The economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 health emergency has led to a general increase in demonstrations against coronavirus containment restrictions. In particular, on 20 March 2021, demonstrations were held in the major urban centres of several European, American and English-speaking countries as part of the ‘Worldwide rally for freedom’ day. Protesters took to the streets to call for the Covid-19 restrictions on travel and economic activities to be eased. The protests escalated into clashes between demonstrators and security forces and acts of vandalism in several areas. Another global protest event dubbed ‘Worldwide rally for freedom 2.0’ is scheduled on 15 May 2021.
Many civil society organisations and trade associations took part in the 20 March protests, and used the social media to call on people to join the event. However, reports on the protest locations and times of the ‘Worldwide rally for freedom’ day suggest that Covid-19 denial movements played a key role too.
The latter, which emerged in Europe and the United States in 2020, criticise Covid-19 containment measures, including lockdowns, social distancing, face mask use, and, more recently, vaccination campaigns. These groups argue that restrictions are harmful to human health and part of a global ‘New World Order’ plan to strengthen control over the population.
The theories touted by Covid-19 denial movements about the negative effects of anti-Covid measures on health have on several occasions been proved wrong by the academic and research world. However, the rise of these groups is conducive to violent protests.
Despite similarities, Covid-19 denial groups do not form a homogeneous protest movement. The ideological assumptions they refer to are often different and conflicting, as in the case of the two main European groups: far-right Lateral Thinking (Germany) and insurrectionary anarchist StandUpx (United Kingdom). The influence that the far-right and insurrectionary anarchist ideologies have on the propaganda of Covid-19 denial movements is directly proportional to extremist organisations’ ability to infiltrate those movements.
Germany’s Lateral Thinking (Querdenken 711) was founded in Stuttgart in 2020 by entrepreneur Michael Ballweg. Since the very first demonstrations of the movement, German far-right terrorist groups have infiltrated protesters; far-right infiltration is also evident in Lateral Thinking’s propaganda, of which supremacist and identitarian ideologies are key components.
In 2020, around 1,100 protests were held in Germany against Covid-19 restrictions, of which 140 were launched by Lateral Thinking. 21 of those Lateral Thinking protests were infiltrated by members of far-right subversive groups, such as Identitarian Movement, Steeler Boys, Reich Citizens and The Right. In general, we can safely say that the Lateral Thinking demonstrations infiltrated by far-right groups were five times more violent than the other protests.
On 29 August 2020, during a demonstration in Berlin, a group of Lateral Thinking protesters tried to enter the German Reichstag. The action is quite similar to the occupation of Capitol Hill in Washington on 6 January 2021.
In the UK, StandUpX emerged as Britain’s leading protest movement in 2020. While its goals and methods of propaganda are similar to Lateral Thinking’s, StandUpX is instead inspired by insurrectionary anarchism. The British protest group has taken root across the country and uses the social media for incessant propaganda. Since September 2020, after approximately 40,000 Facebook and Twitter accounts were closed, StandUpX’s propaganda and coordination activities have massively shifted to Telegram, where the group’s channels are based on a precise hierarchy (general channels and local channels), for a total of over 10,000 members. The movement’s most prominent public personalities include Piers Richard Corbyn, the brother of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The British movement differs from Lateral Thinking not only in terms of ideology, but also when it comes to logistics and organisation. Unlike the German movement, StandUpX is a well-structured movement relying on specific funding flows (crowdfunding and merchandising). Moreover, through its Telegram channels, the group is well-rooted in the country, unlike Lateral Thinking.
Another difference between the two groups is that there is less evidence of StandUpX being infiltrated by subversive groups. However, the British group’s propaganda include some of the key ideological components of green anarchist groups, such as anti-capitalism, environmental protection and rejection of technologies, seen as a tool used by governments to grow more authoritarian.
StandUpX protests are held every Saturday in various urban centres of the country, but those with the highest turnouts are held in London and Birmingham, where rallies are more violent and often escalate into clashes with the security forces.
The infiltration of subversive groups into European Covid-19 denial movements resulted in a higher threat posed by violent protests in 2020. Denial movements have proved to be prone to far-right and insurrectionary anarchist ideas. The anti-establishment conspiracy theories have been conducive to subversive, supremacist, identitarian and green anarchist ideologies. The said ideological mix has often coincided with higher violence levels during Covid-19 denial protests.
In 2021, Covid-19 denial protests will probably continue, beginning with the 15 May demonstrations for the ‘Worldwide rally for freedom 2.0’ day. A further threat is posed by the possible increase in violent incidents motivated by denial groups’ key ideologies: since March 2021, at least 4 attacks have targeted vaccination hubs and Covid-19 test facilities. On 2 March 2021, an IED damaged a Covid-19 test centre in Amsterdam. On 6 April 2021, a Covid-19 test hub in Berlin was hit by a Molotov attack. In Italy, the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (13 March 2021) and a vaccination hub in Brescia (3 April 2021) were hit by arson attacks, presumably at the hands of insurrectionary anarchists. In the short to medium term, subversive groups might capitalise on the support they have won among Covid-19 denial movements to engage in new violent actions and vandalism against sensitive targets, like vaccination hubs, Covid-19 test centres and government assets.