The Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Milan, Italy, allegedly taken April 2021. Source: Telegram
Canada’s COVID-denial movement has drawn in a familiar cast of characters from our hate and conspiracy ecosystem.
Chris Saccoccia, whose social media history is littered with racism and Holocaust denial, has gained a huge following as he travels across the country encouraging people to flout health measures. Kevin Johnston, who was charged in 2017 for wilful promotion of hatred, and who lost a landmark case for racially motivated defamation against philanthropist Mohamad Fakih, has earned renewed fame as a pandemic-denying personality. Others, like neo-Nazi Paul Fromm, are simply fixtures at protests.
While unique in personalities and tone, anti-lockdown movements across the world have faced similar infiltrations. In what has truly become a global pandemic of conspiracism and hate, protests are happening in Austria, Australia, Britain, Finland, Germany, Romania, Switzerland and more.
Police and anti-lockdown protesters clashing in London’s Hyde Park. Source: Telegram
The UK’s anti-lockdown protests, like in Canada, has been a home for previously established conspiracy theorists. Ex-footballer and credited originator of the lizard-alien theory of ruling elites, David Icke is a regular speaker at events across the country, and has appeared via video at some Candian events. While his theories are typically cartoonishly outlandish ideas with no basis in reality, his notoriety and history of Holocaust denial place him firmly in the camp of a far-right disinformation superspreader.
“The Isle of Wight-based David Icke heads his own media empire, and his protégé, Manchester-based Richie Allen, boasts many thousands of listeners to his daily radio show,” British anti-racist research organization Hope Not Hate wrote in a recent report. “Conspiracist communities have long thrived on their own dedicated forums, but are also entrenched on all major social media platforms. In 2020, this milieu gained a new prominence by providing ready-made, simplistic false explanations as experts toiled to explain the spread of the virus.”
The same report cites Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party, not only complaining that COVID-19 was a hoax, but laid it at the feet of the “Anglo-Zionist financial elite” while joining Patriotic Alternative leader Mark Collett in sharing videos of showing members of the Orthodox Jewish community apparently flouting social distancing guidelines.
In comparison, Canada has seen attempts to cast the Muslim community in a similar light. Videos and pictures posted to far-right channels, sometimes of seemingly near-empty parking lots, try to describe them as being allowed to gather en masse by the government in place of Christians.
The pandemic has left governments struggling, often poorly, to balance the democratic right to protest with the health and well-being of the people, while a boon in disinformation makes it difficult for people to navigate credible, evidence-based information.
The British government announced a bill that would give police substantially more power to crack down on protesters. After this, 150 unions and civil society groups told parliament this would be “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens,” leading to a wave of protests and backlash against the government from across the political spectrum.
Germany has some of the strictest laws relating to neo-Nazis and hate imagery. Yet last year saw a massive uptick in reported hate-related violence and crime in the country. Offences committed by members of the far-right offences were “up nearly 6% from the previous year at 23,064, and accounted for more than half of all politically motivated crimes, the highest level since police started collecting such data in 2001,” according to Yahoo News. Politically motivated violent crime rose by nearly 20% year-over-year to 3,365 and included 11 murders and 13 attempted murders.
The German anti-lockdown movement is similar to its Canadian counterpart. Called the “Querdenken,” the country’s intelligence service recently said it was going to be setting up a unit to monitor COVID deniers. Experts continue to warn of the crossover between the far-right and the conspiracists in the movement.
Much like the People’s Party of Canada, members of the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have been notably part of this crowd. Unlike the PPC, however, AfD controls 89 seats in the 709 seat German Bundestag. Maxime Bernier’s party currently holds zero seats in Parliament.
“While starting in America in 2017, 2020 saw the arrival and growth of the QAnon Conspiracy Theory across Europe, especially in the UK and Germany,” the Amadeu Antonio Foundation wrote in a collaborative report with Hope not Hate and the Swedish Expo. “The theory has developed beyond its roots in the intensely hyperpartisan and US-centric right into a broader, less uniform type phenomenon with distinctly European inflections.
