ANALYSIS: far right’s new turn via pop culture figures and politically diverse antivaxx movement

By Martin Smith and Tash Shifrin | 9 August 2021

A view from the stage of the “Worldwide Freedom Rally” 24 July anti-vaccine London event, posted on social media by well known DJ Danny Rampling.

The so-called Worldwide Rally for Freedom – an international day of protests against Covid safety measures – on Saturday 24 July saw protests in scores of cities across Europe, the Americas and Australia, along with South Africa, India, Japan and other countries.

This day of coordinated international protests was led by a network of far right conspiracy theorists and followed similar events in March and May of this year. The demonstrators marched against Covid vaccines, facemasks, “Covid passports”, lockdowns and other public health measures introduced to deal with the Coronavirus crisis.

The coordination of such large-scale protests on an international level by the far right is a new phenomenon.

The day began with substantial protests in Australian cities, with the demonstrations working their way around the globe, ending with protests in Canada and the US.

Graphic advertising some of the internationally coordinated protests on 24 July

It is important to recognise the contradictory processes at work here. While the far right either led these protests or were a key component, many of those who joined the demonstrations were not their natural allies.

The Worldwide Rally for Freedom protest in London attracted mostly followers of rightwing and far right individuals and groups.

But at a far larger London demo in June, along with the far right crowd there were also some left-leaning conspiracy theorists, anticapitalist opponents of globalisation and individuals concerned about civil liberties.

In London, on a 19 July “freedom” protest in the run-up to the worldwide event, it was shocking to see people with an anarchist flag (see footage below) on a demo alongside Trump flags and other far right symbols.

In some European countries, organisations from the left opposed to compulsory vaccinations joined the 24 July protests.

This is significant – the mixed political backgrounds of people drawn into these protests is giving far right and fascist organisations and ideologues access to new and wider audiences for their poisonous ideas.

Here we will chart how fascists and the far right have mobilised around the pandemic and analyse the far right forces behind these protests, the scale of their mobilisations and how they are pulling different groups towards the far right.

Exploiting the pandemic

It is worth briefly comparing the way the far right and fascist groups are using the coronavirus crisis now with the situation a year ago, when the world was in the earlier stages of dealing with the pandemic and many countries were under varying degrees of lockdown.

We looked in detail at the situation in May 2020. In the first stages of the pandemic the dismissal of the dangers of Covid by some world leaders and the rapid spread of conspiracy theories clearly increased the influence of the far right.

In 2020, the tone was set by far right heads of state, such as the then US president Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi.

Their strategy was to dismiss the severity of the pandemic and ridicule the advice of scientists and the World Health Organisation. Although unpopular with much of the general public, this strategy emboldened the far right and legitimised Covid denial and other conspiracy theories among a section of the electorate.

Racism also came to the fore with renewed force, as far right politicians and movements used the Covid-19 crisis to pursue their racist and nationalist agendas. This was most notably seen in Trump’s attempts to brand Covid-19 as the “China virus”.

Fascist and far right groups outside government have also seized on the opportunities presented by the coronavirus crisis. Conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic also brought with them a proliferation of antisemitism on social media and on some of the “reopen” protests against coronavirus lockdowns.

In Britain we have also seen a two-way flow of ideas between the far right and mainstream politicians.

Boris Johnson’s laissez faire attitude to Coronavirus plays to a far right audience. He has regularly removed restrictions and allowed infections to spread in a way that suggests he has never entirely given up his horribly dangerous initial strategy of “herd immunity”.

Likewise the “Freedom Day” rhetoric and health secretary Sajid Javid’s comments, later deleted from twitter, saying it was time to stop “cowering” from Covid, are aimed at those to the right of most Conservative voters. This type of rhetoric provides a legitimisation of the anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-lockdown movement.

Worryingly a number of musicians and celebrities with significant fan bases have also mainstreamed these ideas, including Noel Gallagher (anti-mask), Ian Brown (anti-vaccine and conspiracism), Van Morrison (anti-lockdown and attacks on science) and Eric Clapton (anti-vaccine rants).

Other public figures, such as actor Laurence Fox, TV presenter Gillian McKeith, rightwing mainstream journalist Isabel Oakeshott and many more have used their own sizeable social media followings to boost the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination movement.

