The impact of COVID-19 has been felt globally by societies in their entirety; from hospitalisations, deaths, the economic downturn and job losses, to the daily impact on people’s lives where they have been distanced from their friends and family. As the effects of the pandemic were felt immediately, so was the far-right’s response to it. From the very first days of the pandemic, extreme right groups took to social media to spread misinformation and conspiracies about both the virus itself and governments’ responses to it. Although there are strong and widespread concerns about the pandemic leading to increased engagement with extremism, we are yet to experience the full velocity of the situation. This includes a diversification of engagement and overlaps between different fringe organisations and ideas. As one particular example, this has manifested in the spread of coronavirus-related conspiracy theories concerning lockdown measures, vaccines, masks, and other pandemic restrictions, and wider far-right conspiracies around immigration, asylum, anti-government and establishment positions, and anti-globalist and capitalist agendas. On the ground, these conspiracies have contributed to a rise in antisemitic hate speech and hate crimes (both on- and offline) as well as vandalism. Europe has been at the centre of much of this messaging. In fact, researchers have argued that Europe has been growing increasingly polarised in recent years, due to “new trends in identity and cultural politics; financial crises and political instability; the weaponisation of crises by malicious political actors; and the rise of irregular forms of media and social media.” This polarisation has manifested within numerous contexts, including disillusionment with existing political systems; an issue accentuated by COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic. Across Europe, Germany has been home to one of most co-ordinated approaches to anti-lockdown protesting. These demonstrations have taken place under the banner of ‘Querdenken’ (‘Lateral thinking’) but are comprised of a mixture of different individuals and groups such as Anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and followers of extremist organisations. In this Insight, we discuss the preliminary findings from an ongoing, Research England funded, project which explores polarisation during the COVID-19 pandemic by the far-right populist party, Alternative für Deutschland’s (AfD), and their network on Twitter.
AfD is Germany’s largest opposition party in parliament, attaining just under 13% of the vote in the 2017 Federal Elections. Their popularity grew exponentially in 2015 when they capitalised on the so-called “migrant crisis”. Like other far-right populist parties, AfD have been complicit in normalising and mainstreaming extremist rhetoric through their use of identity politics. In doing so, they further proliferate and demarcate insider/outsider group divides. By capitalising on events and labelling them as “crises”, AfD spread a polarised narrative about these events, blaming certain groups, and creating a sense of urgency. In the case of the aforementioned “migrant crisis”, AfD used extremist rhetoric surrounding multiculturalism and fuelled the out-grouping of migrants and ethnic minority communities within Germany and across Europe. Moreover, research suggests that this “us and them” mentality polarises people’s voting choices, leading parties to adopt more extreme positions. Recent developments have highlighted a greater cause for concern around AfD’s ties to extremism. As of March 2020, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) put a section of the party called ‘Der Flügel’ (‘The Wing’) under surveillance. More recently, due to concerns over the expansion of their ties to extremism, the BfV have extended their surveillance to the entire party. Nevertheless, over the last year, AfD have struggled to maintain their influence and when the pandemic hit Germany, they did not immediately capitalise on it. Initially, they expressed their support when the German Government began to introduce lockdown measures last March, even criticising the government for not doing enough to restrict its spread. However, when it became apparent that they were losing popularity, their response changed and focussed attention on espousing anti-government rhetoric, opposing lockdown measures, and questioning the validity of PCR tests and face coverings.
AfD’s use of social media to rally followers has been well documented. Research prior to the pandemic has highlighted their use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to discuss topics around immigration, and to amplify the out-grouping of migrant communities. Using a snapshot of over 2.4 million tweets from a total of 26,888 AfD Twitter followers collected in January 2021, this project sought to understand which out-groups have been discursively constructed by AfD accounts and its followers within the context of COVID-19. To better determine this, we conducted topic modelling to identify the key topics and main out-groups as presented in the tweets. Seven key topics emerged from this first analysis from which five salient out-groups were deduced: the German Government, the Global Establishment, Migrants, Muslims and Antifa/Black Lives Matter (These two were combined because more often than not, they appeared together). To explore followers’ performance of denigration through COVID-19 further, the dataset was then filtered using the keywords ‘Corona’ and ‘Covid’ – reducing the dataset to 48,000 tweets from around 14,000 followers. This led to the identification of two main out-groups: the German Government and the Global Establishment.
Through further analysis, in the form of thematic coding, the denigration of both the German Government and the global establishment was identified as performed through key (and quite expected) themes associated with COVID-19. The first set of themes are epitomised by their negative positioning of situating themselves as ‘against’ or ‘anti’ something. For example, key themes emerged associated with anti-corona measures (such as vaccines, masks and testing), denying the existence of COVID-19, adopting COVID-19 conspiracies such as ‘plandemic’ and covid dictatorship. A second set of themes related to who was to blame for COVID-19 and quite expectedly, more specific than the government and global establishment, corruption as well as gains in capitalism were espoused. Early indications suggest that some within the dataset were linking COVID-19, or one of its associated measures, with immigration and asylum, including governments using the pandemic as a distraction from immigration policies. Interestingly, the resulting themes demonstrated that within the dataset there were dissenting voices too e.g., anti-counter global establishment and anti-counter German Government. Within the tweets associated with these voices, conspiracy theory debunking and hatred towards COVID-19 deniers was evident.
Although the research is at an early stage of analysis, the themes emerging from the empirical data suggest strong parallels with wider narratives on the intersection between the far-right and COVID-19 conspiracy theories, anti-pandemic measures, and, more broadly, anti-government and global establishment, aligning with wider populist agendas. More broadly, we encourage wider engagement with this important emerging policy-relevant global issue; one that can have widespread impact (locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally) across a number of different contexts, including health, policing, counter-terrorism, and with specific policy-development, such as the Online Harms Bill in the UK.