Far-right extremists have been linked to bombing plots tied to the coronavirus pandemic, spotted holding anti-Semitic signs at protests outside state capitols, and seen trafficking on fringe platforms in all manner of conspiracy theories about the virus.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage millions of lives and paralyze much of the economy, these right-wing activists in the United States are seizing every opportunity to reach out to thousands of potential followers and expand their ranks.
Take, for example, the recent hack of nearly 25,000 email addresses and passwords belonging to the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and other organizations combating the pandemic.
When the hackers released the information this week, online activists swung into action. On Telegram, a popular messaging app, at least a dozen so-called terrorgrams published links to the leak Wednesday, encouraging users to read the emails to support conspiracy theories about Chinese and Israeli ties to the virus.
"People are scouring their emails and … just found stuff related to HIV being spliced into COVID-19. … This is big," one poster wrote.
Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who researches online extremism, said the far right is exploiting the pandemic to push propaganda.
"The memes are flowing pretty freely," she said. "They're definitely working every angle, from the Chinese virus stuff to a Jewish plot to control the world and all that sort of thing."
The pandemic has set off a perfect storm of fear, anger and uncertainty generated by the loss of 26 million jobs and seemingly endless lockdowns over a deadly virus that as of late Thursday had killed nearly 50,000 Americans.
With people staying home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, extremists are bound to find easy targets for propaganda and recruitment, said Jeff Schoep, the former commander of the National Socialist Movement, one of the nation's largest neo-Nazi organizations.
"I know most of the groups are using this as an opportunity to recruit," Schoep, who left the group last year, told VOA.
Recent rallies over shelter-in-place orders presented another opportunity for recruitment, according to Schoep, who is widely credited with building NSM into the nation's largest neo-Nazi organization.
"I can say that if I was still running the organization, we would probably have people passing out business cards at those demonstrations," Schoep said.
Extremism thrives in times of economic distress. A 2015 study of nearly 100 financial crises going back to 1870 found that after every financial crash "voters seem to be attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities and foreigners."
Once boasting hundreds of members around the country, the NSM is a ghost of its former self after Schoep's departure and a leadership breakup last year. But its current leader, Burt Colucci, says he has had no trouble luring listeners who believe Jews are responsible for their plight.
On a recent podcast, Colucci boasted that his weekly call-in show was drawing in as many as 400 listeners, up from 250.
"It is taking off, not just on the computer, not just on the internet," Colucci said. "It is taking off in public, too. These are good signs."
VOA could not independently verify his claim. Asked whether he sees the pandemic as a propaganda and recruitment opportunity, Colucci wrote via email, "As far as COVID-19 being an opportunity to recruit, it's very possible."
Last week, protesters converged in several state capitals to protest stay-at-home orders. At least one notorious member of the NSM was spotted holding an anti-Semitic sign at an anti-lockdown rally in front of the statehouse in Ohio. A number of other white supremacists were seen at similar protests in Idaho, Michigan and North Carolina.
Squire said the protests are creating opportunities for "some boots on the ground" but the number of white supremacists showing up at the anti-shutdown demonstrations remains small.
"It's pretty mild right now," she said. "Just the NSM guy showing up or the Proud Boys acting out."
While anti-hate groups have tracked a spike in extremist propaganda during the pandemic, the extent of the increase remains unclear. According to data compiled by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and shared with Time.com, users of right-wing extremist channels on Telegram grew by 6,000 in March. But Squire said there has been no "unusual increase" during the crisis.
Regardless, law enforcement officials are warning that the growing extremist chatter could spill over offline, leading to a surge in racially and ideologically motivated attacks.
Last month, the FBI's New York field office issued an alert after right-wing extremists urged COVID-19-infected cohorts to spread the virus to police officers and Jews. And in a leaked intelligence assessment, the bureau warned that anti-Asian hate crimes will spike because of the pandemic, "endangering Asian American communities."
"Spreading these untruths puts communities at risk of real physical harm and must stop," Attorney General William Barr said in a statement last week, referring to coronavirus-fueled xenophobia targeting Asians and Asian Americans.
Blamed for spreading the virus, Asian Americans have reported being kicked, punched and spat on in New York, California, Texas and other states. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council says it has received more than 1,600 reports of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault in recent weeks.
Officials have also tied several recent terrorist plots to the pandemic.
Last month, a man suspected of planning to blow up a hospital in Missouri was killed when FBI agents tried to arrest him. The FBI said the man, who had ties to two neo-Nazi groups, had considered other targets, including a synagogue and a mosque, but decided to blow up a hospital because of the increased "media attention on the health care sector" during the pandemic.
This month, FBI agents arrested a Massachusetts man tied to a white supremacist group on charges of planting a homemade bomb at a Jewish assisted-living center. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in reference to the timing of the plot that in times of crisis, "hatred based on religion often blossoms into violence."
Schoep, the former NSM leader, noted that most extremist groups disavow violence in order to avoid criminal prosecution. But rhetoric can nonetheless inspire violence, he said.
"They're saying, 'Look, we need to do something. We need to do something.' And some of these people get this idea in their head that 'do something' means something violent," he said.
It is a concern that law enforcement has long harbored. The perpetrators of a spate of recent attacks blamed on the far right — from the mosque massacres at Christchurch, New Zealand, to a deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue — were right-wing extremists with no formal affiliation with any group but plenty of exposure to their propaganda.
Brian Levin, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, warned that fear and uncertainty spawned by the pandemic could lead to new forms of do-it-yourself extremism.
"You will not only see extremist groups exploit this, but you will also see unstable people with wild card ideologies that we haven't heard much before," Levin said. "We might see medical personnel, journalists, public officials get harassed."