These figures have a much broader following than, for example, well known fascist “Tommy Robinson” (real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon), whose Telegram channel is also full of anti-vaccine material.

As lockdowns were extended and hardship grew for some people, those frustrations increased. Historically, support of the far right has centred on small business owners. It is worth noting that small businesses, nightclub owners and music promoters who have been squeezed hard by the lockdown play a significant role in this movement.

Onto the streets

The partial lifting of restrictions enabled the far right and conspiracy theorists to move away from their keyboards and onto the streets on a far larger scale.

To see how this has panned out, we can take a look at anti-lockdown / anti-vaxx protests in London in June and July 2021 and the range of forces involved. It is also worth considering briefly the movements in France and Italy, which show how the political and social makeup of protests can vary between and within different countries.

Part of the huge antivaxx demo in London on 26 June. Pic credit: PishPishCat on twitter

London, 26 June 2021

The scale of the anti-lockdown protest on 26 June was huge – as the aerial footage above shows. Organisers claimed 150,000 people took to the streets of the capital.

The huge demo had a clearly varied make-up, with many young people. Although it was largely white, there were noticeable numbers of black and Asian people – very different to the almost exclusively white turnout at traditional far right events.

This means that the relatively small numbers of organised conspiracy theorists and fascists have been able to operate and potentially build among new audiences who have not previously been pulled into traditional far right circles.

This shift in reach was aided by a small but powerful group of nightclub and radio station owners. Under the banner “the right to party” they set up DJ stages and floats creating a carnival atmosphere on the streets of central London.

This protest was organised by a coalition of groups largely based in Britain. It also received publicity via a wide range of rightwing celebrities and journalists with large social media followings.

The Reform UK party – formerly Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – also publicised the event and organised the helicopter to provide aerial footage. Although the party has rich backers, it’s worth noting that nearly £10,000 towards the cost of the helicopter was raised through an online fundraiser, mainly through small donations.

The organising coalition was made up of six main groups, whose logos featured on advance publicity of varying political complexions, although these clearly have links with wider networks.

The six main groups behind the 26 June 2021 London demo

Each participating organisation and well known supporter is able to mobilise for protests through their own social media channels, with a widely distributed output that is not as vulnerable to shutdown as single far right individuals or groups, which can suffer from Twitter and Facebook bans.

Save Our Rights UK

This group uses general rhetoric about democracy and freedom, with a focus on “medical freedom”, and on “big tech” – particularly privacy and data concerns.

SOR is led by Louise May Creffield, a Labour Party activist in Brighton Kemptown and Peacehaven and former worker in constituency office of Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP. He has distanced himself from her activities.

This group shows how people from leftwing backgrounds can be involved in the new movement, although it is worth noting that the SOR website has carried material from conspiracy theorist Gareth Icke (David Icke’s son) as well.

SOR is lobbying for a Medical Freedom Bill, and is supported by a clutch of smaller organisations. These include Lawyers for Liberty (which claims to be taking a legal case against vaccine rollout for children) and the World Freedom Alliance run by Nigel Utton, a former Green Party councillor, now independent councillor in Norwich, and the Workers for England Union, a front group for the far right English Democrats party.

A Stand in the Park

This group claims:

We Stand in the Park to celebrate freedom, diversity and fairness for all… Stand for freedom, for our elderly, our children, our jobs and small businesses… Against lockdowns, harmful new laws, the ‘pandemic’ and the people behind ‘The Great Reset’.

It was founded by Australian Brady Gunn, whose Facebook page shows a series of “likes” for far right organisations such as Turning Point USA and Rebel News, but also connections to Occupy groups. It also has Britain-based organisers. A Stand in the Park uses the “Smiley” symbol familiar from rave culture.

Stand Up X

This is supposedly a collective, with a plethora of local social media groups and pages. This group is anti-lockdown and anti-5G. Its Facebook pages include occasional antisemitic memes and it also advertises The Light, the conspiracy freesheet “newspaper”.

Stop New Normal

This is conspiracist Piers Corbyn’s grouplet. Its presence as part of the organising coalition shows that although some participants have ostensibly leftwing or eco-movement credentials, they are open to association with antisemitic conspiracists.

