April 30, 2020

IntelBrief: Anti-Government Groups Elevate Profile and Propaganda During Pandemic

A nurse stands in counter-protest during a demonstration against stay-at-home orders at the State House, Saturday, April 25, 2020, in Providence, R.I., during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
  • There has been a noticeable increase in far-right, anti-government, and violent extremist propaganda since the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year.
  • Anti-government groups are agitating followers to reject ‘stay at home’ measures enacted by various states, with armed individuals and groups demonstrating in public while openly displaying firearms.
  • The coronavirus pandemic is the perfect vector to spread conspiracy theories about oppressive governments stealing personal liberties.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has encouraged people to ‘liberate’ states, which led to an online spike in far-right extremists calling for a civil war.

Even before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, far-right and anti-government extremist groups in the United States were ascendant, catalyzed by growing socio-economic, political, and demographic divisions within the country, many of which were exacerbated by politicians via social media. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, these groups have found perhaps the ideal moment to spread their conspiracy theories and grievances, taking advantage of a worldwide crisis to sow further distrust in government and institutions. To ‘flatten the curve,’ or to slow the rate of infection in order to prevent the collapse of already insufficient health care systems, countries have imposed various levels of restrictions on public gatherings and commerce. In the United States, these decisions are made by state governors after careful consideration of existing data, with some exceptions. The pandemic is a global health crisis, but it is also an economic catastrophe almost without precedent, and the financial ramifications are leading to widespread fear and anxiety over a looming recession or depression.

In the United States, anti-government groups are taking advantage of this time of great anxiety and pervasive uncertainty to promote their narratives. These groups espouse violent distrust of the government; most are heavily armed and encourage their followers to take up arms against a government they equate with tyranny. This ideology is not new in the United States; it has ebbed and flowed for decades. It was the worldview of Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It is also the worldview of violent white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally. The stay at home, or ‘shelter in place,’ orders imposed by states have been devastating to local economies but are necessary to keep pandemic-related illnesses and deaths from exploding. The death toll in the United States has been staggering—55,000 over two months. Without these measures, the death toll would be exponentially higher. Since mid-March, right-wing extremist groups have called for mass civil disobedience to these public health measures. Elected officials from city governments, all the way up to President Trump, have encouraged their supporters to ‘liberate’ the states that have shut down most commerce. 

A range of groups, from neo-Nazis to QAnon conspiracy theorists, have celebrated the President’s statements and have tried to organize armed protests in various states. With no sense of irony, these groups and their social media mouthpieces are equating public health measures with the struggles of African-Americans during the Civil Rights movements in the 1960’s and with the Nazi Holocaust in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The fact that many of these groups are virulently racist and anti-Semitic does not stop them from equating themselves as a persecuted minority fighting the feigned injustice of closed bowling alleys, restaurants, and tattoo parlors. More than 125 groups are now using Facebook to encourage resistance to public health measures and even encourage violence. These groups will continue to surge long after the pandemic ebbs.

The anti-government and white supremacist groups are finding common cause with the anti-vaccine crowd, joining together to label public health measures draconian. As countries rush to develop safe and effective vaccines, these groups are telling their followers that the pandemic is not as bad as portrayed, that the vaccine is a conspiracy involving Microsoft founder Bill Gates and philanthropist George Soros. These groups also claim that all the temporary restrictions on commerce and travel are simply a prelude to a more permanent power-grab by the federal government. Overlaying the protests and statements of governmental overreach is the issue of firearms. These groups perpetually portray themselves as victims of a gun-grabbing government despite the fact that there have been no significant gun control measures passed in years. Masked protesters are showing up heavily armed, in what they claim are an exercise of their 2nd Amendment rights. To many civilians and law enforcement officers, these armed rallies use tactics designed to blatantly intimidate. To date, there have been no confrontations between armed protesters and law enforcement, but one mistake or overreaction could lead to a horrific outcome, a scenario which would then look very much like a self-fulfilling prophecy and play further into the narrative pushed by far-right and white supremacist extremists, local militias, and anti-government groups.  


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