The ‘Terrorgram’ Plot by Neo-Nazis to Seduce Anti-Vaxxers
Safe and effective vaccines are finally here. So are white-nationalist fantasies of using diehard skeptics for their own even more twisted ends.
As the United States crept towards authorizing the rollout of pharma giant Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine this weekend, millions of Americans cheered, ecstatic to see the nation take a key step towards the end of a brutal pandemic that has killed nearly 300,000 of their fellow citizens.
The reaction from Corona Chan News (CCN) was decidedly more negative.
CCN bombarded its readers on the messaging platform Telegram with links and commentary about the supposed dangers of taking a dose of the vaccine, which has in fact proven safe in major trials. Most of the links lead to articles from reputable sources analyzing, for instance, legitimate concerns about potential allergic reactions to the vaccine and discussing the details of a rollout. But the channel’s commentary spun these stories into evidence of nefarious plots to track, sterilize, or mutilate citizens.
Within hours of a key FDA panel approving the vaccine’s U.S. debut on Thursday, the channel posted, “Here comes genocide.”
The channel, which has just over 6,000 subscribed followers but a much larger overall daily view count and a line into wider social media networks, has also tried to mobilize its followers to convince those around them not to take the vaccine. “Your goal this week is to tell 5 people directly that the vaccine has the potential to sterilize people,” it posted last Sunday. “Family and friends first.”
This may sound like run-of-the-mill hardcore anti-vaxxer conspiracy rhetoric, the depressingly common background noise of the pandemic. But CCN isn’t actually an anti-vaxxer channel. It’s a militantly white nationalist space created in early February “as a content aggregator for disinformation promoting a racist outlook on the pandemic,” as an April report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that attempts to understand and develop responses to extremism, put it. At least a half-dozen organizations to counter extremism, hate, and terrorism have been monitoring it since the spring, including an arm of the United Nations.
The channel only recently pivoted to making, and calling for the spread of, anti-vaxxer rhetoric, apparently because they believe that they can co-opt that movement to destabilize America and take advantage of the ensuing chaos. That’s not a deep reading of CCN’s motives; the channel is open and explicit about its aim, and about the fact that it doesn’t necessarily want to bring anti-vaxxers into the neo-Nazi fold, just push them into ugly conflict with authorities that white nationalists can exploit. It’s also very clear about the fact that this scheme is just a part of a wider conviction, shared by many far-right groups, that the coming months are going to be a shitshow of pain and unrest in America, and that they must milk that misery for all it’s worth.
“It’s a win that we’re not the only ones hurting,” this winter, CCN said in a recent post. “All the normal Whites are being brought down to our level of disenfranchisement.”
“We must further radicalize the anti vaccine [sic] movement,” another post read. “They have the potential for extremism against the system.... Encourage militancy. The racial angle can be used or it can be avoided for wider reach. Propaganda memes will be essential for this effort.”
“Our efforts must be focused on discouraging as many people (only Whites) from taking [the vaccine] as possible,” read another. “This will force the system’s hand to escalate. Rebellion will grow in response to their clampdown on anti vaxxers [sic] and this works in our favor.”
This may seem like a truly hairbrained, fringe-of-fringe scheme. But it’s actually representative of an increasingly common set of tactics on the far right. CCN isn’t the only entity promoting this scheme or some variation on it, either. It’s just one link in a chain of about 25 Telegram channels, collectively known as “Terrorgram,” many of which build on each other’s ideas and help to amplify and spread them into the wider world. (Telegram did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and The Daily Beast was not able to reach or identify the individual or individuals behind the CCN channel.)
One channel connected to CCN notably laid out a step-by-step process for readers to use to convince anti-vaxxers to commit to or endorse violent resistance to potential vaccine mandates, “regardless of their current understanding of our worldview.”
The notorious neo-Nazi groups Atomwaffen Division and The Base have both been linked to the Terrorgram network in the past. However, CCN seems to take a dim view of those organizations for drawing far too much attention to themselves, leading to waves of arrests and crackdowns against them by law enforcement. CCN and a number of other current Terrorgram groups advocate a far more anonymous, decentralized, and subtle approach to advancing white nationalist goals.
A dozen experts on extremism canvassed by The Daily Beast all expressed serious concern about this effort to co-opt anti-vaxxers to unwittingly serve neo-Nazi ends. As Mollie Saltskog of the Soufan Group, a global security firm, put it, “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen how easily and quickly an online conspiracy can result in acts, sometimes violent, in the real world.”
The particular brand of white nationalism that the CCN and much of the wider Terrogram network it sits within espouse is known as accelerationism. Although the concept’s been around for some time now, modern adherents hold that America’s condemnation of neo-Nazis following the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and other similar events, proved that white nationalism cannot rise up within the existing social structure through peaceful means. Instead, it must leverage crises and social tensions to accelerate the supposedly inevitable collapse of American society—although what precisely they want to do with that ensuing chaos depends on which group you ask.
As such, accelerationist movements throw their weight behind whatever they think will be worst for America. CCN has notably backed Trump’s doomed, fact-free election challenges, but not because the person or people behind it think he actually won or should stay in power. He’s too liberal and pacifistic for them. CCN is just “grateful for all the damage Trump is doing to faith in voting in elections,” as they put it.
Most extremist movements do their best to exploit crises, and they often attempt to subtly seed their beliefs in other, more mainstream communities. But many accelerationists are somewhat unique in their disinterest in drawing in official and visible recruits, or committing direct and claimed acts of violence, and their obsession with making others fire the first shots to start chain reactions of instability they believe they can bend to their will.
