Extremist groups have been promoting disinformation about COVID-19 in an attempt to capitalize on the pandemic, according to declassified Canadian intelligence files obtained by Global News.
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-government extremists, in particular, have been using COVID-19 conspiracy theories to attract followers, raise money and encourage violence, the documents said.
A “secret” national security brief, prepared for senior Canadian officials and shared with foreign governments, links disinformation about the virus to what it calls ideologically motivated violent (IMV) extremists.
“IMV extremists and others are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to promote disinformation and alternative narratives regarding both the cause of the pandemic and potential societal outcomes,” it said.
The report was among a cache of Canadian intelligence documents obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act.
The documents reveal that CSIS has been tracking the national security aspects of the pandemic, notably the disinformation promoted by authoritarian states and extremists that is fueling conspiracy theories and distrust of government and health authorities.
Conspiracy theories have always been a mainstay of right-wing extremism, but the pandemic has handed the far-right new fodder at a time of heightened public anxiety.
“The COVID-19 pandemic provides the opportunity for many within these milieus to espouse their worldviews, promote extreme actions (including violence), and, in some cases, exploit them for financial gain,” CSIS report said.
Extremist COVID-19 propaganda, for example, blames “Jews, China, immigrants, the government and societal elites” for the pandemic, it said.
The report was written before a heavily-armed Manitoba military reservist drove his pickup truck to Rideau Hall on July 2 and said he wanted to speak to the prime minister.
A two-page letter he allegedly wrote suggested he had been exposed to popular conspiracy theories.
The CSIS report said COVID-19 conspiracy theories had “contributed to” a death in Toronto.
On March 17, a 40-year-old activist livestreamed videos on Facebook in which he spoke about his political grievances, doused himself in gasoline, self-immolated and stabbed himself.
He was Tasered by police but died at the hospital. Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit investigated the incident but closed the file a month later.
“According to friends, the activist believed that the COVID-19 shutdown was an establishment conspiracy plot, ostensibly to strip Canadians of their rights and freedoms,” the CSIS report said.
Another report in the intelligence files, by the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, said that while extremists were exploiting COVID-19, they had also been forced to “change targets and cancel physical meetings” because of the pandemic.
It added that some right-wing extremists were discouraging their followers from spreading COVID-19 conspiracies and instead wanted them to promote “panic” in order to “accelerate the demise of the current social order.”
An expert who reviewed the documents said they showed CSIS was looking at “ideologically, politically, and religiously-motivated groups, cells and individuals, and how the pandemic is affecting them.”
“In some cases, they’ve concluded that the pandemic has limited their movement and has therefore reduced their ability to act in the medium term, while in other cases, CSIS sees the pandemic as something that extremists are taking advantage of,” said Jessica Davis, president of Insight Threat Intelligence and a former CSIS analyst.
“I’d say that their view is largely correct, particularly if we keep in mind that they’re writing from a Canadian perspective.”
The CSIS report refered to the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, which it said had been claiming COVID-19 was fake and an attempt to prepare for the imposition of martial law.
It also mentioned “accelerationists,” who encourage violence to escalate the collapse of society, and anti-government “preppers,” who view COVID-19 as proof that an apocalyptic end is coming and they need to get ready.
“Apocalyptic narratives — whether of societal collapse, biblical rapture, or race war — are the primary manner by which neo-Nazi, white supremacists and ethno-nationalists draw in new followers and resources,” the report said.
The conspiracy theories CSIS said were being promoted online by extremists also included the assertion that the coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon, and that it was created by “an international consortium of Jews.”
Others are that COVID-19 is caused by 5G wireless technology and it is an attempt by the United Nations to impose a new world order.
A “key theme” of COVID-19 conspiracies in the U.S., and to a lesser degree in Canada, is that government will use to pandemic to impose martial law and target gun owners, CSIS wrote.
In another report, CSIS said the pandemic had lowered the “religiously-motivated violence threat in the immediate term.” The report, which was otherwise entirely redacted, was written in April.
But since then there have been several Islamist extremist attacks in Europe, notably the Oct. 16 murder and beheading of a teacher in France, and the Vienna mass shooting on Nov. 2.
Far-right figures have also been appearing at Toronto anti-lockdown rallies in recent weeks.
“Major global issues, such as the pandemic, can augment extremist efforts to move their message from the fringes of society to the mainstream,” CSIS spokesperson John Townsend said when asked about the documents.
Stewart.Bell@globalnews.caView link »