Event 202

Another conspiracist group, which refers to Covid-19 as a “plandemic”, and describes its offering as: “Alternative health practitioners and experts in self sufficiency, weaponry, biological warfare, military, mind-control and NWO [the supposed New World Order], to provide solutions in a simulated exercise that will highlight real-world policy and the lock hold of the ruling elites.”

The Great Reopening

An anti-lockdown group primarily seeking the support of small businesses.

Large numbers

This coalition of groups was between them able to mobilise very large numbers through their own networks. The overt politics of the event leaned heavily on themes of “freedom” and “rights”, with the harder politics of some participants kept out of the spotlight – David Icke was on the demo, but not promoted in the publicity.

The same coalition called a demonstration in Parliament Square, central London, on Boris Johnson’s much-touted “Freedom Day”, 19 July. Although this took place during the day on a Monday it drew a substantial crowd, on a par with the demonstrations staged by fascist Tommy Robinson in 2018.

But unlike the Tommy Robinson protest, this one included demonstrators with an anarchist flag, while others on the same protest had obviously far right flags supporting Trump and the “Kekistan” flag modelled on the war flag used in Nazi Germany.

The London demo called as part of the Worldwide Rally for Freedom on 24 July was, by contrast, a comparatively hardcore event.

Worldwide Demonstration

The Worldwide Demonstration network was the key organisation behind the 24 July protests. Its website appears to have been set up by a group based in the city of Kassel, central Germany, called Freie Bürger Kassel (Free Citizens of Kassel).

The loose networking arrangement allowed a decentralised collection of groups from around the world that wished to participate to set up their own demonstrations, mobilising through their own social media, especially Telegram chat groups. As the Worldwide Demonstration website states:

The Event is deployed by our member organizations in each city, with full local autonomy at the grass roots level. Protests are coordinated in a decentralized manner using international consensus to align the date, and leaving all event related decisions in the hands of our local implementers.

Each local group then submitted its details to get its own demo publicity graphic, to a common template and branded with the hashtag #WeWillAllBeThere.

Commentators have noted how this slogan echoes the Where We Go One We Go All (WWG1WGA) slogan used by the Trump obsessed QAnon conspiracy groups. German coordinator Michael Ballweg, who claims, “there is no pandemic” has used the QAnon slogan directly, reciting it to an anti-lockdown protest in Berlin on 1 August.

And many of the Telegram chat groups are full of antisemitic and other racist memes and slogans.

This decentralised, syndication model has allowed a disparate bunch of conspiracists from around the world to coordinate their efforts for maximum international impact.

But the Worldwide Demonstration network is not the only group staging anti-lockdown or anti-vaccination protests.

On the same date, but apparently initiated by other far right players, demonstrations took place in around 160 towns and cities in France and up to 80 locations in Italy.

London, 24 July

The conspiracist-led 24 July protest in London’s Trafalgar Square attracted 20,000 demonstrators to hear speakers drawn from the outer reaches of the anti-vax, Covid denial and 5G conspiracy movements along with antisemites and Holocaust deniers.

While the 26 June protest was a colourful march through the streets of central London, with a festive atmosphere, the 24 July protest was a static event with hours of speeches in Trafalgar Square (see photo at the top of this article).

It was organised by a British affiliate of the Worldwide Freedom Rally – Covileaks, run by professional event organiser Fiona Hine. A second affiliate, Official Voice, concentrated its efforts in Birmingham. Wider networks, such as Stand Up X, also gave the 24 July demos publicity.

The 24 July demo in London was much smaller than the June protest – although it still pulled 20,000 to 30,000 participants.

But the influence of far right ideology was more overt, with open conspiracy theorising, antisemitism – including denunciations of “the Rothschilds” from the stage – and frequent grotesque comparisons equating anti-Covid measures with the Holocaust.

The big name speakers at the event included Holocaust-denying conspiracist David Icke, his son Gareth Icke, and Covid and climate change denier Piers Corbyn, who has compared the Covid vaccine rollout to the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp. Also speaking was AIDS denier and conspiracy theorist Vernon Coleman, a former GP who is no longer registered or licensed to practise.

