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Extremists are using the chaos of the pandemic to grow their online influence and push hateful content to more and more internet users.
This content intertwines fake Covid-19 narratives — that “elites” planned the pandemic or that vaccines are harmful, for example — with discriminatory messages. In some cases, social media posts from extremists blame particular communities for Covid-19. In others, they even advocate violence.
Researchers from the Strategic Institute of Dialogue analysed hundreds of thousands of messages posted to white nationalist, misogynist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim channels on social media platform Telegram to find out more about how Covid-19 disinformation spread among these groups.
Report author Ciarán O’Connor found that nearly five percent of messages posted to nearly 240 of these channels between January 2020 and June 2021 discussed the pandemic: a significant volume of material given the generalist nature of many of these groups.
“Highly concerning overlap” between extremist groups and Covid-19 conspiracy content
As well as images and videos, messages often included links to articles from websites known for sharing false or misleading stories, like American conspiracy theory website InfoWars or Russian state-backed RT. Messages were often shared quickly between groups, amplifying their content at pace to wider audiences.
He also discovered that some users already prominent in right wing extremism social media were likely behind a Covid-19-dedicated channel that shared pandemic disinformation.
“This was particularly interesting as it confirms the existence of a highly concerning overlap between right wing extremism actors and Covid-19 conspiracy content,” he told Health Studio.
These actors, he explained, were exploiting fear created by Covid-19 to push their extremist messages to new audiences searching for answers to the pandemic.
“Extremists often make use of periods like this to fill the void, offer simple narratives that frame events that suit their interests and in short, take advantage of people’s anxieties to advance their own cause and potentially recruit or radicalise others, or at least chip away at the trust people hold in institutions of the state,” he explained.
“Extremist groups, including right-wing extremist figures, use disinformation, conspiracies and misleading claims and information as part of these efforts.”
Merging antisemitic and anti-vaccine narratives
While the channels O’Connor analysed shared all manner of false rumours about Covid-19 — often framing existing disinformation narratives through an antisemitic lens — the most prominent theme by far was vaccines.
Almost one-third of the Covid-19 content shared to both white supremacist and conspiracy theory channels discussed jabs, with post authors falsely alleging they are unsafe or even part of a secret plan to depopulate the planet.
Ample scientific evidence shows that vaccines are safe and can effectively prevent severe Covid-19 symptoms and death.
“One of the most interesting findings I think was the level to which right wing extremist groups devote their attention to vaccines and especially misleading, false and alarmist claims about vaccines,” O’Connor said. “Nine of the 10 most-viewed posts we examined featured misleading claims about vaccine safety and pharmaceutical companies.”
Particularly popular were clips purporting to show people experiencing adverse reactions to vaccines, many of which have been debunked by fact-checking outlets, including Health Studio.
Presented without context, these videos can be frightening and may prevent viewers from getting vaccinated themselves. But many internet users won’t know there are ulterior motives behind the spread of this material.
O’Connor says his research is further confirmation that extremist actors are using the Covid-19 crisis to grow their audience through the use of disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Protect yourself from online disinformation
“It’s important that everyday internet users know that not all information is created equal and there are extremists seeking to use misleading content about Covid-19 for their own aims,” he said. “If you encounter a claim that features a claim about the supposed danger of vaccines or the supposed evil intentions of governments or public health officials, you must ask yourself, can you stand over who has made this claim or where this particular piece of content was produced. It helps to stay alert online.”
It’s especially important to be aware of apps like Telegram. Although it’s used for all kinds of genuine and important communications, it’s currently a preferred platform for extremists, he added.
“It pays to be attentive if you are encouraged or advised to join a group or follow a channel on Telegram. Keep your eyes open and don’t engage in any activity that shares unverified or unsubstantiated claims about Covid-19.”