As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic started hitting Europe, people in several countries took to the streets to protest against the imposition of more and more restrictive measures, sometimes culminating in local or national lockdowns.
While the main reasons behind demonstrations can be viewed as legitimate, the core groups that organized them were often infiltrated by far-right activists, QAnon supporters, no-vax fans, or conspirators who just plainly claim not to believe in the «Covid-19 hoax.»
Pagella Politica conducted a collaborative investigation with members of the SOMA network in order to analyze the protests that followed the second wave of the pandemic across different European countries, and discovered the three main elements that link most of them together.
Why are we seeing protests
The first set of restrictive measures – adopted by the great majority of European governments starting from Italy, in March – left countries’ economies ailing.
According to a report released by Eurostat on October 30, on a year-over-year basis the Gross domestic product (Gdp) in the European Union decreased by 13.9% during the second quarter of 2020, and it then partially recovered to -3.9% in the third quarter.
During summer, in fact, infection and death rates started going down, and many European countries relaxed their restrictions and got ready to enter a phase of “new normality.” The situation, however, changed again as autumn approached, with France registering more than 60,000 cases per day on November 6, and numbers rapidly growing in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom as well.
As the shadow of a new lockdown started looming over Europe, groups who were most affected by the first set of restrictions got organized to make their voices heard and call on authorities to rethink their decisions.
In October and early November, anti-lockdown protests took place in major cities in a number of countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic.
While the main demands and goals of the protest were set up by the most affected professional categories – restaurants owners, entertainment workers, tourism operators among others – they often turned violent and ended in a series of arrests by local police forces.
We conducted an investigation aimed at both highlighting the main actors in these events and exploring how the great amount of disinformation that spread during the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to ignite the spirits across European borders.
The eruption of violence
In many instances, anti-lockdown protests were characterized by violent episodes. On October 26, for instance, people took to the streets in Italy protesting against the new regulations, effective since that morning, which among other things forced restaurants and bars to close between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m.
In Milan, protesters damaged shops and threw firecrackers, stones and bottles toward the Regione Lombardia building, where local authorities are based. Similar scenes were witnessed in Rome, Turin, and several other cities.
Unrest took place in Spain as well after the Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared a six months state of emergency in the country and imposed a nationwide curfew, on October 25. The Guardian reports that more than 30 people were arrested in Madrid on November 1, when protesters set trash bins on fire and damaged stores in main streets of the capital.
On November 6, more than 190 people were arrested in London for participating in anti-lockdown demonstrations. In the previous days, police officers were injured in other protests around the capital.
Clashes between protesters and police forces were also reported in Leipzig, Germany, on November 8, when more than 20,000 people joined a demonstration against the new restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
Protests were more contained in France, where groups of no more than 100 people gathered in a number of cities toward the end of October to protest against the softer lockdown imposed by President Emmanuel Macron.
While violence seems to be quite a common factor across anti-lockdown protests in Europe, it is important to highlight that in most cases threatening behaviors were an exception, not the norm, among protesters.
To provide some evidence for that, Italian newspaper la Repubblica reports that in Milan older participants tried to stop younger ones from damaging shops and restaurants, while others were busy cleaning up the streets after the demonstration ended. In Spain, groups of volunteers went out to clean up the streets the morning after the protests took place.
Generally, in fact, violence was linked with infiltrators that came from political or criminal movements.
Support from extremist forces
In a number of cases, anti-lockdown protests were infiltrated by supporters of political extremisms or criminal organizations.
In Naples, Italy, the National Anti-mafia Prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho said that protests showed levels of violence that are generally not associated with workers or economic unions, and he claimed that authorities are looking at clues that lead to a likely involvement of Camorra (Mob) or extremist forces in the demonstrations.
During a Senate meeting on October 28, The Italian Ministry of the Interior Luciana Lamorgese said that «it was confirmed that violent factions participated in the protests, from the far-right movements to far-left squat, which were linked together by negationist theories, and also the most extreme sectors of sport fans.»
In Spain Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right party Vox, harshly criticized Sanchez’s management of the health crisis and tweeted that people have «more reasons than ever to protest against this government that is ruining us.» He then urged the police to protect people’s right to manifest, and to identify the far-left groups that were causing damages and looting. El Pais, instead, confirmed that protests across the country were instigated by far-right supporters.
