Conspiracy theorists are using a new chat app to ‘gamify’ the spread of dangerous misinformation including coronavirus conspiracies, Holocaust denial and far right racism. Thousands of users frequent ‘servers’ on Discord, a voice and text chat platform for gamers, where participants can rack up points for posting conspiracy theories and cash them in for rewards.

Rewarding misinformation with points is a potent and addictive game mechanic taken from role-playing games, using extrinsic rewards for activity to foster intrinsic motivation. This is the same psychological mechanic that underlies the positive feedback loops ("grinding" for experience points, "levelling up" a character) that keep gamers engaged.

Until recently the largest was called “The Ice Wall” with over 7,000 members, hosting dedicated chat channels for discussing everything from the theory that the earth is flat to a supposed global conspiracy to harvest internal organs from children. Discord has now acted to remove the server, but it was almost immediately replaced with a backup called The Edge” which at the time of writing has over 1,000 members.

Both the original server and its successor posted a list of conspiracies under discussion, revealing that the server hosts discussion of the “Holohoax” and whether “the Holocaust is not exactly what they told us”, as well as the idea that “Zionists” are “a class of people that controls the world”.

The servers were quick to add six new chat channels dedicated to discussing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, including channels for “lockdown preparedness” and “economic collapse”. They provide a safe space in which users share theories that the coronavirus was planned by Bill Gates, caused by 5G mobile phone signals or even designed by “scheming” Jews.

Uniquely, Discord provides a framework in which the most active conspiracy theorists are rewarded with titles and privileges. Members of The Ice Wall server and its successor can apply for the role of “verified truther”, but must first demonstrate they have promoted three different conspiracy theories and submit to an interview conducted by a more experienced conspiracist. More senior members are rewarded with various titles visible to other users and access to restricted areas of the server.

There are rewards for those operating a server too. Discord allows users to spend real-world money to “boost” a server, unlocking benefits for all of its members such as higher quality voice chat. The model encourages servers to build and maintain a loyal user base.

One server called “COVID-19 British Conservativism” takes these game-like elements even further. On joining the server, users arrive in a channel named “medical evaluation” and must reply to a bot named “Dr. Thatcher, PhD” in order to gain access.

Gaining access reveals a series of other channels, some of which contain grotesque racist jokes about the coronavirus and far-right imagery. Users who regularly visit the server are able to earn virtual currency that can be spent on titles or even gambled in a bot-operated casino.

A number of other Discord conspiracy servers reward active users with ‘experience points’ recorded by bots. CCDH identified one example where a user on another conspiracy server called “The Truth Shall Set You Free” was rewarded with a ‘level up’ for a message that advised a coronavirus victim to consume unproven colloidal silver.

Discord’s largest coronavirus server with over 43,000 members maintains a channel for discussing conspiracy theories despite being run by a team of medical professionals. In total, CCDH identified six Discord servers trafficking in conspiracy theories about coronavirus with a combined membership of nearly 60,000.

Updated: May 15

Figures on Britain’s far-right including Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) and Jayda Fransen have adopted key themes from a hate campaign in India blaming Muslims for coronavirus.

A campaign of viral posts and videos bearing the #coronjihad hashtag accuses Indian Muslims of deliberately spreading COVID-19 and has been promoted by officials from Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP party. Social media analysts estimate that social media posts featuring the #coronajihad hashtag have already reached up to 170 million people.

The former English Defence League (EDL) leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, has taken up the campaign, sharing a tweet from Priti Gandhi, head of social media for the BJP’s women’s wing. He shared content that brands infected Muslims “corona bombs” with his 38,000 followers on the messaging app Telegram, using the hashtag #GermJihad.

Yaxley-Lennon has since used the same hashtag in other posts that have been shared by far-right groups including Britain First. One features an undated video of a British postman, whom he accuses of coughing and spitting as he makes a delivery, accompanied by an article that blames Muslims for other historic pandemics.

He has also shared a video blaming the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic movement for spreading the coronavirus inside India, a key part of the false #coronajihad hate narrative on Indian social media.

Supporters of Jayda Fransen, the former deputy leader of Britain First, and self-styled "yellow vest" protester James Goddard have also promoted the #coronajihad hate campaign. Both posted a video accusing Muslims of claiming their faith makes them immune to COVID-19 that was originally shared on Indian social media.

Paul Joseph Watson, a far-right activist who writes for the conspiracy website Infowars, has shared at least two articles on his Summit News website suggesting that Muslims are spreading COVID-19, both of which quote material using the phrase “coronavirus Jihad”. The articles were cross-posted to the Infowars website and shared with Watson’s 1.1 million Twitter followers.

In India, the #coronajihad hashtag has played host to a series of Islamophobic memes characterising the religion as an infectious disease. One Facebook page for NaMo Bharath, a group of Modi supporters that claims to have 30,000 members, shared images comparing Muslim worshipper to mosquitos and flies as carriers of disease.

Other graphics being shared with the hashtag feature coronavirus molecules wearing taqiyah skull caps and suicide bombers with the virus strapped to their chests.

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