Far-right groups have seized on the pandemic crisis to push harmful conspiracies and racism, and in the process shown themselves to be opportunistic and – often – two-faced.

Taken from issue 42 of HOPE not hate magazine

It is easy to see why times of crisis and upheaval can prove beneficial for the far right. Uncertainty and ever-changing official advice can breed conspiracy theories, while the prospect of an economic crisis can make simplistic and often draconian measures, such as closed borders, seem attractive.

Therefore, it’s possible that the far right will exploit anxieties raised by the pandemic and the burgeoning economic crisis, and it’s also possible that more people will find their arguments attractive.

Unsurprisingly, there are many examples of how far-right groups and activists have seized on the opportunity to exploit this crisis. Anonymous far-right activists have entered Zoom video-meetings hosted by synagogues to harass congregants. Many far-right figures have argued for the need to completely shut borders, while framing it as a way to protect the British Isles from another pandemic.

However, the far right has sometimes struggled to find its footing in the wake of the novel coronavirus. Different segments of the movement have pivoted between different, often contradictory, ideas as they searched for a position that aligned with their worldview while trying to also hold mainstream appeal. It is thus difficult to speak of a single far-right reaction to the pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown policy, with rhetoric evolving.

Elements of the crisis have also proved challenging for the far right to counter. Some sections have always expected, and prepared for, societal collapse, but the current pandemic has not lived up to expectations: this is not a crisis where everyone fights for themselves, but one where most people think it is a collective responsibility to stay inside in order to stop the spread of the virus.

Anti-elitist narratives have been difficult to mobilise, too. In the UK as well as in many other European countries, trust in political leaders is generally higher than it was before the pandemic began, and campaigns to assist neighbours with groceries show that people still have a sense of community.

The far right has however made strides in tying its already existing arguments to the current pandemic, in order to stay relevant and sow doubt and misinformation. The fast news cycle, rapidly developing knowledge of the virus and a large amount of anxiety among the general public has proven a fertile ground for conspiracy theories which the far right has readily exploited.

In Denial

Conspiracy theory is central to how the far right views the world and that has not changed in the pandemic. However, there are some clear differences between where the conspiracy theories are directed. Views can be broadly placed in two categories, holding different conspiracy theorist views. One directs doubt towards the virus itself or its origin, while the other suggests that the pandemic has been exploited for nefarious ends.

First, there are conspiracy theories which relate to the origin of the virus, as well as denial of the very existence of the virus itself. The outrageousness of these theories has meant that they receive ample media attention, and many are also promoted by far-right activists.

They include conspiracies that the virus was manufactured and released intentionally by the Chinese government, or ideas related to a secretive cabal manufacturing the pandemic to illicitly take control over society (which often contain implicit or explicit antisemitic elements). In this category, we also find those that blame the pandemic on the construction of a new 5G network, or deny the existence or the harm of the virus entirely.

Although complete deniers are rare, the former deputy leader of Britain First, Jayda Fransen, comes close, having stated that she would refuse to take a vaccine if it become available. Ex-British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin has also pushed a range of conspiracies sowing doubt over the origin of the virus. On Twitter, Griffin called Microsoft founder Bill Gates a “Bio Terrorist” (Gates is a frequent target of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic and vaccination). In another post, Griffin said that “the ‘deadly pandemic’ is a hoax”. 

The majority of the British far right does not deny the existence of the virus outright. Many believe the virus outbreak was an unintentional and coincidental event outside the government’s control, exploited and exaggerated in order to fulfil some sort of illicit goals. These goals are seen as supporting globalist, culturally liberal and multiculturalist ideas, and sometimes it’s also suggested the current lockdown has been exaggerated as a means to permanently limit our liberties.

For example, one of these strands argues that the UK’s borders are completely open and that immigrants are even assisted to cross the Channel from France into the UK without the public noticing during the lockdown, as part of an agenda to promote multiculturalism and even “replace” white British people.

This is promoted by the nazi Mark Collett, founder of the Patriotic Alternative and more in line with the narratives that were being pushed by the far right before the pandemic. Instead of denying the the origin of the virus, this conspiracy takes aim at the lockdown in order to sow distrust in the current political leadership and system.

