In the UK, COVID conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have formed an unholy alliance with the far-right, targeting drag queens with abusive and false information. A small Christian anti-vaccine group called Outreach Worldwide urged its members to contact their local libraries to stop drag queens from reading books to children. This was just the beginning of the anti-LGBTQ+ hate campaigns that have taken hold in COVID-denier circles. Conspiracy theorists and the far-right have become regulars at anti-LGBTQ+ protests in the UK. A recent demonstration outside an event at London’s Tate Britain was attended by members of the neo-Nazi organization Patriotic Alternative and COVID denier Piers Corbyn.
The pandemic acted as a gateway to conspiracies and disinformation for large sections of the population, according to Patrik Hermansson, a researcher with advocacy group Hope not Hate. Communities online organized around the idea of COVID not being real, and once people believed in one conspiracy theory, they were more likely to believe in others. Conspiracy theorists need to find a bad guy behind the whole thing, so they’re looking for a reason for the betrayal. “You mistrust authority as a conspiracy theorist, but you have a huge trust to your fellow person who you see as a real individual, who’s not part of the elite,” Hermansson says. “You quite quickly start trusting them, so that’s one of the paradoxes of conspiratorial thinking.”
Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) became a flashpoint for a newly-expanded and organized far-right. Drag Queen Story Hour UK founder Aida H Dee recalls how the hate escalated gradually, eventually culminating in a vicious campaign from once-disparate groups. The hate wasn’t always classic homophobia, but it was more specific, with many singing from the same hymn sheet. Social media platforms have provided a space for conspiracy theorists and the far-right to converge, says Imran Khan, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. There’s an algorithmic element to the cross-fertilization of conspiracists. Eventually, that cross-fertilization leads to the hybridization of conspiracy theories.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories often originate online, but can have real-world consequences. Social media platforms need to take responsibility for the harm they’re causing by allowing disinformation to proliferate online, Khan says. The future is unclear for the far-right and its anti-LGBTQ+ movement. Nobody knows if the coalitions formed between disparate groups in the pandemic will last. However, Aida H Dee believes they’re already starting to splinter. “When they start talking about each other’s hates in more depth, some of them will realize that they do not align with their points of view, and they will suddenly move away from that group, and that’s what I’ve seen happening already,” the drag queen says. “To say they’re completely united would, I think, be wrong.”