For my research on conspiracy theories, religion, and extremism I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time of the social media platform Telegram. For a few weeks, a group named White Lives Matter (WLM) had been planning rallies and protests in the major cities in the United States and in Toronto, Canada. Each location had its own subgroup on Telegram. As was reported in the media, White Lives Matter’s leadership were infiltrated by Antifa supporters some of the planned events crumbled. While observing the planning in two of the location-specific groups, I noted that there was a publicity campaign of sorts being propagated within the groups. The administrators or leaders were posting numerous comments about keeping the chat focused on the protests and excluding racial commentary or extremist opinions. There was a twofold rationale for these requests: a) media were monitoring the group chat and they wanted the focus to be on the protests and not providing any other information; and b) they wanted to appeal to the “normies” in the anti-lock down groups to join them. Normies is a term that QAnon adherents and anti-lock down supporters use to describe themselves.
Scholarship on far-right populism has acknowledged a normalization or mainstreaming of the movement. The boundary between democratic political protest and that of racist far-right populism is becoming thinner and blurred, and creating a challenge to democracy itself. With the pandemic and protective measures being put into place by governments worldwide, there has been a rise in those who are protesting these measures. Sociologist Dr. Ulrike M. Vieten in their paper "The `New Normal’ and `Pandemic Populism’: The COVID-19 Crisis and Anti-Hygienic Mobilisation of the Far-Right," compared the social media and messaging of far-right white political protests during the lock downs. What Vieten found was that there was a growing normalization of far-right groups as they joined “anti-hygienic” or anti-lock down protests. The paper argues that far-right white nationalists have tied wider struggles over pandemic politics to arguments about who belongs. Vieten’s research was focused on what this combination could be articulated as in the “new normal” of “pandemic populism.”
This phrase “pandemic populism” is one that we as scholars should consider in our work during the pandemic. As both experts and laypeople attempt to visualize what the new normal will be like, we cannot dismiss this pandemic populism or the, morphing of various groups into a movement. One key component that is providing the commonality between these groups is conspiracy theory. From QAnon, to Sambyk, to claims that Covid is a hoax or a tool to enslave all and create a New World Order, conspiracies have connected these disparate groups. For conspiracies to take a hold there must be distrust in governments and institutions, as well as a sense that the individual is disenfranchised and voiceless within the political process. With governments’ responses to the pandemic during the early stages, and with the emergence of new variants of Covid and the furthering of lock downs in some nations, people’s overall trust of their government has decreased. Similarly, populism has a very strong driving force against elitism within the political structure.
In a Telegram group for a White Lives Matter March on April 11, 2021 the administrator requested that all members of the group only post about the event, not about the movement itself. The administrator requested that those intending to attend the march focus on “how we [whites] are victimized by non-whites.” There was a request as well to make protest signs for people murdered, especially children, so that the marchers could not be “dismissed as white supremacists and other slurs.” The first day the group was created, March 29th, there were members asking if anyone attended the local “end the covid oppression” protests. Members articulated sympathetic words in support of the anti-lock down protestors and attempted to create commonalities through a sense of injustice. One member wrote, “the problem with that [lock downs] is the fact that it is creating a LOT of people with nothing left to lose. People have lost friends, family, and livelihoods. That is a dangerous state of affairs for any society. And it’s being foolishly encouraged to continue by people who have nothing to lose.”
While news media focused on the White Lives Matter protests/rallies this weekend as being failures due to the lack of attendance, what they did not take into consideration was the outreach these groups were attempting. The importance in these groups on Telegram is not simply the failed attempts at organization, but how the leadership is being vocal in their aims to grow the movement itself. These attempts at connection are a recruitment exercise. Following the events on the 11th, the dynamic of the Telegram groups changed. Now that the media had dismissed them, the members began to post more hate and extremist memes and commentary. The importance of recruitment is still at the forefront, as administrators post directions on how to recruit and introduce the topic of “activism on the behalf of whites.” Many of the posts in the WLM groups encourage people to come to “maskless” protests at grocery stores so that recruitment for their movement can be accomplished via a team effort to break the law. As Scot Nakagawa argues in The Nation, the pandemic has come at the perfect time for white nationalists to expand their movement.
When the member of the WLM group stated that due to the pandemic there are people with nothing left to lose, they were articulating that the pandemic has exposed the fragility of both the political and economic systems we have in place. This fragility can provide a conduit to a galvanization for radical right movements hoping to start a revolution through the incitement of a civil war. These ideas are not new, right-wing white nationalists have used the idea of inciting race wars in the past, such as those inspired by The Turner Diaries. This book creates a narrative of a persecuted and marginalized people rising against other races to “save” America. The persecution narrative is based upon fear and a sense of impending disaster that crosses boundaries between the secular and the religious as it blends conspiracy theories, eschatological myths, and fear of economic downturns. The laws created due to the pandemic afford an atmosphere where instability in societal institutions, fears, marginalization, and religion allow people to accept much more readily ideas that previously were held unacceptable. For those embracing these views, the threat of conspiracy becomes a call to rise up on the side of the eternal, in the ultimate battle between good and evil.
The pandemic, social unrest, and ultimately the search for the “cause” of all that seems disastrous in society is creating an opportunity for white nationalists to use populism and commonalities in the “anti-hygienic” movement to bolster their goals. Rather than focusing on the markers of success in real world protests, as scholars we need to focus on the virtual connections being made by these movements to recruit individuals to act in the “new normal” of the post-pandemic era.
 Vieten, Ulrike M. "The `New Normal’ and `Pandemic Populism’: The COVID-19 Crisis and Anti-Hygienic Mobilisation of the Far-Right." Social Sciences 9.9 (2020): 165.
-  Strandberg, Thomas. 2020. “Coronavirus: US and UK government losing trust.” 6.6. 2020. The Conversation. Available online: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-us-and-uk-governments-losing-public-trust-137713 (accessed on April 12, 2021.).