Tech

Conspiracy bingo: Transatlantic extremists seize on the pandemic

The coronavirus is providing a global rallying cry for conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists on both sides of the Atlantic.

People seizing on the pandemic range from white supremacists and anti-vaxxers in the U.S. to fascist and anti-refugee groups across Europe, according to a POLITICO review of thousands of social media posts and interviews with misinformation experts tracking their online activities. They also include far-right populists on both continents who had previously tried to coordinate their efforts after the 2016 American presidential election.

Not all online groups peddling messages on the pandemic have links to the far right, but those extremists have become especially vocal in using the outbreak to push their political agenda at a time of deepening public uncertainty and economic trauma. They are piggybacking on social media to promote virus-related themes drawn from multiple sources — among them, Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns, the Trump administrations musings about the virus origins and anti-Muslim themes from Indias nationalist ruling party.

“Honestly, its 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 COVID-19, often against Jewish communities.

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

Twitter announced Monday that it would begin more aggressively labeling tweets that contain misleading or harmful coronavirus information.

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

“Its like hitting conspiracy bingo,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Councils Digital Forensics Research Lab, which is tracking COVID-19 misinformation.

From 4chan to Facebook

As the world economy craters and the virus global death toll ticked past 280,000 people as of May 11, 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 COVID-19 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 virus 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 COVID-19. The video remains in wide circulation.

One COVID-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, such as allegations that migrants spread disease, support for President Donald Trumps proposed border wall, antagonism toward the European Union or opposition to gun control. One fake online rumor, accusing Microsoft founder Bill Gates of creating the virus, echoes centuries-old conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes about global elites pulling the worlds strings.

“These arent new lines they are spinning,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “They will use anything they can, whether its 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 Trumps surprise victory in 2016, far-right online communities sprouted 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, Trumps former White House chief strategist, also tried to export U.S.-style online tactics across the Atlantic in hopes of uniting European right-wing groups like Italys League party and Le Pens National Rally in France, though, as POLITICO reported last year, he struggled to win over movements on the Continent.

Now, as the virus 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.

“Europes 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 countrys devastating coronavirus outbreak on migrants, including an online attack that singled out a Pakistani employee at a Chinese restaurant in a northern Italian town.

British anti-immigration activist Tommy Robinson has promoted conspiracy theories online | POLITICO screenshots

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 muezzins 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 Indias ruling nationalist BJP party to his more than 36,000 followers on Telegram, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hates review of his posts.

Others, on sites like Facebook and Reddit, have alleged that the Chinese created the virus 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.

Those claims go much further than the recent speculation by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the virus originated in a government lab in Wuhan, China. (The president said this month that he thinks the Chinese “made a horrible mistake and they didnt want to admit it.”)

While some online far-right users have jumped on Trumps messages, others had already been promoting anti-China rhetoric before senior U.S. politicians began railing on Beijing, according to a review of social media posts from early February.

Attacking governments

Extremists are also using the virus to call for resistance against their governments.

In Telegram channels with tens of thousands of followers, users, mostly in the U.S., urged people to take up arms to protest the lockdowns and protect their civil liberties, sometimes posting photos of themselves dressed in biohazard suits and carrying automatic weapons, according to research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Disinformation about the coronavirus has flourished tech platforms | POLITICO screenshots

European far-right groups also have called for national governments to reclaim their power from the EU — a message primarily focused on countries like Greece, Spain and Italy, where some people remain bitter about how the bloc treated them during the 2008 financial crisis. Those countries similarly have seen a spike in Russian disinformation campaigns, mostly through Kremlin-backed media outlets, aimed at sowing doubt about Europes response to the virus, according to a recent review conducted by EU disinformation officials, obtained by POLITICO.

A far more extreme incident occurred in the U.S. in March, when the FBI shot and killed a Missouri man who agents said had been plotting to blow up a hospital to call attention to his white supremacist beliefs. The man, who had posted anti-Semitic remarks on Telegram hours before being killed, had chosen the target because of “Read More – Source