Author: Giovanna Spanò – University of Florence ITALY

At the beginning of September, eight no-vax activists were arrested in Italy. They were accused of planning attacks against journalists and authorities during a demonstration against the “Green Certificate” to take place in Rome in September 2021. The activists came from northern Italy and were all users of the Telegram channel I Guerrieri (“The Warriors”) which is a platform to exchange information to organise against public authorities. The investigation issued search warrants for activists’ homes to later discover various weapons including katanas, knives, and sprayed pepper gas. This event seems to be the final stage of a harsh escalation of protests to contravene the government’s crisis management and the polarization it caused expressed in online and offline contexts. The online platforms especially became a more common forum for expressing objections against crisis measures, including lockdowns and curfew, the pro-vax campaigns as well as the Green Pass certificate. The latter is now mandatory in Italy in almost all public and private areas, such as offices and schools.

Indeed, this escalation was long in the making, considering the spread of fake news and covid rejectionism expressed by the allegations of ‘sanitary dictatorship’ and conspiracy theories such as the big pharma. The protests are led by the no-mask platform, which then evolved into no-vax and now no-green pass movements to express an unstoppable grievance against “the system” and the so-called mainstream narratives and “the establishment” as a whole. Indeed, journalists and television crews were the first targets of the attacks since, according to the demonstrators, they are the servants of an oppressive regime. Additionally, accusations against the Italian political agenda concern the violation of freedom of expression, freedom of circulation and the principles of Italian constitutional framework per se (“you want us to study the Italian Constitution, but you do not pay respect to it”), which should not allow discrimination among citizens. According to the demonstrators, the Green Certificate would prevent citizens from a free and equal participation in public life, with controversial references to racist laws in place in Italy during the fascist regime.

Furthermore, the above-mentioned Telegram channel circulated both the private and online addresses of public authorities’ and pro-vax activists’ – including those of Premier Mario Draghi – with the aim of intimidating and threating them later. Besides, it was discovered that the attacks on the Parliament were about to be arranged with drones carrying TNT during a parliamentary session to kill as many people as possible. Prosecutors, however, considered this incitement to violence as a mere “full of hatred fanatics’ propaganda”, rather than a real and structured plan. Nonetheless, in another Telegram channel called “Stop dictatorship”, already banned due to extremist and violent speech, members were systematically invited to engage in independent terrorist attacks against symbolic targets, such as institutional offices or departments. This sounds quite typical of the radicalized lone actors’ strategy of social insecurity and terror. Indeed, a few weeks ago in Brescia (near Milan), some no-vax activists launched Molotov cocktails against a vaccination hub and further violent demonstrations were planned but failed due to the cancelled visit of the Ministry of Health in a small city near Turin.

Interestingly, two issues come into the picture: no-vax extremism seems a transversal and heterogeneous phenomenon. The Italian events confirm that there is no prototype of the extremist undergoing radicalization. The people that have been identified so far have different personalities as well as professional and individual backgrounds, far from being vulnerable or marginalized population as commonly understood. Some of them are physicians and nurses and have been suspended from their workplaces. Others are warehouse workers. Their anti-establishment commitment is not supported by any structured political ideology but is the result of the sum of several factors, triggered by grievances against institutions, in an online vortex of mutual fomentation and social anger. Among the eight potential ‘terrorists’, just one has had a past involvement in an independentist movement based in north-eastern Italy (“I Serenissimi”).

And yet, different patterns of extremism can overlap – as it has become clearer due to the 9th October protests in Rome – since many members of the Telegram channel “The Warriors” showed their sympathy with alt-right and far-right milieus, while an endorsement from anarchist and radical leftist movements appeared to support violent actions against governmental policies and ‘social control’.

No-vax extremism is an emerging and multifaceted phenomenon deserving attention, due to its global and transnational vocation as well. Thus, it urges the development of new methodologies and analysis beyond the well-known paradigm of marginalization and alienation, which may reveal insufficient in facing this ongoing and ever-changing challenge.

Photo: Protests have been a regular occurrence in Rome since the Italian green pass health certificate was launched. Photo. Photo: Filiippo Monteforte/AFP