“As it stands today it is a decentralized, grand and multifaceted phenomenon, at once a conspiracy theory, a political movement and a quasi-religion, with variants tailored to chime with different subcultures and national contexts.”
This climate has led to a series of heavy-handed responses to those opposing lockdown measures. “German police used water cannons, pepper spray and clubs on protesters rallying over the coronavirus lockdown” in the town of Kassel, according to NPR. An estimated 20,000 demonstrators participated in the March protest.
The imposition of a curfew in The Netherlands in early 2021 is reminiscent of Montreal’s recent protests around a similar order. Government polls indicate that there was popular support for tighter restrictions after the country’s more lax health measures resulted in it having one of the highest infection rates in Europe. Nevertheless, the on the ground response has been a destructive pushback.
Curfews are likely not the solution to the Netherlands COVID woes, and in no country should protesters be assumed to be involved en masse with hate. However, the far-right has seized on the issue decisively.
“The most disturbing critics of Dutch coronavirus measures—and the real instigators of the recent violence—are extreme far-right groups such as Pegida, an anti-immigrant organization that started in Germany and has spread to other European countries, including the Netherlands,” Frida Ghitis wrote in World Politics Review.
Pegida, which also organizes in Canada, is an originally German group made up of “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.”
Leading into a Federal election in March, the anti-Islamic Partij van de Vrijheid (Freedom Party) made the lockdown measures one of its chief campaign issues.
Activists allegedly belonging to the neo-fascist movements CasaPound and Forza Nuov clashed with riot police in Rome. Source: Telegram.
It is often a tactic to use footage of old protests and street actions in neo-Nazi propaganda. The pandemic has been no exception to this, but in Italy, it has not been necessary. Roughly 800 members of the country’s fascist far-right, including members of CasaPound, gathered for an annual memorial to a student activist murdered by militant communists during the 1970s.
Footage of the crowd standing in formation and giving the “Roman salute” while shouting is an imposing sight. The annual display is indicative of how European fascism remains a real political force throughout the continent.
In mainstream politics, Italy is home to two far-right parties, The League (Lega) and the Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy). While the League has traditionally out-performed the Brothers, the pandemic has seen a boost in polled support for the party’s harder stance on immigration, according to The Brookings Institution.
There have also been protests with a significant amount of popular support from outside of the country’s far-right movement. Like many lockdown movements, the participants and reasons for marching are complex. The most prominent recent actions took place in Rome, as business owners struggling under the weight of a return to more severe lockdown walked the streets in defiance. Similar protests took place in Naples. The event ended as demonstrators clashed with police.
Reports lay the blame on far-right protesters within the crowd.
Spanish far-right and openly fascist political figures have likewise used the COVID crisis as an organizing tool.
Isabel Peralta, described as a “fascist influencer” by several outlets appeared alongside other neo-Nazi and fascist figures at a celebration of the 1943 Battle of Krasny Bor.
“It is our supreme obligation to fight for Spain, to fight for Europe, now weak and liquidated by the enemy,” she said at the February 2021 rally, according to the European Jewish Congress. “The enemy will always be the same, although with different masks: the Jew.”
One speaker at the same event also encouraged attendees to defy the smallest of public health measures when it came to COVID-19.
“You need to violate the curfew, that you meet with your family and friends, that you be more than six like we are here today; and that you embrace each other, and that you sing and that you live joyfully. Because fascism is joy.”
A Threat To The World
The economic and social ramifications of global lockdown measures, as well as the hardship they have inflicted on citizens of the world, are unfolding in real-time in front of us. Business owners, workers, and families are all being pushed to the limits of patience and resources, while frontline workers and medical professionals face undue risk for paltry compensation.
Far-right actors regularly exploit social crises, galvanizing their following to take up their chosen cause. Now, we’re seeing a cross-pollination of hate-motivated ideologies mixing with harmful conspiracism. It’s created a worldwide problem that, while culturally unique to its territories, threatens the democracies, livelihoods, and safety of the global community.