For the “accelerationists” of the white nationalist movement—the nihilistic young bigots and misogynists who “just want to watch the world burn”—the coronavirus pandemic is “truly a gift.” At a bare minimum, they see the current emphasis on “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” as a prime opportunity to reach more young people online for recruitment.
And some of them, it seems, are intent on making it into a weapon. According to a report this weekend from Hunter Walker and Jana Winter at Yahoo News, neo-Nazi terrorists on a Telegram chat channel discussed finding ways to turn the contagion into a bioweapon, including spreading the disease through spray bottles, spreading their spit, and contaminating objects in public places.
“Violent extremists continue to make bioterrorism a popular topic among themselves,” reads an intelligence brief by the Federal Protective Service, which covered the week of Feb. 17-24 and was distributed to law enforcement around the nation. “White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists have recently commented on the coronavirus stating that it is an ‘OBLIGATION’ to spread it should any of them contract the virus.”
The brief makes clear that federal investigators are monitoring white nationalist activity on Telegram, an encrypted platform whose privacy settings have made it immensely popular with the radical right. On a Telegram channel devoted to promoting “siege culture”—a terroristic worldview first popularized by neo-Nazi author James Mason—and “accelerationism”—which embraces the goal of destroying human civilization, viewed as a plague on the planet—the participants eagerly embraced the idea of contracting and then deliberately spreading COVID-19. Most were affiliated with the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division.
The brief reported that white supremacists “suggested targeting … law enforcement and minority communities, with some mention of public places in general.” They discussed a number of methods of spreading the pandemic, primarily targeted at their perceived enemies: Seeking out personal contact with anti-fascists, wiping “saliva on door handles” and spitting on elevator buttons at local FBI offices, and leaving the germs behind in “nonwhite neighborhoods.”
The coronavirus also means fresh opportunities for sowing chaos and hatred beyond its mere weaponization for white nationalists—particularly in the online alternative universe they’ve created for themselves. With huge numbers of their primary recruiting demographic—white males between 13 and 30—forced to spend more time online, especially for social connections, the white nationalist movement appears to be working overtime to step up its outreach.
Civil rights experts on a reporters’ call (via EJ Dickson at Rolling Stone) with the Southern Poverty Law Center to discuss its recent annual “state of hate” report, which found an increase in intensity and violent rhetoric from white nationalists during the Trump era, discussed how “social distancing” and the increase in internet use associated with it may contribute to a worsening.
“We are seeing a huge uptick” in white nationalist rhetoric, according to Eric Ward, executive director of the Portland, Oregon-based Western States Center. “A lot of it is happening on YouTube platforms and videos and others, at a time where much of the country is sheltering in place or practicing social distancing. Ironically, it will serve to give these individuals much more access [to an audience] than they would normally have.”
The underlying shift to “accelerationism” is enhanced by the spread of memes and fake news stories related to the coronavirus, especially those that purport to show environmental damage suddenly reversing itself because of the cessation of human activity, such as dolphins returning to seaports in Italy. The message of these memes, spread often by devoted eco-fascists, is that humans are contaminants and the pandemic is a good thing.
Mostly, it’s about sowing the chaos they see as key to bringing about an end to modern civilization: “They want to capitalize on crisis and chaos,” Ward told Rolling Stone, which noted that eco-fascists used one Telegram thread to theorize about targeting electricity systems in areas where people are quarantined.
Activists Shannon Martinez and Nola Flanagan compiled a Twitter thread of useful suggestions for learning how to first recognize the appearance of white-nationalist propaganda in your children’s online diets and what to do about it: “Empower kids to identify the messages used to market products and ideas. Work together to learn better how to identify disinformation campaigns. This impacts permanent behavior change far more than just info and guidelines.”