One of the peculiar realities of conspiracism is that people who believe in conspiracy theories rarely ever believe just one; most conspiracy theories are interconnected by the nature of their afactual grounding, and often this forms a web of theories that lead to radicalization. This is why the phenomenon of COVID-19 denialists coalescing with far-right extremist movements has become a global one.
Nick Robins-Early at Vice has assembled a useful survey of this kind of far-right radicalization, noting that the politics of the pandemic have provided a new kind of breeding ground for the paranoid fantasies that comprise the denialists’ conspiracy theories—one that openly intermingles old-fashioned antisemitism with New Age health-related conspiracies.
“We’re seeing something that we’ve probably never seen before in terms of how these ideologies work to feed off each other,” extremism researcher Aoife Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue told Robins-Early.
This kind of commingling has always occurred to some extent, but the COVID-19 pandemic featured two conditions that shifted it onto a more intensive plane: 1) a high degree of official and media confusion and uncertainty about the nature of the disease and its spread, much of it engendered among highly placed sources; and 2) pandemic-response conditions that forced people to spend inordinate amounts of time online, where conspiracy theories spread like kudzu, and denialist organizing along with it, particularly on social media platforms like Facebook.
Robins-Early describes the conditions enabling this spread, using the example of anti-vaxxer Piers Corbyn’s appearance on a podcast with Nazi sympathizer Mark Collett, during which Collett remarked, “We obviously agree on a lot of things”:
As anti-vaccine activists continue to spread medical misinformation online and hold rallies targeting schools, hospitals, and government officials, pairings like Corbyn and Collett have become common. White nationalists and QAnon influencers have become prolific sources for anti-vaccine propaganda, while far-right extremists march alongside anti-vaxxers at protests. In countries around the world, far-right and anti-vaccine movements are now deeply intertwined.
We’ve already seen street demonstrations in Italy and Australia in which openly fascist elements have turned out to support COVID denialists (particularly those opposing vaccine mandates), and have ended up engaging in insurrectionist violence, just as we have in the United States. This phenomenon continues to spread in Europe, notably in Germany.
“We had big demonstrations in the streets in a lot of German cities, but also an evolving network of hate groups,” Simone Rafael, a researcher at the German anti-racism group the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told Vice. “We could see the common thread throughout these groups was conspiracy ideologies and antisemitism.”
One of the more prominent examples of the radicalization dynamic occurring within COVID-denialist organizing is the case of Attila Hildmann, a wildly popular vegan chef and cookbook author who in early 2020 began promoting pandemic-related conspiracy theories and organizing rallies. By June of that year, he had declared himself a “German nationalist” who admires Hitler and warned that Jews wanted to “exterminate the German race.” Having fled Germany for his native Turkey to avoid prosecution, he now tells his followers that he is a “real Proud Nazi.”
The phenomenon has been fueled by the embrace of denialist conspiracism by mainstream political figures, particularly Donald Trump and his army of followers. As Robins-Early describes:
In the United States, members of the far-right Stop the Steal movement that promoted the conspiracy that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election have since shifted toward opposing vaccines and government mandates. Pro-Trump celebrities like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Simone Gold, founder of the right-wing activist group America’s Frontline Doctors, have both headlined anti-vaccine rallies this year. Other prominent anti-vaccine activists also double as QAnon influencers, lumping vaccinations in with their beliefs into broader conspiracies about global pedophile elites plotting to control the world.
Along with far-right radicalization has come the increasing presence of neofascist elements like the Proud Boys, who have begun attaching themselves to anti-pandemic-measure protests as “security.” The result, as we saw recently, has been a menacing air surrounding anti-vaccine-mandate marches and similar events.
“It’s really grown in strength by becoming part of the whole far-right,” Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, told Vice. “As a consequence of that, people who want to show their allegiance to that movement do so by refusing vaccinations.”
Far-right radicalization inevitably means that the underlying conspiracism is deeply antisemitic. This surfaced recently with the denialists’ embrace of the name “pureblood” for people who have refused the vaccine—an obvious reference to fascist attempts to justify genocide as a matter of eugenics.
As Robins-Early notes, “many of these have come to the forefront, such as this month when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, suggested that the Rothschilds were involved in a conspiracy to profit from COVID-19.”
Similarly inevitable has been the real-world violence that always accompanies far-right organizing—particularly death threats and other forms of intimidation directed at local officials and health care institutions. Hotez, who has become a target of online hate and threats from anti-vaccine activists, told Robins-Early that these threats increasingly express far-right views.
“Now when the threats come, it’s of a different character,” Hotez said. “It’s about an army of patriots coming to take me down.”