The far right will seek to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's how they're framing their narratives so far.
The far right have traditionally benefited from disasters. Their tactics rely on persuading people that something – land, wealth, identity – has been unjustly stolen from them by an ‘other’, an out-group usually defined by race, religion or political identity. People are therefore more receptive to those arguments when they have experienced a genuine loss or decline in living standards.
Whatever the trajectory of this pandemic, we can say with certainty that a huge number of people will have reduced personal circumstances and will grieve for their losses. The opportunity for the far right is therefore to find a way to persuade the many victims of this outbreak that what they’ve lost was unjustly stolen from them, and distort this new reality so it fits their existing narratives.
This report will look at how different strands of the far right have framed the situation so far.
Denial and acceptance
The COVID-19 outbreak has presented the world with a baffling new reality which many are struggling to process. The populist radical right in particular, which is normally successful in coalescing around certain agreed narratives, has been thrown into disarray by the change of tone that Donald Trump has displayed in recent days.
The US president, a figurehead for the populist right worldwide, had initially seemed relaxed about the virus, repeatedly comparing it to seasonal flu and assuring US citizens that it was ‘under control’ and would soon ‘disappear’. As late as March 9th, Trump’s tweets were suggesting that social distancing and closure of public buildings was an overreaction:
Yet just three days later, Trump declared the virus to be a National Emergency and began to recommend social distancing and avoidance of bars and restaurants. This has caused some disarray in the responses of his normally loyal supporters, who seem unclear as to whether to continue their denialism or adopt the President’s new agenda. Charlie Kirk, founder of pro-Trump campaign group Turning Point, has been alternating between condemning “media hysteria” over the virus to acknowledging that US hospitals are “ill-prepared to handle a crisis of this magnitude” and face “devastating shortages”.
Some, like Katie Hopkins, performed an immediate and embarrassing volte face. Having mocked the fear surrounding the virus for weeks beforehand, she now appears to be presenting herself as some kind of sympathetic counsellor for those worried by the situation.
Leave your phone downstairs tonight. Anything being said online right now will read better with sunlight. Close the door on the noise and sleep tight. Don’t let the fear come to bed with you. Take ted instead.Katie Hopkins, Twitter
Nigel Farage, normally one of Trump’s most ardent UK-based supporters, had taken a different tack from early on. Perhaps sensing an opportunity for renewed political relevance following his humiliation in the 2019 General Election, Farage has used his LBC show, interviews and social media to lambast Boris for not taking more drastic steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 early on. This is particularly surprising given the libertarian flavour of Farage’s politics up to this point – he vocally opposed the smoking ban on the grounds that the public health concerns did not justify the limiting of personal freedom that it represented. Other European populists in opposition, such as Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Geert Wilders, have also called for stronger measures to tackle the virus, illustrating the ideological flexibility and opportunism that characterises the populist right.
The damage caused by Trump’s early denialism might not be fully reversible by his change of heart, however. Some of his cheerleaders, such as Candace Owens of Turning Point, have continued to minimise the severity of the virus, comparing it to seasonal flu and talking of a “Coronavirus doomsday cult”, although she stops short of directly criticising Trump for his part in instituting the lockdown measures she so opposes.
On the largest pro-Trump message board TheDonald.win, which describes itself as a “never-ending rally” for Trump, the overwhelming majority of users still appear to believe that the virus is no worse than seasonal flu, and that the alarm around the virus is being whipped up and weaponised by the “liberal media”, “deep state” and the Democratic Party. The minority of users who attempt to convey the truth about the virus and its consequences are dismissed as “shills” or “concern trolls”, and find their comments heavily downvoted. Trump’s apparent acknowledgement of the severity of the situation and actions taken are dismissed as coerced acts forced upon him by media hysteria. There is little attempt to explain why countries as diverse as Italy, Iran and China might all be ‘deliberately sabotaging’ their economies in the same way.
The Blame Game
Perhaps cognisant of having stumbled in his attempts to control the narrative, Trump has since decided to rally his supporters in what they do best: blame China.
While China has serious questions to answer regarding their handling and reporting of the outbreak, it is clear that Trump’s decision to suddenly start referring to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus’ on March 16th – a term which almost no one had used up to that point – was an attempt to deflect criticism of his own inept handling of the outbreak.
The term serves two purposes: placing blame at the feet of his great international rival, and fanning the flames of the culture war within the US. Although it has historically been commonplace to name diseases after their real or perceived place of origin, the WHO has formally warned against doing so since 2015, given the stigma that it can place on the nation or region affected. With that in mind, some commentators had raised concern over the use of ‘Wuhan Virus’, at a time of increased reports of hostility and even violence towards people of Chinese or east Asian origin living in Western countries.
For Trump to suddenly drop his prior usage of ‘Coronavirus’ in favour of ‘Chinese Virus’ seems an obvious attempt to stoke outrage and move into the familiar terrain of the culture war over language. Sure enough, loyal supporters such as anti-Muslim activist Avi Yemini, alt-right commentator Amy Mek, and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson had enthusiastically adopted ‘Chinese Virus’ as their new terminology within hours.
For the conspiracy theorists of the far right, whose narratives are filled with disasters and government plots at even the best of times, the pandemic and legislative attempts to counter it are fertile grounds for their imagination. Throughout the Obama administration there were feverish theories about a plot to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a means to subdue the population using emergency legislation. With President Trump having considerably more sympathy from this demographic, the theories being espoused now refer to exploitation of the pandemic by Trump’s domestic opponents and the so-called Deep State.