‘Political Correctness’

Highlighting incompetency on the part of political leaders, government and national institutions is one of the oldest tools in any political campaigner’s toolbox. Since the start of the pandemic, much of the British far right has focused its attacks on political leaders, the state and on ideological opposition, both nationally and abroad. For example, before the lockdown began and there was known spread of the virus in the UK, Mark Collett was one far-right activist who criticised the UK government for not taking measures to stop its spread.

In a video from early February, he warned that the virus would be “much worse” than was expected at the time, and that the evidence of this was already clear. In retrospect, this was not an inaccurate analysis on its own, but of course according to Collett globalism and cultural liberalism were the cause of the problem and the solution was to shut national borders. The UK government’s refusal to do so, according to Collett, was due to “fear of being called racist”, unable to see beyond political correctness.

“It is yet again proven how slavishly devoted liberals are to open borders, mass immigration and multiculturalism, so slavishly devoted in fact that they would enthusiastically gobble down a bowl of bat soup before they would even entertain a discussion on border control.”

The fact that the virus came from outside the UK played into his hands, used to  attack multiculturalism and cultural liberalism, by suggesting that political leaders were too afraid of being “politically incorrect” to take prudent action.

Attacks on cultural liberalism (often described as political correctness) are not new in the far right, but the attempt to do so by driving further on extensive restrictions on movement is especially contrived. Several far-right activists have attacked the current government and argued that a supposed emasculation and deterioration of society has made us incapable of dealing with a major crisis. Former UKIP leader Gerard Batten, for example, tweeted that “the police have long been under the control of a politically correct leadership. They need to return to their real core purpose of preventing & detecting crime”.

The slogan “Open borders, Closed pubs”, spread on stickers by the online group Hundred Handers (but later used by others, including conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson) struck a similar theme. This aimed to illustrate how British authorities had the wrong priorities, suggesting that they would favour minorities and migrants over white British people.

This was also a theme for Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (‘Tommy Robinson’). In a video in early May he predicted the “lockdown will be out and done by May 23rd because May 23rd is Eid”. A similarly wrong prediction was made by Katie Hopkins, who tweeted: “We are being locked up over Easter so that isolation ends just in time for Ramadan”.

Although the action that Collett asked for would come about five weeks later, the far right continued to portray the government and the media’s response as hampered by their fear of being called racist as well as alignment with minorities over white British people. However, the narrative quickly changed from arguing that the UK government had done too little, to arguing that the extensive lockdown policy was part of a plot to raise support for a supposedly globalist and culturally liberal agenda, and that immigrants could be received inconspicuously while the British people were locked inside.

Nigel Farage became one of the most prominent proponents of this narrative. On  April, he travelled 100 miles from his home in Kent to Pett Level beach in East Sussex, to record a video highlighting what he called the “scandal” of illegal immigrants travelling to the UK by boat during the lockdown.

A video that aimed to highlight the crucial role of migrant and BAME Britons during the lockdown called “You Clap For Me Now” was shared extensively on progressive social media accounts in April. It was then used by far-right activists to deepen their conspiracy theories relating to the lockdown.

Mark Collett argued that the video was part of a propaganda campaign aimed to make people think that “migrants are the heroes, they’re the future, they’ll save the country”. Contrary to his previous alarmist position, he went on to argue that the government had “overinflated the death rate to scare people and then they’re going to use this for a demographic replacement”, referring to the conspiracy that non-white migration to the UK is orchestrated in order to make white people a minority.

Shouting Loudest

When lighthearted videos of hospital staff and medical professionals started to spread on social media platform TikTok, these were widely ridiculed by the far right. In addition to giving material for those who long-ridiculed cultural liberalism, they provided ammunition for some to question the validity of the entire lockdown.

Videos of nurses and doctors dancing were taken as proof that the pandemic was not as severe as people had thought, or that its danger had been intentionally inflated. This was then seized upon by those who directly opposed the lockdown, on the premise that the virus was not harmful or because of what they perceived as an assault on their freedom.

Over the last two months, Katie Hopkins has become one of the loudest anti-lockdown voices on the far right. She has frequently suggested that it represents an outright power grab aimed at limiting the British people’s freedom for the foreseeable future. In a video on her Twitter account, Hopkins painted the social distancing measures as draconian and too far-reaching, ending the video with “enjoy lockdown, it’s been extended indefinitely”. 

Another critic of the lockdown is the ex-InfoWars conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, who has made multiple videos ridiculing the social distancing measures and questioned their necessity. One of his recent videos was titled “COVID-1984”, a reference to George Orwell’s novel of a future authoritarian society. In another, he said: “It’s 2021, we’re still in the lockdown and clapping the NHS is made mandatory.”

