26 March 2020

How the far-right is exploiting coronavirus to peddle race hate


While most look on a crisis like this with worry, and view it as a challenge to be overcome, there are extremists who consider troubling times to be a gift.

Far-right extremists across the world – both abroad and closer to home – are exploiting Covid-19 to peddle unfounded conspiracies and intensify forms of hatred towards particular social groups. Looking to take advantage of the uncertainties and insecurities brought on by this deadly virus, which we still know relatively little about, far-right organisations of different shades feel they have been given a boost.

The far-right response to the COVID-19 pandemic reflects the decentralised and somewhat fragmented nature of the broader ‘movement’. In the world of online communication, white supremacists and ethno-nationalists are developing and propagating conspiracy theories, repackaging the coronavirus outbreak and integrating them into their long-standing extremist narratives.

As well as inciting hatred, there are clear calls to weaponise the pandemic and commit acts of violence and harm against those belonging to non-white minorities – people who are viewed by some as both a demographic and cultural threat under the perceived processes of ‘white replacement’.

In the UK, the British National Socialist Movement has disseminated a poster on messenger app Telegram titled “What To Do If You Get Covid-19”. The advice it proffers is about as far from socially beneficial as you could imagine, encouraging those infected to visit local mosques and synagogues, as well as spending time in ‘diverse neighbourhoods’ and on public transport. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments interwoven with the intended exploitation of a national health crisis.

Blaming migrants for the virus has also been a feature of this crisis. The British alt-right figure Paul Joseph Watson, for instance, authored an article stating that the coronavirus ‘patient zero’ in Italy was a Pakistani migrant who refused to self-isolate after testing positive for COVID-19. However, there is no solid scientific evidence to support this claim, with the authorities continuing to encounter difficulties in tracing an identifiable ‘patient zero’ in Italy, which now has a COVID-19 death toll of 7,503.

In the United States, far-right actors are capitalising on the coronavirus outbreak to peddle a variety of divisive and unfounded conspiracies. American neo-Nazis on social media platforms such as Telegram – including ‘accelerationists’ who seek to bring an end to liberal democratic society and the establishment of a white ethno-state – are deep in discussion over how to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic in order to recruit young people to their cause.

Further highlighting the overlap between far-right extremism and gaming subculture, one ‘pathway’ considered is stepping up radicalisation efforts through in-game chat features – taking advantage of coronavirus-related school closures which are likely to result in young people spending more time playing on their games consoles.

US Federal investigators have warned that white supremacists were attempting to literally weaponise the coronavirus outbreak by using saliva-filled spray bottles to contaminate non-white neighbourhoods with the virus. Extremist elements within President Trump’s support base have even stooped as low as suggesting that forces affiliated to the Democratic Party have manufactured the coronavirus outbreak to compromise the incumbent’s chances of winning a second term in the White House.

The Covid-19 pandemic serves as a timely reminder of the extreme lengths that sinister far-right extremists will go to exploit and weaponise a global health crisis in the name of their warped fundamentalist ideology. This ranges from peddling ludicrous conspiracy theories designed to inciting violence and hatred towards non-white minorities, to encouraging infected individuals to play their part in the contamination of racially diverse localities, along with Jewish and Islamic places of worship.

These troubling times demonstrate how periods of crisis and panic can be exploited by far-right extremists who are desperate to destabilise and wreak further havoc in liberal democratic societies.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.