One example of this is the QAnon hoax, adherents of which have been posting their theories that COVID-19 is a ruse to cover up for the fact that thousands of celebrities and politicians have been arrested for taking part in satanic child abuse rituals. Oprah Winfrey was even forced to make a public denial after rumours of her arrest became a trending topic on Twitter, an example of how even the most outlandish of conspiracy theories can spread from their origins in fringe corners of the internet into mainstream conversation.
Other theories state that the COVID-19 is a Chinese bioweapon, with suggestions that the virus either escaped or was deliberately released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, despite the vast majority of experts believing that the virus emerged naturally in wildlife before making the leap to humans. This theory has received coverage in mainstream media outlets including an uncritical write up in the Daily Express, which cited claims made in an interview on Alex Jones’ InfoWars without mentioning the long history of bizarre conspiracies that the show has previously endorsed.
An existing conspiracy theory that has received a boost from the pandemic is the anti-5G movement, which believes that the radiation emitted by the upgraded wireless internet network has negative health impacts.
Suggestions range from the idea that the symptoms of COVID-19 are direct side effects of the radiation to the idea that 5G networks are degrading human immune systems and thus leaving people more vulnerable to the virus.
Proponents of this theory use misleading or falsified maps to argue that the virus’ prevalence in countries that have begun upgrading to 5G as evidence for their claims, ignoring the many alternative factors that explain why certain countries and regions might be more exposed to a global virus, such as population density and higher levels of tourism and travel.
HOPE not hate Charitable Trust will be conducting monthly polling of the British public to identify the spread and strength of these theories and any others that might emerge over the coming months. You can read the findings of our first poll here.
Immigration, borders and minorities
The COVID-19 pandemic does not fit neatly into existing anti-migration narratives.
While all non-white immigration is disparaged by the US and European far right, their focus has primarily been on migration originating from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa rather than China, particularly in reference to the spread of infectious disease. With all of those regions currently reporting lower rates of COVID-19 than the US or Europe, that argument is now turned on its head. Furthermore, the number of migrants moving between the worst affected countries is minuscule in comparison to the number of people travelling for tourism or business, neither of which would be curtailed by tighter immigration rules.
Anti-migrant narratives have never been driven by facts, however, and these inconvenient truths have not prevented the far right from promoting the crisis as a vindication of their long held beliefs. Laura Towler, editor of white nationalist website Defend Europa, took to Twitter to declare somewhat boldly that “if [the UK] were a nationalist country, no one would have died”, citing less freedom of movement and immediate quarantine as preventative measures that could have been taken by a government. Mark Collett, who along with Towler runs the white nationalist Patriotic Alternative group, went along similar lines, claiming on Twitter that “open borders, globalisation, multiculturalism & of course GDP mean more to the government than the lives of elderly white people ever will”.
It is worth noting that despite their apparent desire for drastic quarantine, both Towler and Collett were proudly boasting of having two hundred attendees gather in the confined space of the Patriotic Alternative conference on 16th of March, before returning to their homes across the country. Apparently viral transmission is only a concern when it occurs between people with different passports.
Similarly illogical connections have been made by the international populist right. On March 10th, Trump retweeted Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk linking global spread of COVID-19 to the need for a wall along the border with Mexico, adding “We need the wall more than ever!”, despite the fact that the USA has more confirmed cases than the rest of the continent combined.
Similarly, the leader of Italy’s La Lega party Matteo Salvini attracted much derision for his attempts on February 28th to conflate Italy’s burgeoning outbreak with the recent arrival of a migrant boat from North Africa, demanding that the government should “iron-plate the borders’. At his time of speaking, Italy had 288 reported cases of COVID-19, while the whole of Africa had just a single case.
We are also seeing attempts to blame migrants and minority groups for their supposed flouting of social distancing and lockdown measures.
A tweet from March 25th showed what it claimed were Muslims praying in the street in Wembley, breaching the restrictions on public gatherings. Twitter users were quick to point out that it was raining in the video, which meant it could not have been filmed in the past two weeks, and sure enough it was revealed to be over five years old. But the tweet still garnered 1600 retweets and 2300 likes before it was removed by Twitter.
In our State of Hate 2020 report, HOPE not hate showed other examples of misleadingly labelled videos and images being used to disparage Muslim communities. It is more important than ever that social media platforms and users are vigilant in reporting and challenging these smears.
The Extreme Far Right
For the extreme right, those neo-Nazis and white supremacists who want to see society destroyed and rebuilt in a more hateful image, the pandemic has aroused far more excitement and anticipation than denial. The extreme right do not believe in working within existing frameworks to achieve change, and so the immense economic upheaval and disruptive potential of the pandemic is something to be celebrated rather than minimised.
On platforms such as 4chan, 8kun and extreme right Telegram channels, the pandemic has generated a huge amount of excitement, with anonymous users revelling in the opportunity to indulge in anti-Chinese racism, conspiracy theories and gleeful expectation of social turmoil.
The FBI has reportedly warned police forces that white supremacists are encouraging their followers to deliberately spread the COVID-19 to Jewish communities and police officers. While such threats have undoubtedly been made, it is important to place them in the context of far right tactics online. Alongside the very real terrorist threat posed by the extreme right, they also seek to create fear and attract attention that far exceeds their operational capacity. Such threats should be placed in the context of the stated desire on the far right of using the pandemic as a means to instil panic, rather than automatically taken at face value.
The challenge ahead
As ever, our challenge is to counter these narratives. The far right thrives on fear, alienation and desperation, and relies on misinformation and deceptive narratives to convert those feelings into fuel for their agenda. We will be publishing a weekly blog tracking the latest developments. We cannot afford to ignore this threat.
With thanks to HOPE not hate Charitable Trust for contributing material to this report.