Far-right using COVID-19 theories to grow reach, study shows
A protestor lights flares during a demonstration against measures to battle the coronavirus pandemic in Austria.

Anti-lockdown protest
'COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for radicalization.'

The mugshot-style photos are posted on online message boards in black and white and look a little like old-fashioned “wanted” posters.

“The Jews own COVID just like all of Hollywood,” the accompanying text says. “Wake up people.”

The post is one of many that white supremacists and far-right extremists are using to expand their reach and recruit followers on the social media platform Telegram, according to the findings of researchers who sifted through nearly half a million comments on pages — called channels on Telegram — that they categorized as far-right from January 2020 to June 2021.

The tactic has been successful: Nine of the 10 most viewed posts in the sample examined by the researchers contained misleading claims about the safety of vaccines or the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing them. One Telegram channel saw its total subscribers jump tenfold after it leaned into COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

“COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for radicalization,” said the study’s author, Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “It allows conspiracy theorists or extremists to create simple narratives, framing it as us versus them, good versus evil.”

Other posts downplayed the severity of the coronavirus or pushed conspiracy theories about its origins. Many of the posts contain hate speech directed at Jews, Asians, women or other groups or violent rhetoric that would be automatically removed from Facebook or Twitter for violating the standards of those sites.

Telegram, based in the United Arab Emirates, has many different kinds of users around the world, but it has become a favorite tool of some on the far-right in part because the platform lacks the content moderation of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Telegram said it welcomed “the peaceful expression of ideas, including those we do not agree with.” The statement said moderators monitor activity and user reports “in order to remove public calls for violence.”

O’Connor said he believes the people behind these posts are trying to exploit fear and anxiety over COVID-19 to attract new recruits, whose loyalty may outlast the pandemic.

Indeed, mixed in with the COVID-19 conspiracy posts are some direct recruitment pitches. For example, someone posted a link to a news story about a Long Island, New York, synagogue on a channel popular with the far-right Proud Boys and added a message urging followers to join them. “Embrace who you were called to be,” read the post, which was accompanied by a swastika.

The researchers found suggestions that far-right groups on Telegram are working together. ISD researchers linked two usernames involved in running one Telegram channel to two prominent members of the American far-right. One was a scheduled speaker at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist deliberately drove into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring 35.

That channel has grown steadily since the pandemic began and now has a reach of around 400,000 views each day, according to Telegram Analytics, a service that keeps statistical data on about 150,000 Telegram channels on the site TGStat. In May 2020 the channel had 5,000 subscribers; it now has 50,000.

The data is especially concerning given a rash of incidents around the world that indicate some extremists are moving from online rhetoric to offline action.

Gavin Yamey, a physician and public health professor at Duke University, has written about the rise of threats against health care workers during the pandemic. He said the harassment is even worse for those who are women, people of color, in a religious minority or LGBTQ.

Yamey, who is Jewish, has received threats and anti-Semitic messages, including one on Twitter calling for his family’ to be “executed.” He fears racist conspiracy theories and scapegoating may persist even after the pandemic eases.

“I worry that in some ways the genie is out of the bottle,” Yamey said.

The pandemic and the unrest it has caused have been linked to a wave of harassment and attacks on Asian-Americans. In Italy, a far-right opponents of vaccine mandates rampaged through a union headquarters and a hospital. In August in Hawaii, some of those who harassed that state’s Jewish lieutenant governor at his home during a vaccine protest brandished fliers with his photo and the word “Jew.”

Elsewhere, people have died after taking sham cures, pharmacists have destroyed vaccine vials, and others have damaged 5G telecommunication towers since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.

Events such as the pandemic leave many people feeling anxious and looking for explanations, according to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, which studies far-right extremism. Conspiracy theories can provide an artificial sense of control, she said.

“COVID-19 has created fertile ground for recruitment because so many people around the world feel unsettled,” Miller-Idriss said. “These racist conspiracy theories give people a sense of control, a sense of power over events that make people feel powerless.”

Policing extremism online has challenged tech companies that say they must balance protecting free speech with removing hate speech. They also must contend with increasingly sophisticated tactics by groups that have learned to evade platform rules.

Facebook this month announced that it had removed a network of accounts based in Italy and France that had spread conspiracy theories about vaccines and carried out coordinated harassment campaigns against journalists, doctors and public health officials.

The network, called V_V, used both real and fake accounts and was overseen by a group of users who coordinated their activities on Telegram in an effort to hide their tracks from Facebook, company investigators found.

“They sought to mass-harass individuals with pro-vaccination views into making their posts private or deleting them, essentially suppressing their voices,” said Mike Dvilyanski, head of cyber espionage investigations at Meta, Facebook’s parent company.

O’Connor, the ISD researcher, said sites like Telegram will continue to serve as a refuge for extremists as long as they lack the moderation policies of the larger platforms.

“The guardrails that you see on other platforms, they don’t exist on Telegram,” O’Connor said. “That makes it a very attractive place for extremists.”

___

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.

Associated Press


8 comments

  • Alex

    December 17, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    Republicans do you worry the whole world seems to be against you?

    Why do you think that is?

    Could it be that it’s not the MSM, or Soros, or the Deep State, or the commies, it’s that you’re simply wrong?

    • Ron Ogden

      December 19, 2021 at 9:52 am

      No, I’m not worried about “the whole world.” I worry about Florida and America, and there it appears most people like us. We’re going to reelect our governor and legislature easily next fall, and we’re going to kick Nancy Pelosi’s fanny so hard she will probably miss San Francisco and splash down in Monterey Bay. So, no. But thanks for asking.

      • Alex

        December 20, 2021 at 8:08 am

        Check out the wikipedia list of companies that stopped supporting the GOP after the Jan 6th terrorist attack.

        Some have resumed, but not most.

        Wikipedia: List of companies that halted U.S. political contributions in January 2021

        Your friends are abandoning you in droves

        • Ron Ogden

          December 21, 2021 at 6:22 am

          Al, I respect you for trying to keep up a bold front. It’s tough, I know. In the last two days of the last reporting quarter, the Florida Democratic Party brought in about $200,000 in donations. The Republican Party of Florida scored about a half a million. Facts, look em up. I know you like to read AP stories waving the red flag about far-right politics, but the truth is Florida and America are sick of Biden and proggie-ism already and, even if Trump is not the solution, Trumpism likely is.
          “We’re here, you may have fear, but get used to it, uhh-huh!”

          • Concern Citizen

            December 24, 2021 at 9:26 am

            Why is Trump afraid to comply with the requests of the Jan 6 Commission?

            Jan 6, 2021 = Trump’s attempt to destroy American democracy.

  • PeterH

    December 17, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    It’s always someone else’s fault for right wing bullies!

    • Ron Ogden

      December 19, 2021 at 9:57 am

      I’m finally starting to get you, Peterh. It’s the bullies, just like the ones who were in fourth grade when you were in first, always laughing at the way you looked and calling you “peety-wheety.” And now they all work for Trump. Yeah, I can see it. For some folks, tough times just never seem to end. Hey, allow me to apologize on their behalf.

Comments are closed.


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