Extremist groups are using coronavirus to push fake news on social media, report warns

Extremist groups are using coronavirus to push fake news on social media, report warns
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Extremist organisations in Belgium are leveraging the coronavirus pandemic to flood social media with fake news to turn populations against each other, the intelligence agency warned.

A report published by Belgium's State Security Service (VSSE) warns of a slew of disinformation, inflammatory rhetoric about the pandemic posted online by extremist groups or individuals who shared a clear anti-immigration stance.

The VSSE and the military intelligence agency ADIV/SGRS identified "various right-wing extremist individuals and groups" which were "spreading conspiracy theories via social media and using the Covid-19 crisis to set populations against each other."

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Several right-wing organisations such as the Knights of Flanders and the Francophone far-right party NATION are cited by the report dated 21 April.

The agencies warned that the groups used a "mixture of facts and fake news and a far-right framing" to bolster messages charged with anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric and also aimed at undermining the government and the medical community.

The report cited the example of an anti-vax conspiracy theory being spread by the Kings of Flanders, according to which the virus causing the current pandemic could be traced back to the flu vaccine.

"Other far-right groups engage in hate speech against Muslims," the report continues, including a post published by NATION claiming infected Muslims were instructed to "cough in the faces of nonbelievers."

Throughout the lockdown, the far-right party has been active on Facebook, posting several posts a day to its around 4,000 followers, including one in which immigration and "Islamisation" are directly linked to the underfunding of Belgium's health services.

The agencies also warned that far-left and anarchist organisations were also seizing the crisis to "make their voice heard."

The report cites a text circulated in anarchist circles in Belgium and France saying the coronavirus offers a window of opportunity to carry out attacks against law enforcement and to damage of telecom infrastructure.

Foreign influence

The report also identified said that propaganda was being disseminated in the interest of foreign powers as part of a "hybrid strategy to debilitate the West."

Disinformation campaigns, which the agencies said were being orchestrated mainly out of Russia, aimed to "sow discord" between western populations and their governments as well as to promote the Kremlin's handling of the crisis among Russians.

"Reports targeted at Italian and Spanish civilians (...) focus on how their respective authorities fail to control the crisis, on how Russia, by contrast, is efficiently dealing with the outbreak of the virus and on the incapacity of Europe," the report reads.

At the same time, the agencies found that recently formed far-right political parties active throughout Europe were pumping pro-Russian content and disinformation into social media.

"One of those groups is the recently founded Squadra Europa. They are a very recent, pan-European, ultra-right movement, active on Twitter and other social media and with a division in Belgium."

The far-right movement focuses on anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-globalisation content, which they link to the coronavirus crisis, according to the agencies.

A post included in the report and dated 23 March tows aid sent by Italy to Russia at the same time as it chides a decision by Germany to ban the export of protective medical equipment.

The intelligence agencies urged vigilance against foreign powers' "corona diplomacy," a strategy through which they would seek position themselves favourably in the aftermath of the crisis, namely through business takeovers or through international aid.

"The VSSE would also like to draw attention to the risk of foreign powers exploiting their humanitarian aid operations to engage in interference in decision-making processes," the report says.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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