Hate groups and racist pundits have pushed misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic on mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube throughout the crisis, despite companies pledging to fight fake news about the virus.
Among some of the false claims propagated on social media include the notion – based on unproven race science – that persons of East Asian descent were predisposed to suffer from COVID-19, erroneous assertions that the virus was originally designed to be a bioweapon and arguments supporting the idea that racism can protect against global pandemics.
Hatewatch has chosen to repeat some of these posts in full to demonstrate the nature of the problem.
This deluge of COVID-19-related misinformation cuts against a pledge made by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in February 2020, when representatives from some of the world’s largest tech companies convened with members of the World Health Organization (WHO) to discuss tampering the spread of false information related to the virus. The group was gathered, in part, in response to what a representative from the WHO dubbed an “infodemic” in an interview with CNBC – the new wave of false information on major social media platforms.
Groups such as Change the Terms, a coalition of civil rights organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have pushed to bridge this gap. Change the Terms advocates for social media companies to adopt a reasonable standard of care regarding regulation, which aims to constrain hate activity without stifling communities arbitrarily. But there is work yet to be done. Companies, as the 2019 “Year in Hate” report found, still struggle “to prioritize public safety over the freedom of their users to post extremist content.” The moderation of hate groups across all platforms is often inconsistent as well. Some groups, such as white nationalist publication American Renaissance, have been banned from Twitter and Facebook for hate speech for years, but have nevertheless continued to operate on YouTube.
As Hatewatch found in a survey of numerous hate groups tracked by the SPLC’s Intelligence Project across three major social media platforms – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – racism and disinformation has continued to fester. In addition to spreading racist memes and fake news about Asian Americans and other minority groups, hate groups have used all three platforms to boost a slew of conspiracy theories, fake cures (including one that has resulted in a death in Arizona) and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
When considering the real-world threat posed by social media companies’ inability to enforce their own guidelines on misinformation and fake news, Chloe Colliver, the head of digital policy and strategy at ISD, told Hatewatch that “three main risks came to mind.” These included the risks posed not only to public health by the proliferation of fake cures, but also to institutions as a result of a preponderance of conspiracy theories. She also cited the danger of “target attacks” against minority groups and others.
“None of which are new,” she added. “They fit the patterns of platforms’ inability to deal with [these] specific kinds of attack and disinformation content.”
Most, if not all, of the groups spreading this content have been given a pass to do so under existing social media policies.
“Obviously, the historical reticence of these companies to promote evidence-based or expert information above other kinds of information has come back to bite [them] now, as we’ve seen,” Colliver continued. “The platforms themselves acknowledged that their policies aren’t up to scratch in a crisis like this.”
VDARE, a white nationalist site that has had a promotional page on Facebook since 2012, has seized upon this climate of instability to push its racist agenda. More than 50 posts on its promotional page referred to the epidemic in some capacity.
“There is now scientific evidence that Africans (and Whites) are more resistant to [COVID-19] than Asians and that this is for genetic reasons,” one post from March 5 said. It included a link to an article from pseudonymous New York-based contributor “Lance Welton,” titled “Chinese Scientists Find MORE Evidence That Coronavirus (a.k.a. COVID-19) Discriminates By Race.”
“I’m sure the health authorities do have this information,” VDARE editor Peter Brimelow contended in an article posted to the site on March 12 as a follow up to “Welton’s” piece. Using debunked race science, Brimelow posited that COVID-19, as well as its predecessor, SARS, were “Oriental-specific.”
“Are some racial groups more prone to catching the Chinese pathogen – and are some races more severely affected when they do?” asked another Facebook post from March 31 – the same day officials announced that deaths in the United States had officially surpassed those of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The same post included a link to an article featuring a section titled “Coronovirus [sic] and the Mexican Race.”
VDARE, which has often referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu” (or “Wuflu”), defended Trump’s own use of the term on March 17 as well, arguing in a March 17 post that any opposition to such nomenclature was born out of a world where “white people are blamed for all . . . problems.”