The main speaker and compere, struck-off former nurse Kate Shemirani, made a foul and threatening speech urging demonstrators to forward the details of NHS doctors and nurses to her, and comparing them to Nazi war criminals hanged after the Nuremburg trials.

Also on the platform were David Kurten, leader of the far right UKIP splinter group the Heritage Party, and notorious racist broadcaster Katie Hopkins, who had herself photographed for the occasion with a group including a woman wearing a QAnon T-shirt.

Far right commentator Katie Hopkins posted this photo of herseklf (second left) with a QAnon supporter (right) on her Instagram

It is notable that this collection of hardcore conspiracists who, apart from Hopkins, had previously been marginal to developments on the far right and do not come from traditional fascist or far right organisations such as the British National Party, could pull enough people to fill Trafalgar Square.

Although no mainstream politicians supported the protest, minor celebrities including the DJ Danny Rampling and the band Right Said Fred supported the demo.

There were separate, albeit much smaller, protests in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast and elsewhere.

These developments are an indicator that far right ideology and fascist tropes, such as Holocaust denial, can gain traction through the spread of conspiracy theories on a large scale, and produce forces on the street as well as online.

A protestor in Trafalgar Square uses a yellow star symbol in an appalling attempt to equate vaccine passports with the Holocaust. Pic credit: Chris Hobbs on twitter

France, 24 July

The composition of the anti-lockdown demos did vary from country to country.

For example, in France, president Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of a pass sanitaire (health pass) – a proof of vaccination requirement for jobs in the health and care sectors, and admission to public venues including cafes – has met with huge and widespread protests.

Macron was already deeply unpopular in France because of his harsh austerity regime, which saw the eruption of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement three years ago.

The protests against the pass sanitaire are on a similar scale to the Gilet Jaunes demonstrations, and in some parts of France, Gilet Jaunes social media pages and networks have been used to mobilise for the protests on 17, 24 and 31 July.

In some areas, there is also a level of trade union participation in the pass sanitaire protests – although it is hard to tell how much.

But in a particularly dramatic development, nurses and other health workers in Montélimar hospital, in southeast France, announced an indefinite strike against the requirement for vaccination.

Many of the protests in France stress ideas of “equality” between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, along with “freedom” from compulsion, rather than the openly conspiracist anti-vax message pumped out in London. These are ideas that can cut with working class and leftwing audiences as well as those on the far right.

But the main political threat to Macron’s regime in the political arena comes from the far right, not the left. Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) has been running neck and neck with Macron in polls for next April’s presidential elections. Le Pen’s success in detoxifying her party’s brand and normalising the FN and now RN has allowed the fascists not just to progress in elections, but to take part in protests, including in some areas, the Gilets Jaunes movement.

Now prominent fascist and far right figures are leading significant sections of the movement against the pass sanitaire. Among the protests in Paris on 24 July was a huge rally in front of the Eiffel Tower (see twitter video above).

This was called by Les Patriotes, a splinter party founded in 2017 by Florian Philippot, formerly deputy leader of the FN under Marine Le Pen, and backed by the far right Debout la France (Stand Up France) party.

Those attending the rally will have come from a variety of political backgrounds, but it is a shocking – and very worrying – sight to see Philippot, a leading figure in French fascism for more than 10 years, on the platform addressing such a huge crowd.

In Italy too we can see a mixture of political ideas in the myriad demonstrations focused on plans for a “Green Pass” – a similar proof of Covid vaccination.

Milan protest

Some protests, including a very large mobilisation in Rome, had a clear presence from Forza Nuova, the hardest of Italy’s Nazi organisations, while in Milan, the banner at the front of the demonstration carried the left-sounding slogan, “Big pharma out of the state. No to the multinationals” (see above).

These international examples reinforce the picture of movements with mixed politics in which fascists are seeking to build. They also show that the composition of the protests and the political background of protestors can vary substantially within and between countries.

Conclusions

This wave of anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests raises a number of important points. One key question is, why are conspiracy theories gaining traction among wide layers of people including some who might be considered liberals or broadly on the left?

