The current coronavirus pandemic has brought an unprecedented threat to the health, incomes, and lives of entire populations. However, to far-right extremist communities, this crisis is translating into a yet-unseen opportunity to capitalize on panic and uncertainty.
Far-right communities have kept COVID-19 on their radar since reports of it emerged months ago. But as the virus’ effects have become increasingly vast, the subject grew to become the most dominant force in far-right media and online chatter. Across far-right havens like Telegram, Gab, and chan boards—as well as more mainstream platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter—far-right groups and individuals are promoting conspiracy theories; sowing panic and discontent through disinformation; and calling for attacks, whether through direct violence or using the virus as a biological weapon.
Among the far-right’s coronavirus messaging are arrays of conspiracy theories. These theories often play into anti-Semitism or xenophobia against people from China, pondering the role of the Chinese government or the ‘Jewish global elite’ in the outbreak. “How many are ill from the coronavirus in Israel?” one asked implicitly. Another wrote, “This Jewish made coronavirus is affecting the international stock market…because our manufacturing is out sourced to thus is all relied upon by China…because of globalism; because of Jews.” Such theories have at times been accompanied by talk of survivalist planning, including discussions on forming white neighborhood militias in major cities around the United States.
The far-right is even weaponizing information itself. We are living in an unprecedented moment in history when facts and an informed public are more important than ever. It is also a moment that has brought so many people to isolate themselves within their homes, making the Internet a vital source of information. That said, it is extremely troubling to see far-right extremists exploit these circumstances with calls to “prioritize the panic” by disseminating disinformation stories about anything from military occupation of urban areas to individuals attacking others for resources.
The most worrying of the far-right’s coronavirus-related activity has been its swell of calls for attacks, many of which opportunistically see the current circumstances as helping attackers not get caught.
Numerous calls for attacks have even proposed using COVID-19 as a biological weapon. Infected individuals should “visit your local synagogue and hug as many jews as possible,” reads one post. One far-right poster similarly advises, “Cough on your local minority.” Another calls for the same tactics against critical infrastructure, writing, “Cough on your local transit system.”
The methods of applying such biological attacks using COVID-19 are often far-fetched, but nonetheless disturbing. For example, a Neo-Nazi channel on Telegram suggested that those infected go “to the bank and withdraw $500-1000 in small bills,” contaminate them, and then go on a “shopping spree” across the country.
Looking at some graphics, posters, and memes distributed by the far-right, it becomes chillingly clear how much energy some are willing to put toward these bioweapon efforts. One such graphic, falsely marked as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) poster, encourages people to visit mosques or synagogues and ride on public transit, providing false information about the health safety and resources offered in those places.
Capitalizing on a development like the coronavirus pandemic is a textbook move for terrorists. But while news about immigration and other far-right points of focus often pertain to specific regions, this pandemic has touched every corner of the globe, thus giving the far-right a far more opportune moment than ever to recruit and sow discord. As the coronavirus pandemic has yet to show signs of mass-decline, it will surely stay at the front of the far-right’s messaging and terrorist directives, adding yet more stakes to resolving this global crisis as quickly as possible.
In this new era of "social isolation,” online venues become more powerful in both positive ways (maintaining contact, bringing people together) and dangerous ways (conspiracy, disinformation, incitements). Far-right extremists are already very sophisticated at using online tools to circulate misinformation and incite, and the conditions created by the COVID-19 crisis provide an unprecedented opportunity that should, in turn, merit an organized response.
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