Several accelerationist groups embraced the rise of the pandemic this spring, correctly predicting that it would strain the capacity of and faith in public institutions. However, Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a think tank concerned with online polarization and vitriol, told The Daily Beast that it was clear early on that they “had not worked out a way of making that happen” any quicker, or more directly to their benefit. And true to their opportunistic nature, they did not solely focus on the pandemic, looking for ways to exploit unrest linked to racial justice protests and the 2020 elections sporadically as well.
The base opportunism of accelerationist entities like CCN and the Terrorgram network makes it hard to know if the people who run them actually are anti-vaxxers, or if they’re just promoting anti-vaxxer beliefs and brewing conspiracy theories to make it harder to control the pandemic.
Most do seem to believe the virus is real. And Veryan Khan of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium sees hints of celebration in their commentary about death rates and the prospect of a long, hard season to come, which CCN occasionally calls “Dark Winter.”
“Thanksgiving surge is working well,” read a post from Saturday. “More industry destroying lockdowns next week for sure. Many will lose their jobs and homes during or right after the holidays.”
In the twisted logic of accelerationism, thirsty as it is for pain and social collapse, that’s good news. Khan believes that these groups “want as many people to get COVID-19 as possible.”
Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism suggested that, because groups like the CCN just throw out every wild idea for co-opting other movements so that they can sow chaos, “most of the time, their messages are not very strategic or thoughtful efforts.” So, many of their campaigns fizzle out.
“But sometimes,” Segal acknowledged, “their shit sticks.”
A number of lone-wolf attacks have been attributed to individuals influenced by or affiliated with accelerationist groups, including an attempted hospital COVID-19 ward bombing this spring. These attacks are uniquely vexing, Charlotte Kathe of the extremism disruption firm Moonshot CVE argued, because they can be harder to predict and track. They’re also harder to pare back by targeting established white nationalist groups, as accelerationists thrive on decentralized action.
There is reason to suspect the Terrorgram effort to co-opt anti-vaxxers will fail. René F. Najera, an epidemiologist currently working with Virginia’s Fairfax County Health Department, Johns Hopkins University, and George Mason University, and an expert on anti-vaxxers, noted that many vaccine skeptic groups have increasingly flirted with right-wing extremists in recent years, and are certainly open to junk conspiracy theories. He’s experienced violent anti-vaxxer rhetoric, and he’s sure the movement will cause all sorts of trouble for the Pfizer vaccine rollout even without outside agitators riling them up. Just this past week, The Daily Beast reported on officials’ concerns that extremist anti-vaxxers might try to steal or destroy vaccine shipments.
But they also have a long history of backing down on their most extreme activities and rhetoric when they get publicly named and shamed, he told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know if the movement would actually take part in armed violence,” Najera added.
If Elliot Freed, author of the anti-vax tome Vaccine Primer, is any indication, the anti-vaxxer crowd is not worried about the prospect of a white nationalist co-option of their scene. “I have not detected a white supremacist thread in the vaccine critical movement,” he told The Daily Beast. “My readers are of all races…. I can’t see the people I know being swayed in this way.”
However, the anti-vaxxer community is large and has been growing rapidly during the pandemic. Most polling indicates that up to half of Americans are already either hesitant about or dead set against getting vaccinated against COVID-19. The politicization of the vaccine approval process, including the Trump administration’s threats to shitcan the head of the FDA if his agency didn’t just skip ahead and approve the vaccine on Friday, has not helped to reassure anyone. And many more people will likely grow worried about the effects of a rapidly developed vaccine as it rolls out, Kathe noted, opening them up to anti-vaxxer rhetoric—especially if businesses, schools, or states decide to mandate vaccination.
Despite its radical content, CCN has actually arguably positioned itself well to speak to these demographics. In the spring, Saltskog explained, it built itself up as an acerbic, conspiratorial news aggregator, but not an explicitly white nationalist outlet, and fostered a small but broad and highly engaged audience. That audience spreads CCN memes and hot takes out into less controversial channels on Telegram and similar platforms, and eventually into networks where elements of the diffuse and often conspiratorial anti-vax community may see, glom onto, and uncritically spread at least bits of them.
“Anti-vaxxers have huge platforms on mainstream social media that are open to exploitation by far-right groups,” Ahmed stressed, “just as they have been exploited by hucksters already.”
Folks are especially prone to buying into conspiratorial and radical rhetoric this year as disinformation flourishes, life feels uncertain, and we all spend our days trawling the internet, just trying to understand what is going on. So, there is a good chance of the CCN’s campaign bringing more Americans into the anti-vaxxer fold, and even of their efforts getting at least a few anti-vaxxers to grow more militant, even violent.
“When you become convinced that there are powerful forces at work, aiming to harm you and your child, then all options are on the table, really,” extremism researcher Alex Khasnabish told The Daily Beast.
Most experts seem to agree that these concerns are real enough that we should make serious efforts to limit the influence and reach of accelerationist voices like CCN. However, they also agree that doing so will be a heavy lift, requiring coordinated and meaningful action from politicians across the political spectrum, tech companies, and a host of other actors.
You know, exactly the sort of grandiose project America’s totally in a great place to execute now.
Although no one can predict if and when anything truly dreadful will come out of this cartoonish scheme—this stream crossing of several of the most villainous forces of 2020—Khasnabish argued that if anything does come of it, we’ll start to see the effects in about a month.
“January will be an explosive time, with the inauguration coming up and the vaccine really starting to roll out,” he said. “People will be confronted with the question of whether or not to get it then.”
No matter what shakes out of this ludicrous plot, though, CCN’s rhetoric is a harsh reminder of the grim cynicism and rank opportunism that animate modern white nationalists, and many other extremist groups.
As Khasnabish put it, “The far right lives by making the most of every opportunity it’s presented with.”