Fake cures, not to mention misinformation regarding the source of the virus and government efforts to contain it, have been featured on a number of pages belonging to hate groups and extremist groups monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
WorldNetDaily (WND), a conspiracy-minded outlet and active antigovernment extremist group with over 840,000 likes on Facebook, has boosted a number of articles featuring antisemitic dog whistles, fake cures and other disinformation. Recent WND headlines include: “Coronavirus is being weaponized by Soros, others behind anti-Trump ads”; “Clyburn: Democrats must use Chinese virus to restructure America ‘to fit our vision’”; and “Newt Gingrich’s question for Biden exposes Obama’s undeniable role in N95 mask shortage.” Another proclaimed that a three-drug cocktail promoted by Dr. Vladimir Zelenko had a “100% success” rate in treating 350 patients with COVID-19. The article, which was shared to WND’s Facebook on March 24, includes an embedded video from Dr. Zelenko himself, which has since been removed by YouTube for violating community guidelines.
Though the particular combination of drugs – which includes hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial treatment – has been used by some doctors, the rapid spread of misinformation regarding the drugs’ use has raised some concern, especially for patients who may attempt to administer them themselves.
On March 31, WND published an article titled “‘Cover-up’: Chinese researched bat virus near Wuhan market,” which posited that the virus may have originated in a research lab near Wuhan.
Several antigovernment groups, including militias, peppered their pages with misinformation implying that the virus would result in a communist takeover of essential industries and/or attacks on the Second Amendment. These fears are central to the antigovernment movement’s opposition to the “New World Order.” This far-reaching conspiracy theory, which features prominently in antigovernment and other far-right circles, posits that a small, secretive cadre of elites are behind a rising totalitarian, one-world government.
“We’re not going down the road that leads to tyranny, and that’s what this whole crisis is about,” James Stachowiak, otherwise known as “Johnny Infidel,” said on a video on Facebook that sought to inspire “lone wolves” to take action.
“KLAYMAN: LEFT USING COVID-19 TO INSTALL GOV’T DICTATORSHIP!,” screamed a post on Freedom Watch’s page – a group run by far-right extremist Larry Klayman – in a post from March 25.
Still others encouraged users to view the virus as a vast “globalist” conspiracy. This antisemitic euphemism is frequently used by groups such as WND and Infowars, and has its roots in the centuries-old antisemitic image of Jews as “puppeteers” in complete control of society. One post from anti-LGBTQ extremist Scott Lively, published on March 22, claimed that the coronavirus outbreak had been “orchestrated” by the elites. Their goal, he contended, was to target “small business because it is a cornerstone of American self-sufficiency and serves as a barrier to the complete Marxist takeover of our society.”
“Now think of a country the size of China . . . and think of its multi-thousand-year habit of eating some very strange creatures – basically a zoo is a menu in China, it seems. What are the odds that coronavirus just happened to emerge within a stone’s throw – in a giant country – of its only level four bioweapons lab?” asked white nationalist YouTuber and self-proclaimed philosopher Stefan Molyneux in a video clip posted to his Twitter on March 30.
“The odds, of course, are virtually zero,” he said. He claimed the virus appeared to be “engineered,” possibly for “transmission and lethality.”
Molyneux – who runs a verified account on Twitter with over 450,000 followers – has spread racist or pseudoscientific disinformation about COVID-19 for weeks.
“Open borders guy reaps fruit of open borders,” he tweeted on March 7, after the head of Italy’s Democratic Party tested positive for the virus.
Then, on March 25, Molyneux released a video accusing the media of turning “attention away from the mass infiltration of academia, of media, of Hollywood, [and] of real estate [by] Chinese citizens, often with illicit money from the criminal actions of the Chinese government.”
Finally, when asked by a follower why German hospitals weren’t “overwhelmed,” Molyneux encouraged followers on March 26 to “go look up average IQ by country.”
Molyneux, a well-known proponent of scientific racism, has as recently as Oct. 7, 2019, stated that the “average IQ in Syria is 83. Turkey is 90. They will never ever be like the West.” In 2018, he also cited “racial IQ differences” as a method to “push back against Third World immigration without succumbing to racism.”
Molyneux has made his affinity for a white “monoculture,” to borrow his term, widely known. In late 2018, Molyneux said he had endeared himself to white nationalist beliefs after visiting Poland, which he referred to as “an all-white country,” according to a Right Wing Watch report from Dec. 21, 2018.
Other prominent far-right accounts have sought to downplay the threat posed to Americans by the virus in various ways.
Far-right social media personality and Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe produced a series of videos featuring him driving to different COVID-19 testing sites and hospitals in the New York City metro area on March 27. The videos, which were published on both O’Keefe’s personal Twitter with over 710,000 followers, as well as Project Veritas’s verified account with some 460,000 followers, include O’Keefe pressing a national guardsman to call the media coverage of the crisis “overblown.”
