Recruitment Propaganda, Calls For Violence Against Minorities Flood Various Platforms
On Sunday, the New York Times highlighted increased efforts by white supremacist extremist groups to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic as a means to advance their radical agendas and attract new members. Far-right extremist groups are increasingly mobilizing their appeals to potential supporters online that include racist sentiments, anti-Semitic tropes, and misinformation with claims that COVID-19 is a Jewish-run conspiracy and, alternatively, as being spread by nonwhite immigrants.
The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) has documented the effort by extremist groups—from ISIS and al-Qaeda to a broad range of white supremacist groups—to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to the benefit of their radical causes. Most often on Telegram and fringe platforms like Gab, they have urged violence against ethnic and religious minorities and espoused anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric. Other times, they seek to disrupt local governments and in-demand web platforms, such as the attempted disruption of New York City’s 311 phone service and Zoom-bombing a Philadelphia Jewish day school’s online classes.
As social media platforms continue to see record usage during the pandemic, tech companies must be increasingly vigilant against extremists’ misuse of their sites. The excerpts below detail cases where extremists have sought to capitalize on the coronavirus outbreak:
- Following the April 27 vehicular attack on law enforcement in Colombes, France, a pro-ISIS RocketChat chatroom with a history of advocating for terrorist attacks in Europe, the United States, and Russia, posted a three second video filmed by a bystander that showed the injured officers. A chatroom user praised the attack and called for increased attacks during Ramadan and the COVID-19 pandemic. The RocketChat chatroom had previous versions on Telegram.
- On April 26, the New Jersey European Heritage Association (NJEHA) posted photos on their Gab page and Telegram channel that showed group members passing out recruitment flyers at an anti-lockdown protest in Orlando, Florida that occurred the day prior. NJEHA is a racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic group whose propaganda focuses on a claimed “genocide” of whites, staunch anti-immigrant sentiment, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
- On April 19, several white supremacist Telegram channels encouraged their users to anonymously interfere with New York City’s 311 operations by reporting false incidents and providing misinformation. To carry out the disruption campaign, a Telegram channel posted instructions for anonymously interfering with the text message-based 311 system by using a burner phone or voice over IP number to anonymously send lewd photos. One of the Telegram channels, which coordinates trolling campaigns, stated that the purpose was to “clog up” the 311 number.
- During the week of April 11-16, CEP researchers located multiple pages for the Finnish neo-Nazi group, Kohti Vapautta (KV) which maintains a website, a Telegram channel, a page on the Russian social media site VK, and a Twitter account. An essay on KV’s website called for the extreme right in Finland to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis there, and encouraged supporters to march in protests in order to blame a predicted financial crisis on “globalist criminals” and immigrants.
- On April 1, users on the 8chan successor website posted Zoom links and the online class schedule for a Jewish day school in Philadelphia, encouraging anti-Semitic targeted harassment. The board where the post was made frequently shares racist, anti-Semitic, and white supremacist content. The 8chan successor website uses Vanwanet as its name server and Eranet as its registrar.
- On March 31, al-Qaeda released a statement characterizing the novel coronavirus as a divine punishment that has “exposed the brittleness of a global economy dominated by the United States,” adding that now is the time for Muslim societies to embrace piety and repent. In addition, al-Qaeda called for people in the West to convert to Islam and criticized the United States for its global military operations. The statement also pointed out the “callousness” of Western leaders, stating that they “are least concerned about the health of the societies they are responsible for,” pointing out shortages of personal protective equipment and money spent on “imperialist, expansionist cravings” instead of medical supplies as evidence.
- In March, various white supremacist and neo-Nazi accelerationist Telegram channels called on supporters to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic to their radical cause. One specifically anti-Semitic channel that has more than 1,200 subscribers alleged on March 21 that the virus was part of a Jewish anti-white plot and encouraged supporters to spend time in public even if sick, asserting that deaths from the virus are natural selection. In addition, a white supremacist Telegram channel with over 250 users called for people to disrupt National Guard operations and encouraged using firecrackers and small homemade explosives to cause panic. Other channels encouraged spreading anti-Asian racism, encouraged recruitment within the context of the economic crisis, and have spread misinformation regarding martial law and firearms confiscations.
- On March 25, the pro-ISIS Al-Qitaal Media Center released the second issue of an online magazine titled “Voice of Hind.” The magazine is meant to appeal to Muslims in India. The magazine called COVID-19 a divine punishment and urged attacks on police and military forces deployed in virus related missions.
- Additionally in March, ISIS online supporters on the RocketChat platform praised the coronavirus for killing Americans, Europeans, and Iranians. Users also stated that the coronavirus did not exist in ISIS controlled areas, implying that the group is impervious to infection. Official ISIS publications previously warned their members of the coronavirus.
- On March 16, Simon Lindberg, the leader of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) posted a blog stating that long term effects of the coronavirus could benefit his group. While stating that he was sorry for the deaths caused by the coronavirus, and the economic damage to Scandinavian workers, Lindberg also expressed his “great excitement” regarding the effects of the coronavirus, including the economic fallout, because it could lead to a “national uprising.”
- Also in March, in numerous Telegram channels and chats, and on chan imageboards, white supremacists and other right-wing extremists blamed Jews, Israel, China or Chinese people generally for COVID-19. A meme on Telegram urged the viewer that if they are infected by COVID-19, to intentionally infect Muslims, Jews, people of color, and to spread the disease on public transit. The meme was shared by an anti-Semitic Telegram channel with over 1,200 subscribers and a Telegram channel that claims to be affiliated with the neo-Nazi British Movement, which has over 700 subscribers. While the meme was an attempt at humor, it invoked the genocidal fantasies of white supremacist movements in a time of precarity.