Meanwhile Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage  has also taken aim at police overreach. In an article for The Telegraph on 14 April he suggested that tackling police overreach in the wake of coronavirus might be his “next campaign”. An interesting turn, given that just a few weeks earlier he had criticised the government for not taking strong enough action. 

Images and videos of police officers enforcing social distancing rules are also being shared extensively on far-right websites and social media outlets. While there are legitimate concerns around extensions of state powers and legislation rushed through in a time of crisis, pivots such as the one by Farage should make us question their sincerity. The far right’s messaging on the topic of police overreach is also somewhat incoherent, considering that the far right is generally supportive of an enlargement of the police force and securitises many social issues.

Presenting themselves as “freedom fighters” and “pro-free speech”, they have attempted to exploit the situation and whitewash themselves, while attacking opponents as being hostile to basic values such as freedom of speech and thought. It is a useful way to instigate strong reactions on social media.

Racism

The virus’ origin has also given rise to anti-Chinese racism. Data from the Metropolitan Police shows a threefold rise in hate crimes against people of East Asian descent in London, and Chinese people have become regular targets of hate online, much of which is directly related to the coronavirus. Videos of people of East Asian descent apparently spreading the virus intentionally have also been shared extensively on far-right channels and on the chat app Telegram. 

While criticism of the Chinese government’s handling of the emergence of the virus can be legitimate, connecting the virus to Chinese people in general is harmful. US President Trump has received significant criticism for calling the pandemic the “Chinese virus”. Katie Hopkins, having already aligned herself with Trump’s denialism and ridiculed European governments for instituting overly harsh lockdown rules, also adopted the term “Chinese Virus” multiple times during March on Twitter and in an article for the far-right American website, FrontPage Magazine. 

The far right has also exploited the current crisis to direct hate against other minorities as well. Both Nick Griffin and Mark Collett have shared videos suggesting that Jewish people were disregarding social distancing rules and thereby portraying them as vectors in the spread of the disease. A HOPE not hate investigation in April found that videos suggesting that mosques were still open and were given exceptions to the lockdown rules had also spread widely on social media. Police in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Shropshire all faced criticism on social media for apparently allowing mosques to stay open on their patch, but in each case the information proved false.

Finding ways to tie the virus to their existing issues, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon begun calling the pandemic “germjihad” and shared a tweet by Priti Gandhi, head of social media for India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) women’s wing, calling Muslims “Corona bombs”. Jayda Fransen and yellow vests activist James Goddard have both promoted the #germjihad hashtag, and spread videos suggesting Muslims are the cause of the virus.

Looking Ahead

Although we are several months into this pandemic and some European countries are slowly opening up again, the crisis is far from over and the far right will continue to adapt its message in an ongoing struggle to gain mainstream attention and support. It is a safe assumption that it will continue to latch on to stories of the moment, usually with an intentionally contrarian view, to whip up debate and portray itself as an underdog on the side of the people against corrupt elites.

During these testing times it’s also clear that modern far right is very at home on the internet. This is a danger, particularly during the lockdown, with our lives increasingly moving online. We have already seen the far right attempting to exploit Zoom meetings in order to spread hate, and this trend is likely to continue in different iterations. As everyone from schoolchildren to the elderly now spends more time online and makes it their primary means of socialising, new online spaces are likely to become a primary target of the far right.

The rise in anti-Chinese racism is also a worrying trend. While it is not a new phenomenon in itself, it seems likely that we may see a sustained campaign of anti-Chinese racism from the British far right.

Lastly, there is a clear danger in conspiracy theorist movements online and their overlaps with far-right ideas. Our research has shown that conspiracy theorist groups on Facebook are growing at an unprecedented rate, and this presents a worrying opportunity for the far right.

Not only do many conspiracy theories contain racist elements, such as antisemitism, but they are also broadly anti-elitist and portray those within as advocates for freedom from oppressive (but secretive) rulers. This rhetoric is not far from how the far right portrays itself, and although its target is often the government, imagined monolithic communities of liberals and mainstream media are also central.

As conspiracy theory groups grow and the salience of other central far-right issues such as terrorism and Muslim immigration decrease, there is a real possibility that far-right activists will intentionally start to recruit from and aim their messaging towards conspiracy theorist communities.

HOPE not hate magazine hub