Online trolls stepped up harassment campaign against Covid experts, health centers
A group of coronavirus skeptics and anti-vaccination campaigners has been disseminating false and misleading information about Covid-19 in a coordinated fashion since February, journalism platform Pointer revealed. The staff at several GGD municipal health centers have been targeted for online and physical harassment by the group, which also sought conflict with politicians and prominent Dutch doctors.
The group called The Digital Army urged its sympathizers through messaging service Telegram to create fake accounts on social media, and provided its members daily with misinformation about coronavirus vaccines to share more widely. This information could then be passed on by some 800 members of the group, which recently went offline.
Some 708 URLs, 1,112 images and 528 videos that contained misinformation regarding the coronavirus jabs were shared by members of The Digital Army in the last 3 months. This became evident after Pointer tracked down numerous fake accounts and performed digital forensic investigations.
In one particular incident, the email addresses of GGD test locations were distributed in the group at the beginning of April. Members were then urged to send pre-composed questions in an email in which they pretended to be journalists. The purpose of this action was to overload the test locations with time-consuming questions and distract them from doing their work.
The home address of Diederik Gommers, chair of the Dutch Intensive Care Association and OMT member, was also distributed in the group. People in the group were called upon to “drop in for a coffee” at Gommer’s house on April 17, the term being a cover that protesters allegedly used to take action against their targets.
Similar phrasing was used for the organization of anti-lockdown rallies in Amsterdam’s Museumplein, events which the city tried to scale down and move to another location before issuing emergency orders to ban the demonstrations.
“You have reached the moment when propaganda can literally mean that people can die from it," said researcher Robert van der Noordaa, who has studied misinformation and disinformation shared by trolls during the investigation into the downing of flight MH17. With people spending more time at home and isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, some have become more vulnerable to fake news and conspiracy theories, making them more likely to join troll groups. "People can then radicalize to such an extent that at some point they will become this kind of home-and-garden armchair terrorists."
Police were keeping an eye on the activity of the group, a police representative told Pointer. While it is not punishable to spread misinformation, it is being examined whether there were any punishable acts and concrete threats in these groups, the police explained.
Some members of the action group are also said to have joined extreme right-wing organizations in the Netherlands, such as Stormfront Netherlands.