaching interventions into normal everyday life associated with the virus have led to a perceived loss of control. This may have increased the need for black and white answers, which are also a feature of extremist ideologies. Conspiracy theories provide such clear explanations for political and societal developments that are difficult to understand, identifying clear scapegoats and thus simple solutions to the crisis. Through conspiracy theories, the feeling of being in control can be regained.

While conspiracy theories play a major role in far-left and Islamist extremist movements more generally, conspiracy theories about the origin and nature of the virus are conspicuous by their absence from far-left and Islamist discourse over the first six months after the introduction of the initial lockdown measures in March. While there is some ambivalence among Islamist extremists that find it conceivable that ’Zionists‘ or Western powers could be behind the COVID-19 pandemic, they are a minority among German Islamists. Interestingly, a number of high-profile Islamist influencers are seen to take a strong stance against against COVID-related conspiracy theories. These Islamist critics of these conspiracy theories described adherents of such claims as ‘naïve’ and ‘living far away from reality’, arguing that there was no plausible motive for anyone to create such a harmful virus.

The far-right, meanwhile, has most visibly engaged in promoting disinformation and conspiracy theories about the origin and nature of the virus, and has been able to instrumentalise this moment most effectively. Of particular concern is the growth in reach and audience of these channels over the course of the past year, presenting not just a challenge to liberal democracy, but to public health efforts as well.