Research published in the ICCT the Hague and conducted at the European University Institute, Florence, has revealed a more complex picture, whereby some Far Right groups are more likely to engage in ‘resilience-building’ activities than spread misinformation. The findings question not just the commentary of observers, but core ideas about Combating Violent Extremism (CVE) in the COVID-19 era.
Framing in times of crisis: Responses to COVID-19 amongst Far Right movements and organisations, is an examination of statements on Telegram from six European Far Right groups: Generation Identity in France and Germany (Génération Identitaire & Identitäre Bewegung); the Hundred Handers, a loose British-focused organisation; the neo-fascist Nordic Resistance Movement; CasaPound Italia; and the British National Socialist Movement. These are some of the most visible European groups and form part of two major strands of the current Far Right – ‘Identitarianism’ and neo-Fascism.
The findings suggest that Far Right groups were less interested in spreading misinformation and fear about the virus than they were in promoting themselves as responsible actors in a time of crisis. In fact, they were often highly critical of national governments for not implementing stronger lockdown measures earlier and would showcase their community work supporting groups they saw as vulnerable to COVID-19.
Six ideas were found to be particularly prominent in Far Right language in response to COVID-19: migration; globalisation; governance; liberty; resilience; and conspiracy.
Many of the groups studied suggested the spread of COVID-19 was the result of migration through national or European borders, stating: ‘No Borders, No Defence’, or ‘open borders spread disease’; and some used Islamophobic, anti-minority or anti-Chinese language in relation to COVID-19.
This was used to criticise Globalisation, with insufficient border control seen as a ‘globalist’ agenda to encourage multiculturalism in Europe. Such critiques have often acted as a cover for Antisemitism within Far Right groups, and Jewish individuals and communities were sometimes singled out, along with minorities seen as breaking lockdown rules.
Far Right groups were overwhelmingly not looking to break the lockdown or spread COVID-19, but to encourage stronger provisions against the virus
Whilst these ideas are a staple of the Far Right, the study found innovations taking place in response to COVID-19. These groups attacked poor national governance, criticising the late implementation of lockdowns, unclear guidelines, and the lack of support provided by governments towards vulnerable communities. CasaPound called the Italian response ‘amateurish and partisan’, which ‘underestimated the problem’ and failed to put in place ‘important preventative measures and quarantine’, arguing:
… there is only hope that the situation will be managed by expert and competent technicians and not by politicians imbued with ideological dogmas.
Far Right posts also criticised the prioritising of big business over worker health and wellbeing; decrying that ‘our Government valued the economy more than they valued our lives’; or that poor governance had led to ‘insufficient hospital, police and military resources’.
Crucially, Far Right groups were overwhelmingly not looking to break the lockdown or spread COVID-19, but to encourage stronger provisions against the virus.
In response to COVID-19, we also see many Far Right groups attempting to demonstrate Resilience-building. This includes activities such as care for elderly or economically-disadvantaged communities, support of local businesses or workers’ rights, or volunteering with the Red Cross or donating blood to hospitals.
Posts also outlined how to stop the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and observing the lockdown, as well as providing specific information about lockdown regulations. Educational materials were also released, to support parents struggling with activities during extended periods of home-schooling.
‘Whatever this year has in store for us, the crisis brings us to new awareness of the value of the family and the larger community of solidarity in which we are embedded.’ - Identitäre Bewegung
Critically, whilst there were some examples of conspiracy theories or misinformation, these were limited and included a variety of discussions and concerns. In none of the more than 200 posts by these prominent groups was there any reference to the virus as being linked to the communication technology 5G, despite this perception being prevalent in much of the commentary on the Far Right.
The rise of COVID-19 has seen a flurry of analysis from observers on the supposed role that conspiracy theories and misinformation plays in Far Right tactics.
Properly analysing the Far Right allows us to build a more complex picture of how such groups operate in a changing world
The research findings challenge the belief that conspiracy theories are the ‘hook’ for the Far Right, or ‘the way they radicalise people’, ‘the way they attempt to normalise extremist narratives’ and ‘a clear tactic of extremist groups’, as stated by PREVENT National Coordinator Chief Superintendent Nik Adams and the Head of the UK Commission for Countering Extremism, Sara Khan. It has also brought into question the analysis that 5G is ‘arguably one of the most prevalent conspiracies adopted by actors on the Far Right’, finding that (at the very least) these assumptions are not universally applicable to Far Right groups.
Properly analysing the Far Right allows us to build a more complex picture of how such groups operate in a changing world. Rather than agents of chaos, significant Far Right groups have homed in on the dissatisfaction felt by many towards governments who have mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Understanding this allows us to develop a better response. Dismissing the Far Right as conspiracy theorists might be convenient but it is not fully backed up by evidence and it ignores the problems that the Far Right feeds upon.
It is the unfairness that lies at the heart of society, further uncovered by the pandemic, that drives much of the rhetoric by Far Right groups. By addressing the many inequalities exacerbated or caused by governmental responses to COVID-19, we deprive them of the means to gain legitimacy in our communities.
But it involves an introspection by European governments on their role in providing the fertile ground for the Far Right. This is where the real work in response to the Far Right needs to be done in the age of COVID-19.
The full study is available here