The situation, of course, is different from country to country. Czech Republic also experienced tough anti-lockdown protests during the last couple of weeks, but our colleagues and SOMA members from the Prague Security Institute told us that «extremist political forces are rather cautious and did not endorse these demonstrations.»
Generally, though, the link between violent demonstrations and extremist movements is a pattern that keeps repeating itself. In July, the British government published a study called «Covid-19: how hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic.» The results link the violence experienced during protests to the increasing amount of conspiracy theories that spread during the pandemic, «ranging from anti-vaccine, anti-establishment to anti-minority and antisemitic.» The report claims that these theories «are not specific to any one ideology, but are used by the Far Right, Far Left and Islamists to further their own ideological aims.»
The role of disinformation is the final element that links together anti-lockdown protests across Europe.
The role of anti-vax, conspiracy theories, and QAnon
Anti-lockdown protests were also animated by supporters of conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus pandemic and other popular issues such as vaccines or the 5G technology.
Since the beginning of the health crisis, in fact, an alarming amount of fake news and disinformation about the origins of the disease, a list of potential remedies, vaccines, and invented political measures started spreading across the continent (and beyond).
At the same time, the american QAnon movement started acquiring followers in Europe as well. The group is based on a set of conspiracies that portray U.S. incumbent President Donald Trump as a savior against the democratic élite, which is instead involved with satanism and pedophily (needless to say, the theory is completely unfounded).
QAnon became quickly popular among anti-vax movements, and it encouraged its growing audience to downplay the risk posed by the new coronavirus. It also supported the thread of fake news about Bill Gates’ alleged involvement in the pandemic, or in the potential harm caused by protective masks.
Some of these theories also found endorsement in institutional offices. Italian deputy Sara Cunial, for instance, repeatedly supported no-vax and 5G conspiracies in Parliament, while according to different news media the far-right German party Alternative für Deutschland (Afd)’s ideas are close to QAnon’s position.
QAnon supporters were often involved in anti-lockdown protests across Europe (some examples can be found in Germany or the United Kingdom.) In Czech Republic, the Prague Security Institute explained to us that «participants of the protests are also people believing in conspiracy theories, but there was not so far uncovered any connection among established conspiracy channels and organizers.»
This is also consistent with the conclusions reached by studies from both the University of Cambridge and Oxford, which claim that «people who hold coronavirus conspiracy beliefs are less likely to comply with social distancing guidelines or take-up future vaccines.»
Where demonstrations are not taking place
While anti-lockdown protests proved to be popular across Europe, members of the SOMA network also highlighted how, in their countries, the situation is different.
«Anti-lockdown [protests] are not an issue in Finland at the moment,» our colleagues from the Finnish fact-checking website FaktaBaari said. «Of course there are people who resist all the new and possible restrictions, but it’s on a small scale,” they added.»
The situation is similar in Ukraine. Researchers at the Institute of Information Security, part of the SOMA network, said that the country is not currently experiencing a strong anti-lockdown sentiment, and there were no public events about it. Furthermore, even though some experts are criticising restrictive measures «they are not 5G skeptics or no-vax. Most of them are very rational, and oppose the lockdown because of its influence on the economy.»
Bulgarian researchers at NTCenter also said that in the country «there are no organised anti-lockdown protests, but this doesn’t mean that people are all happy with the government’s actions.» Some citizens, for instance, expressed resistance on social media against the use of masks, or protested against the closure of high schools. «It’s like a boiling cauldron, and maybe even the minor activity of a social volcano is getting ready to erupt,» they said.
As the second wave of the Covid-19 hit Europe, in September 2020, governments started imposing new restrictive measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.
Tired after months of changing regulations and scared about the potential economic impact of a second lockdown, people in several European countries took to the streets against the new impositions.
Pagella Politica conducted a collaborative investigation with partners of the SOMA network, and found that most of the protests are linked by some common themes.
The first one is the eruption of violence: even though the main ideas that motivated people to manifest were legitimate, these demonstrations often turned into riots and ended up with several participants being arrested. Part of the reason behind these behaviors was the participation of extremist groups in the events, mostly – but not exclusively – from the far-right political spectrum.
Another common thread is the presence of QAnon supporters or, more broadly, the endorsement received by followers of conspiracies against vaccines, the 5G technology, or the pandemic at large.