In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a video started to circulate on social media.
Shot in documentary style, the clip aired conspiracy claims about billionaire Bill Gates, presidential medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci and the origins of the pandemic.
It was created by filmmaker Mikki Willis and featured disgraced US researcher Judy Mikovits.
It was viewed by millions of people before being removed by social media platforms.
The video might be gone but its title, Plandemic — a portmanteau of the words “plan” and “pandemic” — and some of its outlandish conspiracy theories, live on.
That is according to new research by Macquarie University researchers, funded by the New South Wales government, which found a “statistically significant” increase in the discussion of conspiracy theories on mainstream social media platforms before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts are concerned that this could offer far-right extremists a broader pool of possible recruits, enable the spread of racism and undermine faith in government and democratic institutions.
“I would call it anti-government extremism. I’d see it as a new form of extremism. Some countries like Germany have designated that as a new category in their threat assessment from their security services,” Katja Theodorakis, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s counterterrorism program, told ABC RN Breakfast.
Leaving a mark on social media
The researchers analysed around 5.5 million tweets and more than 13 million YouTube comments between January 2019 and January 2021 to understand how fringe conspiracy ideas were influencing mainstream public discussion.
The research period covered the initial COVID-19 lockdowns across Australia, as well as Victoria’s second lockdown from June to October 2020.
Researchers Lise Waldek, Julian Droogan and Brian Ballsun-Stanton looked for key words and phrases in those comments, including the word “plandemic”.
“We saw lots of conspiracies around QAnon. We saw conspiracies around Bill Gates and [George] Soros [and] the 5G [mobile] networks,” Ms Waldek said.
She said the research found terms associated with those theories have been increasing online and on social media over the past two years.
Ms Waldek said the ideas were around before the pandemic and they expected the ideas to “stick” even once public health measures were eased.
“Psychological research does suggest that when you subscribe to one conspiracy theory, you are more likely to believe another,” she said.
“[It might be] the other one you take is much more connected to movements that are overtly against democracy, are overtly against the government.”
Opportunity for far-right extremist groups
The researchers found the growing influence of conspiracy theories also offered an opportunity for far-right extremist groups.
They analysed the rhetoric of certain groups and individuals associated with white nationalism and anti-democratic ideals by looking at comments on the messaging platform Telegram and the image-sharing social media site Instagram.
In one of the examples cited in the research, a far-right advocate posted on Telegram that COVID-19 was a “bio-weapon designed in a lab to damage your fertility” in order to destroy “white people”.
“The global health emergency has allowed far-right extremist groups to connect their racism to a societal crisis,” Dr Droogan said.
“They have used this as an opportunity to try and align their propaganda with more mainstream attitudes and groups.”
“Conspiracy theories, in particular, have allowed them to push an anti-social and anti-government agenda.”
The research did not say whether attempts to alter the appeal of those groups had succeeded.
It noted there were only a “handful” of such groups in Australia and that many key leaders were in prison.
The report found a “hardening of language” within far-right extremist groups, encouraging anti-government protest and an increase in implicit and explicit references to violence.
It also found the groups were increasingly expressing anti-Semitic and anti-Asian sentiments, where they had previously favoured anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Katja Theodorakis, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s counterterrorism program, has spent time at rallies against COVID restrictions and said she has seen those attitudes on display.
For instance, at a recent rally outside parliament, a speaker was seen disparaging Jewish people directly from the podium.
“This kind of antipathy against the government — the idea that the government is itself so corrupt and has been taken over by power elites or a Jewish cabal — is becoming very prominent,” Ms Theodorakis said.
Social media reform needed
Researchers say there is a risk of violence from far-right extremists, but that Australia’s security services are aware of the threat.
They also emphasised the overall number of people spreading conspiracy theories remains small compared to the overall population.
Ms Waldek said better comment moderation on social media could help but was unlikely to solve the problem.
She pointed to the fact that social media sites are financially dependent on increasing engagement, which often meant maximising controversial commentary.
The research does not provide recommendations for government agencies or media companies but does suggest ideas such as limiting the number of retweets or comments a Twitter user is allowed to make generally.
A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet said the report is an important part of the government’s work to understand the impacts the pandemic had on far-right extremism in Australia.
“The report will inform the NSW government’s ongoing work to counter any threats of violent extremism by building resilience and cohesion in society, and protecting, diverting and disengaging individuals from violent extremism,” they said.
“Underpinning that approach is an emphasis on evidence, trust and transparency.”
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