Though one of the videos was removed from O’Keefe’s Facebook on April 1, they remain on Twitter.
VDARE, which has evaded waves of Twitter bans targeting white nationalists, advertised on April 3 that they had created a “special archive” for posts related to COVID-19 and race. According to the white nationalist site, the “race-denying ruling class” – as one author called them in a March 28 article quoted on Twitter on April 1 – has supposedly denied the role of pseudoscientific racial differences in the spread of the disease.
“Ruling Class concedes it’s ok to Notice that Coronavirus discriminates by gender, but NOT that it discriminates by race. Why?” the account tweeted on Feb. 21.
VDARE also pushed the same anti-Asian rhetoric that has led to a wave of hate crimes across the country. “575,000+ Chinese call NYC home,” it posted on March 22, along with a link to an article titled “Is NYC Coronavirus Ground Zero Because Massive ‘Be Strong Wuhan’ Feb 9th Chinese New Year’s Parade Helped Spread the Chinese Virus?”
Twitter has, at times, cracked down on disinformation on the platform. On March 25, Twitter removed a post from the far-right site the Federalist, which advocated for spreading the virus through “chickenpox parties.” A March 27 tweet from Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk, which echoed the president’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, has since been removed from the platform for a terms of service violation. Two tweets from the far-right populist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, were removed on March 30 for spreading misinformation.
“We actually have sound, instinctive reasons to be xenophobes,” American Renaissance head Jared Taylor told viewers in a YouTube video posted on March 12. He continued:
Everyone knows about the body’s immune system, which fights disease. We also have a behavioral immune system. All people everywhere instinctively avoid certain things that could make us sick. Piles of feces. Rotting flesh. People with running sores. Part of this behavioral immune system is an instinctive fear that people who act or look strange could be carrying disease.
“Xenophobia,” Taylor concluded, “can save your life.”
Taylor followed up on March 27, noting in a video titled “What the Virus Means for Us” that “everything teaches ‘identitarian’ lessons, including the coronavirus.”
“Professor Giorgio Palu, former president of the European Society of Virology, says that early on there was a proposal to isolate people coming from China, but they didn’t do that because people would’ve said that was ‘racist.’ Professor Polu believes that a large level of the devastation [in Italy] was caused by that: fear of being called racist,” Taylor said later in the same video.
Though Palu did acknowledge that a proposal to “isolate people coming from China” was shot down in a statement to CNN on March 18, he also explained that the breadth of Italy’s outbreak arose from the government lagging on both testing and enforcing lockdowns.
Despite being banned from Twitter since 2018, American Renaissance’s YouTube channel and its 126,000 subscribers have remained.
Jason Köhne, a white nationalist podcaster and vlogger known online as “No White Guilt,” blamed “anti-whiteism” not only for coronavirus spreading throughout the United States, but also for ensuring that many medicines and medical products were produced abroad.
“This is an anti-white issue,” he said in a video posted on March 24. “You can say there’s an economic component to it, but the bottom line is that the . . . incentivization structures have been put in place to capitalize on the harm inflicted on Western kind.”
Molyneux, meanwhile, used his channel to flesh out the idea, also propagated on his Twitter, that the virus was a “bioweapon.”
“[COVID-19] is kind of like the perfect virus from a weaponization standpoint, and if it was related to eating bats, it’s not like people in China started eating bats last October,” he said in a podcast from Jan. 25.
In a live stream aired March 27, Molyneux, along with his guest, Dr. Paul Cottrell, who received his Ph.D. in finance from the online, for-profit school, Walden University, discussed whether “the Wuhan virus is the bioweapon” that Cottrell contended had leaked out of a lab near Wuhan in 2015. Molyneux later pondered whether the virus’s spread throughout the world ought to be considered an act of “manslaughter” or even “homicide,” presumably on China’s part.
A day later, in a now-unlisted YouTube video linked to on Molyneux’s Twitter he declared a sort of victory for the racist, anti-immigrant right.
“All the people who were called ‘xenophobic’ and ‘racist’ for wanting to talk about immigration – who said that it was possible to stop it relatively easily – they’ve all been proven right,” he said in the March 28 video.
“Now the walls go up because it affects those in power,” he said.
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