Right-wing extremists are exploiting COVID-19 conspiracies on Telegram: Disinformation analyst

Ciaran O'Connor, a disinformation analyst at The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss a new study that found a link between COVID-19 conspiracy content and right-wing extremism on social media platform Telegram.

Video Transcript

- Welcome back. We want to get a quick check of the markets, as a sell off on Wall Street persists. We have the Dow up more than about 550 points. We have the S&P 500 down 1.5%. And the NASDAQ, that is down a similar amount. Also 1.5%.

The under-performers of the day are energy and financials. But also materials and industrials close behind the former-- excuse me, financials and energy down more than 3% each.

Policing extremism on social media is, no doubt, a divisive issue. As Facebook and Twitter grapple with it, the UAE-based Telegram app is attracting new users. And a new study is exploring whether the far right is exploiting it and COVID to expand its base.

We want to get all the details of this report from Ciaran O'Connor. He is a disinformation analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which is a London-based counter-extremism think tank. And Ciaran, thank you for joining us today. Could you just summarize your findings first and give a little bit of background in the report?

CIARAN O'CONNOR: Sure. Yeah, we sought out to examine how right wing extremist communities were talking about COVID 19 and on Telegram. So, Telegram is a social media platform, a chat app that offers public channels and also group chats. And unlike other platforms that take more effort to remove kind of extremists and kind of egregious behavior, Telegram essentially takes a largely hands-off approach, which means that it's basically a safe space to hate for a lot of extremist communities online.

So we sought to examine how such communities were using this platform to discuss COVID 19. So we created a sample between discussions taking place between January 2020 and June 2020, examining discussions of COVID and starting from a sample of almost half a million posts. We narrowed this down with keyword analysis and things like this to a data set of 22,000 posts, which really allowed us to focus in on the kinds of narratives that right wing extremist communities were discussing, which they were prioritizing. And really, what we found was that right wing extremist communities prioritize amplifying and spreading COVID 19 conspiracy content and misinformation on Telegram.

And what we really found was that there was consistent crossover in the kinds of content that right wing extremist communities were discussing, as well as conspiracy communities were discussing. And what this shows for us is a highly concerning nexus showing that right wing extremist communities are using more and more, using conspiracy content as a way of expanding their audience and expanding their impact.

- As it relates to COVID though, could you drill in a little bit more and be a bit more specific? What sort of conspiracy theories are out there? And then, how successful have these groups been in bringing in more sort of recruits into the fold, if you will?

CIARAN O'CONNOR: Yeah. When you look at the data, the thing that comes up again and again are vaccines. So, talking about vaccines, presenting the vaccines as deadly for humans, targeting pharmaceutical companies, and claiming-- you also see older forms of hatred have used amongst extreme right communities. Like anti-Semitism kind of merged with vaccine conspiracy. So, claiming that various officials with the CDC or with Pfizer, or other pharmaceutical companies are Jewish people. And making these kinds of claims, as well.

You also see public officials, politicians being targeted for introducing restrictions or lockdowns early on in the pandemic, as well. And various methods and various narratives that essentially frame reactions and responses to COVID 19 in alarmist and sinister tones, and create the idea that there's something else going on and it's not just reactions and responses from local communities.

And we talk about how successful these narratives and these activities have been for extreme right wing communities on Telegram. The report we put out includes a detailed case study looking at one extremist conspiracy hub. It grew its audience base from just-- at the time we finished our analysis. And this is a channel that's quite typical, that kind of changed its voice, changed its tone to talk about COVID 19 more and more, and explicit COVID 19 conspiracies that were used to target people.

And what we see in times of crisis and times like pandemics is that we see extremist communities use these periods for their gain. They try to put across narratives that simplify things into us versus them, good versus evil terms, which are overall a method for recruitment, for advertising themselves as the people to trust in such times.

- And Ciaran, we have to leave it there. But we appreciate your time. Ciaran O'Connor, disinformation analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London based counter-extremism think tank.