Of course many people distrust governments, the authorities and the motives of big multinational companies for sensible reasons – they regularly act against the interests of ordinary working class people.

But in times of confusion and anxiety, instead of understanding the science behind the pandemic or the way the capitalist system affects the environment and creates the conditions for new diseases to arise and spread, people can get sidetracked into conspiracy theories and the belief that “secret networks” of powerful individuals control the world.

This leads down blind alleys such as rejecting science and rational thinking. And when people believe that the world is ruled by secret cabals or networks this logic can lead to the adoption of a racist and antisemitic worldview.

This “secret cabal” motif is a longstanding antisemitic trope, often used as a dogwhistle in order to thinly veil anti-Jewish racism.

It is also noticeable that along with rhetoric about “freedom” and “equality”, this anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine movement has adopted some of the slogans used by the anticapitalist and anti-austerity Occupy movements, such as “We are the 99%”. Others have appropriated slogans from the longstanding movement for abortion rights, such as “our bodies, our lives”.

This runs alongside attacks on unspecified controlling “elites” – often used as a coded antisemitic reference to Jewish people. Slogans like this can appeal to people well to the left of traditional far right target audiences.

This type of antisemitism is being pumped out alongside the regular grotesque equation drawn by the anti-vaccine movement between the Holocaust and anti-Covid measures such as facemask mandates, lockdowns and vaccination passports. Minimising the horrors of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in this way opens the door to other forms of Holocaust denial and the foul politics that goes with them.

Promotion of anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine ideas – and sometimes other conspiracy theories too – by popular mainstream cultural figures, along with the participation of individuals from music and nightclub industry, is also pushing the movement towards new and wider audiences.

The penetration of conspiracy theories is creating a toxic environment that plays directly into the hands of the far right.

Since the rise of Hitler’s Nazis, and throughout the post-WW2 era, fascists and the far right have primarily used racism as a central mobilising ideology. But the surge of conspiracist movements during the coronavirus crisis shows that these groups have other ways to draw in followers, spread their ideologies and build their organisations.

The end of Covid restrictions has not defused the movement, which simply moved its demands on – against Covid passports and potential provision of vaccines to under-18s and branched out to incorporate other conspiracy theories.

The far right’s ability to coordinate protests on a widespread international scale is another worrying development. There has always been a level of cooperation and interconnectedness among fascist and far right parties.

We have seen this, for example, in the way fascist parties across Europe adopted the strategy of modernising their image, putting on suits and seeking electoral “respectability” pioneered by the Front National in France.

There have been attempts at tighter organisational ties-ups too, such as the franchising out of the English Defence League and Pegida models of street movement to splinter groups in a range of countries.

Individuals including former Trump advisor Steve Bannon have tried to create more permanent international groupings, while far right parties from several countries have tapped into a stream of funding and increased their influence by creating joint groups in the European Parliament.

But the coordinated worldwide initiative seen on 24 July is on a huge new scale. As we have seen, the political and social composition of the movement can vary within and between different countries. And it has developed quickly and largely under the radar. This could be a fast-moving situation.

The far right has shown during the coronavirus pandemic that it can not only popularise its ideas but also unite disparate groups and forces, bringing new sections of the population into its orbit.

When we looked at the new far right movement gathered around Tommy Robinson a few years ago, we identified a turning point for the far right.

While there were hardcore nazi organisations on Robinson’s “Day for Freedom”, such as Generation Identity, and racist thugs like the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, the rally attracted a broader crowd, listening to music and far right “comedians” as well as political speakers.

The far right was diversifying its base, allowing fascist ideologues to “educate” a new audience.

The movement against the Covid safety measures represents another step along this path – notably also drawing on “freedom” rhetoric. It is widening the audience for poisonous fascist and far right ideas again, reaching out with popular cultural figures and sometimes liberal-tinged or left-tinged rhetoric.

This much more diverse movement – in which Holocaust deniers and other far right and fascist groups are operating – presents more complex problems for antifascists than the traditional fascist parties like the British National Party or the clearly racist street movement of the English Defence League.

It is important that antifascists and the left internationally look at how to address the development of this mass anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination movement and the way the far right is operating within it. These are not developments that can safely be ignored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *