Pro-Russian propaganda spreading in Scots anti-vaccine groups 6

Pro-Russian propaganda spreading in Scots anti-vaccine groups

Members of an anti-Covid-19 vaccine group called the White Rose are sharing content from Russia’s state-owned news channel Russia Today (RT), as well as conspiracy theories – including a claim the Ukrainian government bombed its own citizens.

The Glasgow branch of the White Rose, which organises through the Telegram messaging app, has shared footage from RT, which has been blocked from broadcasting in the UK and EU. 

RT has been accused of being “Putin’s polluting propaganda machine” and UK media regulator Ofcom revoked its licence to broadcast in the UK.

Alongside posts that discourage mask-wearing and getting vaccinated as protections from Covid-19, White Rose members have shared conspiracy theories that propose Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis – even though the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.

It was also claimed the focus of the Russian invasion is to destroy US-funded biological weapons labs in Ukraine, and that the Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol was staged by the Ukrainian military. These claims have been challenged by various organisations including the United Nations.

The White Rose is named after the 1940s intellectual resistance group of the same name, which began in Nazi Germany and engaged in active opposition to the Nazi regime. The original group’s founders, Hans and Sophie Scholl, were subsequently arrested and executed in 1943.

The present day White Rose movement is unaffiliated with the original group and is largely devoted to opposing Covid-19 restrictions and vaccines. 

The majority of the present-day White Rose group members in Scotland do not disclose their identities and instead contribute to the Telegram group anonymously.

The White Rose Telegram groups are promoted mainly via posters and stickers that contain QR codes linking to the movement’s main Telegram group, from which regional groups can then be accessed. 

The White Rose Glasgow group currently has 456 members.

Followers of the group include an associate tutor at the University of Glasgow, Dr Alan McManus.

McManus posts under the name @Gumptionology. In one post he wrote that analysis of the conflict, suggesting the invasion is part of a conspiracy known as The Great Reset, “makes perfect sense”. He also described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “panto.” 

The Great Reset conspiracy theory is based on a belief that a World Economic Forum initiative called the Great Reset – which called for a rethinking of global investment in the wake of the pandemic – is a globalist plot to enact radical policies such as forced vaccination and the seizing of private property.

Followers of the Great Reset believe that the pandemic is being used as a guise to implement policies that will destroy capitalism and usher in a new world order. Proponents of the theory suggest that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is but another method of distraction implemented in order to pass radical legislation.

McManus, who teaches creativity culture and faith in the school of education at Glasgow University, also described the new cone placed on the Glasgow Duke of Wellington statue’s head, which is decorated with the colours of the Ukrainian flag, as “hideous crochet propaganda”.

McManus has previously vocalised his opposition to coronavirus vaccines and lockdown measures online. He did not respond to our requests for a comment.

The Edinburgh White Rose group recently distributed fake NHS leaflets with QR codes that redirect to anti-vaccine websites. 

Over the past few years platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp have made efforts to combat the spread of disinformation and misinformation. 

Facebook and Instagram attempt to actively delete content they deem to be false or harmful, and WhatsApp has limited the number of times messages can be forwarded in order to stop conspiracy-filled content from going viral on the app. 

However, this has pushed groups such as the White Rose towards less regulated apps such as Telegram. 

Unlike WhatsApp, Telegram does not require users to register a phone number with the platform. Instead, they are able to communicate purely via often anonymous usernames. 

What Russian propaganda does is focus on disaffected groups. They don’t just share messages and hope that the entirety of the population will somehow pick up their side of the story. They pick on marginalised communities.

Elisabeth Braw, American Enterprise Institute

Jacob Davey, head of research and policy on the far-right and hate movements at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, ran analysis on the Telegram groups linked to the White Rose. He told The Ferret that far right groups were sharing ideas on the White Rose platform.

Foreign and defence policy expert, Elisabeth Braw, at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) suggested the Russian state has targeted those who are vulnerable to state-sponsored propaganda.

She told The Ferret: “What Russian propaganda does is focus on disaffected groups. They don’t just share messages and hope that the entirety of the population will somehow pick up their side of the story. They pick on marginalised communities.

“It can be anti-vaxxers, trucker protesters, people who refuse to wear face masks. It can be people who essentially take a contrarian position to any decision by the government.”

Braw assisted SNP MP Stewart McDonald on a report on disinformation in Scottish public life, published last year.

But McDonald says that little action has been taken to protect people from disinformation.

He said: “Whoever is running these campaigns, whether they’re domestic or foreign, they do largely target disenfranchised groups.

“They don’t create division; they find the divisions that exist in a society and then attempt to bolster them. Hostile state disinformation activity here in the UK presents a very real threat. 

“ I’m afraid to say that since publishing that report nothing has changed. In fact, it’s got worse.”

McDonald’s report suggested ways in which disinformation could be tackled in Scotland and the UK more broadly, including regular publication by the government of the kinds of disinformation threats the country is facing.

The MP also suggested that the Scottish Government appoint a commissioner for countering disinformation.

So far, none of his recommendations have been adopted.

According to Jacob Davey, the pandemic has seen an increase in the number of people believing in conspiracy theories and becoming active in groups such as the White Rose.

He said: “There is this new cohort of people living in a parallel universe and on the one hand this does potentially represent a security risk.

“We’ve seen in Germany, for example, the murder of a gas station attendant by one of their anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists. We’ve seen arson attacks in the Netherlands.

“That’s not to fearmonger but I think there is the risk that this community could become more radicalised and all the data points we have point towards conspiratorial thinking and conspiracy theories sharply upticking globally, but certainly in the UK as well.”

Assistant professor in political theory at the University of Nottingham, Hugo Drochon, said globally significant events such as the coronavirus pandemic, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, increase the appeal of conspiracy theories.

He said: “Conspiracy theories often arise in moments of fear, especially of the unknown.

“When there’s an unexplained threat we can all be a bit paranoid, and in some ways conspiracy theories are a broader group extension of that paranoia.

“I think the pandemic – between the lockdowns, the new threat of a virus, and the discourse on social media – made it a fertile breeding ground .”

Telegram was created by tech entrepreneur, Pavel Durov, and his brother, Nikolai, who, as opponents to Putin, wanted a way for Russians to communicate that was less vulnerable to government surveillance. 

It now has over 500 million monthly active users worldwide. 

From 2018 to 2020 the app was officially banned in Russia, although millions, including departments of the Russian government, continued to access and use the app. 

In 2020, the ban was lifted in return for Durov promising to combat terrorism and extremism on the platform. 

In the West, however, the app is increasingly being used to spread content that is no longer permissible on other social media or messaging platforms. 

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the White Rose is a prime example of this.

The organisation, which tracks the spread of disinformation among far-right movements, said that groups initially opposing mask-wearing and Covid-19 vaccines are now being exploited by state-actors such as Russia and right-wing hate groups. 

“Originally, you would have thought of extremism, hate, conspiracy theories and disinformation as sort of interlinked but slightly separate domains.” said Davey.

“What we’ve actually started to see is these all merge into one another and feed one another.

The Ferret approached Alan McManus for comment. 

Photo thanks to iStock/BackyardProduction

  1. This article quotes a grand total of 7 words from one person in the group. If you are going to denounce a group, don’t you think you should provide a bit more evidence? And don’t you think you should provide evidence of “targeting” and a “campaign”, as opposed to random people on the internet saying and sharing stupid things?

    Also, how is this “nosing up the trousers of power”? As they say, truth is the first casualty of war. Surely you can find more important examples of propaganda?

    I am worried about the ongoing censorship campaign, which all journalists ought to oppose.

  2. In historical terms, the current wave of online censorship reminds me of the British censorship following publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (Part Two) in the 1790s.

    The authorities have a right to ensure that their point of view is heard loudly, especially on issues of public health, but preventing discussion of alternatives should be avoided.

  3. Having looked at Stewart McDonald’s analysis of Disinformation in Scotland, it contains some useful thoughts. However, it lists only Iran, Russia an China as sources of “disinformation”. It might be worth adding Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and perhaps the British establishment in relation to Scottish self-government, to the list.

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