COVID-19 and the alt-right media ecosystem

Screenshot_2020-04-07 What is the coronavirus 5G conspiracy The dumb theory circulating the internet rn
Image from The Tab.

This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on Media. To subscribe click here. NOTE: While NZ is under lockdown, print issues cannot be sent out, however e-publications are being sent out, and we will print and mail issues when it becomes possible.

“A mainstream media article, written by an academic from Massey university who has not gulped down koolaid to fawn over the government? We are taken aback, greatly.”

That was how the New Conservative Party (New Zealand) introduced an opinion piece by Steve Elers that was published on Stuff, New Zealand’s largest news website, stating the country should have closed its borders in February. The fringe right-wing party, outside of parliament and polling around 1%, has spent the past year telling their Facebook followers-  an audience comparable in size to the following of more mainstream political party pages- to distrust mainstream media and academia.

“Time to get rid of the China virus that’s infected our government. #chinaliedpeopledied”, comments one of their followers, a man with a profile picture proudly declaring hs support for the party. Another man comments with a link to a YouTube video claiming that telecommunications workers destroyed a cellphone tower to warn the public about 5G. “5g being set up during LockDown!!!! I do not consent to radiation”, comments a woman with a “top fan” badge.  “UN agenda 21 can only be implemented in a climate of fear”, states another follower.

While some comments are supportive of the government’s decision to place New Zealand on lockdown, closing all but essential services and banning gatherings of people in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19, the above comments are not atypical. For some followers, the New Conservative praise for Steve Elers isn’t convincing: “If you take a closer look at this guy, he is an Alt left Maori activist.”

Posting a link to an RNZ article about coming job losses at NZME, Stuff’s major rival and owners of the New Zealand Herald, a New Conserative follower comments “bye bye fake news.” While a number of NZME’s redundancies are occurring at Radio Sport which has ceased broadcasting as globally the pandemic puts a halt on sporting competitions, the email to staff from NZME Chief Executive Michael Boggs indicates a reduction in the number of news journalists is coming: “The ongoing decline in revenue caused by the impact of COVID-19 continues to be significant. This is uncharted territory, and no one knows when that will change.

We must now make changes to the scope and scale of our business and do so quickly. This will inevitably result in job losses.”

The pandemic is speeding up the decline of professional journalism, already well underway in New Zealand as elsewhere. Traditional media has struggled to maintain advertising revenue, in particular due to the shift in advertising to Facebook, which has become one of the primary platforms for the spread of misinformation.

In March, Wired published an article headlined Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Are a Public Health Hazard: “Anti-vaxxers think the virus is an effort to force vaccines on them, possibly orchestrated by Bill Gates. Others blame 5G networks”, writes Wired’s Emma Grey. Ellis, showing linking the virus with 5G conspiracy theories is not unique to the supporters of a fringe right-wing party in New Zealand. In the UK people influenced by conspiracy theories claiming symptoms of Covid-19 are actually caused by 5G mobile towers have abused technicians and even destroyed telecommunications infrastructure.

There has also been a documented increase in racist incidents against Asians and Chinese in particular in a number of countries, including New Zealand and Australia. In February, before New Zealand had any confirmed cases of Covid-19, parents of children at a Canterbury school received an email stating “our Kiwi kids don’t want to be in the same class with your disgusting virus spreaders.” In Western Australia, shoppers who appeared Asian were removed from a supermarket, and in Tasmania a student from Hong Kong was assaulted by a man who first shouted “you’ve got the virus” and “go back to your country.” Notably these incidents occured after headlines like “China Virus Panda-monium” and “China kids stay home.” appeared in mainstream Australian newspapers in January. Politicians and pundits have continued to racialise the the virus with terms like “China virus” “Wuhan virus” and “kung-flu” the latter appearing in the title of an Australian alt-right podcast episode in February.

While new Facebook pages have emerged to take advantage of growing Sinophobia, other far-right pages have used the pandemic to spread false information about their usual targeted groups. A page primarily Islamophobic in nature has repeatedly claimed Muslims “were the first to bring the plague to NZ from Iraq”, possibly confusing Iraq with Iran, where an infected New Zealand citizen returned from (notably neither the ethnicity or religion of this woman is publically known).

