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How the platform is fueling another wave of far-right activism, insurrectionism, and violence, and what we can do to stop it.



On September 18, much of the nation’s attention focused on a few hundred far-right activists returning to the scene of the January 6 Capitol insurrection. At the same time, in Oregon, a crowd nearly ten times the size of the DC event marched in protest against COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates.

At the front of the march was a big “DO NOT COMPLY” banner featuring a red swastika made out of syringes. Behind the banner marched a large crowd of a few thousand, mostly women, carrying signs with slogans like, “I will not comply,” “Take America Back,” “Medical Freedom,” and “My Body My Choice.”

Seconds after a sign comparing the yellow star forced upon Jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe to a vaccine passport QR code passed, one of the rally attendees pointed to another sign that read, “I’m 13 and I can see the Plandemic. #PureBlood” and shouted enthusiastically, “Pure blood! Pure blood, that’s my new thing. Pure blood. I love it.”[1]

The euphemism popularized by anti-vaxxer influencers to describe those who refuse to get vaccinated has a deeply troubling, virulently antisemitic context.[2] Blood purity was at the core of Nazi ideology. The German Nazi party introduced laws to ensure blood purity, and anyone who acted outside of these laws was deemed to have committed the crime of Blutschande or “blood disgrace.”

As the nearly two thousand anti-masker and anti-vaxxer marchers strode around the state capitol grounds, the violent, racist, misogynist Proud Boys provided security. “God bless our security in the black and yellow,” commented a rally coordinator.

The Salem march was one of the dozens around the country on the same day. Since August, the number of protests against masks and vaccines has skyrocketed.

Though it has received little attention, a surging far-right protest movement rages against governmental and community efforts to stop the spread of the virus. Animated by a refusal to accept the pandemic’s gravity and reality, this is the new face of COVID denial.

New research by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights finds that Facebook has become an epicenter of COVID denial activism. For the past year and a half, the IREHR research team tracked anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-mandate, anti-lockdown, and other COVID denial efforts on Facebook. The research team examined thousands of public and private Facebook groups. The research team cataloged membership, posts, videos, ads, and events in those groups. This massive trove of data allowed report researchers to capture the first complete picture of how COVID denial spread on Facebook and into the real world.

Variants of this problem exist on other social media platforms (YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, etc.), but this report is specific to Facebook. Given the platform’s massive reach and the breadth of the problem uncovered by the IREHR research team, the Facebook problem requires singular examination. More than other platforms, COVID denial activity on Facebook has transitioned into real-world clashes. Violence is increasingly common at real-world COVID denial events organized on Facebook. These forums have also become fruitful radicalization and recruiting grounds for far-right groups.

Before diving into the data, chapter one provides a vivid case study of how Facebook COVID denial activism forced three Washington State schools into lockdown and helped drive a fourteen-year-old into the arms of the Proud Boys.

The data in this report is alarming. As discussed in chapter two, the IREHR research team documented over seventeen hundred COVID denial groups active on Facebook. These groups have a combined membership of nearly two and a half million people. COVID denial groups spread across the country, with groups in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, including a relatively even regional distribution.

COVID Denial
Group Membership





The first wave of these groups formed in early 2020 centered around opposing lockdowns and other health-related restrictions. A second wave of COVID denial activity on Facebook began to surge this summer as the Delta variant of the virus emerged, and hospitalization rates climbed. The sharp growth in new groups centered on anti-mask and anti-vaccine activism marks the second wave of COVID denial on the platform.

While the first wave of COVID denial was marked by protests over “reopening” and armed invasions of state capitols, the second wave features localized agitation at city councils, school boards, schools, and hospitals. As explored in chapter ten, violence has erupted at many of these protests organized on Facebook.

Despite many warnings, Facebook repeatedly failed to act on the problem of COVID denial, as discussed in chapter three. One year ago, IREHR identified 1,186 COVID denial Facebook groups. Today, sixty-nine percent of those groups are still active on the platform, while an additional 910 COVID groups were created in the last year, 269 new groups in August 2021 alone. As with previous far-right mobilizations on the platform, Facebook’s inability to tackle the COVID denial problem raises serious questions.

Beyond the sheer size of these groups, the COVID denial groups are fertile ground for far-right radicalization, as analyzed in chapter four. From there, the report explores many of these different radicalization paths.

  • Chapter 5 looks at the role of COVID-19 conspiracies and antisemitism as a route to the radicalization of COVID deniers.
  • Chapter 6 dives into how COVID denial Facebook groups are radicalizing around racism. It looks at the role of COVID denial groups in the ongoing skirmish over “Critical Race Theory” It points to the presence of anti-immigrant frames in COVID denial Facebook groups. It digs into how COVID denial groups are helping propagate anti-Asian bigotry. And it looks at how these groups are encouraging Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.
  • Chapter 7 explores attacks on Indian Nations in Facebook COVID denial groups.
  • Chapter 8 delves into how COVID denial groups have disparaged the LQBTQIA+ community.

Facebook COVID denial groups have also developed relationships with a variety of existing far-right groups. Chapter 9 probes the relationship between COVID denial groups and other far-right groups, including Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights network, the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, the Oath Keepers, QAnon, militias, and more.

Radicalization in COVID denial groups also pushes a militant COVID-19 insurrection against government efforts to curtail the pandemic. Chapter 10 looks at members of COVID denial groups calling for violence, revolution, and forecasting civil war. Further, Chapter 11 scrutinizes the relationship between COVID denial groups, the so-called “Stop the Steal” effort to overturn the presidential election results, and the January 6th insurrection.

A common claim in COVID denial Facebook groups is that their members are defending workers’ rights around mask and vaccine mandates. Groups documented in this report have specifically claimed to speak for healthcare workers and staged protests alleging to do so. However, as discussed in chapter 12, these groups’ blatant disregard for the health and safety of people who work in hospitals and schools lays this claim to rest. Moreover, there is an abundance of material in these groups that attack workers and their unions.

Lastly, the report provides recommendations that Facebook, policymakers, human rights groups, and individuals can take to stop the spread of COVID denial. The challenge to democracy and public health is daunting in the face of organized COVID denial activity. The recommendations provide a way forward, where community overcomes fear, democracy is defended, and the pandemic finally is beaten.




One: COVID Denial as “Culture War”


[1] BCP Live. “Medical Freedom Rally, Salem, OR” Facebook Video. September 18, 2021.

[2] After initial criticism of the appropriation of the term “pure blood,” some anti-vaxxers attempted to claim it was merely a reference to the Harry Potter series. Joseph, Sabine. “Anti-vaxxers are now identifying themselves as ‘pure bloods’.” Daily Dot. September 14, 2021. In the series, the term “pure-blood” was used by prejudiced characters such as the evil Lucius Malfoy and the Death Eaters, servants of arch-villain Lord Voldemort. Series author, J.K. Rowling, who herself has come under criticism for transphobic comments, explained that she “realised the similarities with the Nazis’ beliefs only afterwards when she visited a museum dedicated to the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people died.” The Newsroom. “Author ‘chilled’ to learn Harry’s half-blood status has Nazi parallels.” The Scotsman. July 28, 2004. Even the anti-vaxxer excuses are heavily laden with antisemitism. 

Facebook and COVID Denial

How the platform is fueling another wave of far-right activism, insurrectionism, and violence, and what we can do to stop it.
A Special Report of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights

Copyright © 2021. Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.