This briefing examines how the global far right has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and how policymakers should respond. We can expect to see renewed levels of far-right activism in the context of coronavirus, as the outbreak has presented an opportunity to promote conspiracy theories and rhetoric online, which is already translating into offline action. Policymakers need to put measures in place to restrict the spread of disinformation and to counter the offline actions that can come out of online extremist rhetoric, while understanding the complexity of dealing with a movement that is diffuse and loosely structured.
Various far-right actors have pushed competing conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19, from claims that the virus is a hoax to blaming ethnic minorities for its transmission and about the role of 5G data networks in spreading the virus.
There is a credible risk of physical hate crimes spiking in this context, fueled by elements of the far right’s racist anti-Chinese, anti-Asian and anti-immigration rhetoric, which has already resulted in hate crimes being committed.
A surge in far-right activism stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic should be anticipated by Western governments, given the immediate sense of vindication felt by some on the far right as their views on globalisation, immigration and protectionism are gaining traction among general public audiences.
The global far right is a diffuse movement rather than a cohesive group. Disputes and tensions among different strands have long been a key feature, and they have not taken long to surface in the Covid-19 context. For example, some prominent US-based neo-Nazis are blaming US and European strands of the movement for seemingly aligning themselves with Israel and Jews in their response to the pandemic. In the US, two groups of conspiracy theorists have been at odds over whether a widely circulated 5G conspiracy theory, which suggests the new communication infrastructure is responsible for the spread of the pandemic, will lead to the collapse of the internet globally.
In North America, the far right has been divided into two camps: those believing the virus is a hoax and those who acknowledge Covid-19 exists but think it has been manufactured and spread maliciously. While several significant US and Canadian[_] neo-Nazi strands seem to agree on Covid-19 being a hoax, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus have taken different forms, which is reflective of the diffuse nature of the movement. In Canada, some Facebook groups[_] are claiming that Covid-19 is a plot by the United Nations and billionaire philanthropist George Soros to eliminate 90 per cent of the world’s population, while other groups have claimed that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is importing “infected” immigrants to decimate the white population of Canada. This speaks to popular far-right conspiracy theories, such as the Great Replacement or white genocide, which claim that mass immigration is replacing the white population in the West and turning it into a minority with the encouragement of the elites. In the US, some accelerationist groups – those who believe in bringing about a race war and civilisational collapse by strategically using violence – have turned to Telegram[_] to discuss ways of recruiting people to their cause amid the crisis. There have also been indications already that this rhetoric is turning into action, with the FBI foiling a terrorist plot[_] in Missouri linked to the outbreak. The individual involved has neo-Nazi links and had accelerated his attack plans in light of the pandemic.
In Europe, alt-media platforms have been championing the closing of international borders and the crackdown on the movement of people as the solution to addressing Covid-19. It is a worrying trend that elements of the far right are already seeing some of their nationalist, protectionist and anti-globalisation narratives being echoed by leading political figures in some European countries. There is a serious risk of escalation, in which online propaganda and disinformation can spill over into the offline world, resulting in hate crimes and terror attacks. Police forces and hate-crime monitoring groups in the UK have already registered a number of incidents connected to Covid-19[_].
The chaos, confusion and fear generated among the public by Covid-19 may provide fertile ground for the far right to gain momentum and provide new opportunities for recruitment. However, Covid-19 is unlikely to put an end to longstanding ideological differences within the movement, which remains disparate and continues to coalesce around different sets of conspiracy theories. The lack of a cohesive movement or narrative should not be a reason for complacency on the part of governments, security agencies and civil-society organisations. On the contrary, the diversity of actors and voices should be used to better understand the respective strands and trends in the global far-right movement that are currently gaining traction.
Policymakers should consider:
Ramping up fact-checking capabilities to fight the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation, working with civil-society organisations.
Ensuring greater transparency in the management of the crisis to reduce the information vacuum for extremists to exploit or distort.
Supplementing existing public messaging and awareness campaigns by actively addressing conspiracy theories and disinformation.
Supporting civil-society organisations and community groups to ensure Covid-19-related hate crimes are appropriately recorded.
Read our Snapshot briefing on how extremist groups are responding to Covid-19 for more information.