Another post on the same page claims a private jet owned by a Saudi billionaire, which landed at Christchurch airport to repatriate Saudi citizens, was there to bring COVID-19 “to the hookers and street workers of Christchurch”, adding “No one else can travel to NZ, except Jacinda’s wealthy handlers.” One commenter suggested the plane was there to pick up the Christchurch shooter, who according to a baseless conspiracy theory pushed by the tiny One Nation NZ party was not part of the far-right, but actually a Muslim convert. One Nation NZ stood in a by-election in 2018, but otherwise barely existed beyond Facebook page- which has since been removed for violating policy of hate speech and graphic violence.

”All over the world, from Iraq to the United States, people have been spreading anti-Semitic memes and messages suggesting that Jews, or Jewish stand-ins like George Soros, the Rothschilds, and Israel, are to blame for the outbreak”, writes Ellis in Wired. “In the internet’s darkest corners, the scapegoating is being used to stir a movement that is less conspiracy theory than actual conspiracy.”

According to Oren Segel, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, white supremacists have discussed deliberately infecting ethnic minorities and exploiting tensions between ethnic groups to hasten “the boogaloo” an alt-right slang for race war. In the USA the FBI stopped a man who was planning to bomb a Missouri hospital treating COVID-19 patients. NBC News reported that he had done so to further the goals of his white supremacist ideology, and had told an undercover FBI agent he had chosen a hospital as a target due to “the increased impact given the media attention on the health sector.”

In the USA, polls showed that 42% of Republicans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about COVID-19, compared to 73% of Democrats. 83% of Republicans who consumed only a diet of outlets with right-leaning audiences believed the news media had exaggerated the risks of the virus. Comparable poll data is not available for New Zealand, but clearly a similar far right echo-system exists, though its reach has not been adequately investigated.

In Australia, the far-right have used the government’s Covid-19 response to stoke distrust in state institutions and encouraged mobilisation and violent action as a response to the crisis, according to Sydney based think tank The Lowy Institute. In the lead up to the first anniversary of the Christchurch shooting, Australian counter-terrorism police in New South Wales arrested a 21-year-old man for an alleged terrorist plot. The man had allegedly tried to buy military equipment and firearms and was planning to blow up an electricity substation.

“The situation is ripe for exploitation by the far right”, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University sociologist and expert on the far-right, told Al Jazeera “the uncertainty the pandemic creates creates fertile ground for claims about the need for change or the solutions the far right purports to offer.”

This is certainly evident in recent Facebook posts from New Zealand’s alt-right adjacent New Conservative Party, such as a picture of laughing women captioned “when someone who wants open borders sounds worried about the coronavirus spreading” and a screenshot of a BBC headline about the EU closing borders to non-citizens  with the comment “so nationalism is back and borders are good?” (This rhetoric ignores the fact that the borders of Europe were far from “open” prior to the pandemic- last year, over a thousand migrants drowned attempting to enter Europe on their southern sea border).

But New Conservative are, relatively speaking, moderates. On a page run by a Christchurch based man who in the months following the Christchurch shooting threatened to “destroy mosque after mosque until they take me out” an article from a known fake news website, alleging that France is not subjecting predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods to quarantine is shared with the comment “r@pe and sickness are just a part of the rich diversity pill we are all going to have to swallow.” (The @ replacing the a is likely an attempt to avoid Facebook algorithms removing the post).

Misinformation and conspiracy theories can move quickly from the far-right fringes to more mainstream social media with larger audiences. In April Buzzfeed reported that numerous lifestyle and parenting influencers on Instagram were “seamlessly weaving in evidence-free far-right conspiracy theories that are usually found in the significantly less Instagrammable parts of the internet, such as 4 and 8-chan, in between their usual idyllic family snaps.”

With millions of people confined to their homes there is also concern that more people will be susceptible to the kind of online rabbit holes that lead people to the far-right. Mak Kapetanovic, a young man who had previously been influenced by alt-right narratives encountered on 4chan and has since left the right, told Time of his concerns that the pandemic could lead people down the same path. “Feelings of isolation, anger, grief and frustration, all of those things are happening. A lot of people are scared, and people are not sure what to think.”

“It is the far right who always seem to take advantage of these insecurities.”

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