On November 18, the Italian police carried out searches throughout the country in the homes of alleged members of the online anti-vaccine group Viral_Vendetta. They were accused from forming a secret association to grouping together to commit crimes and cause damage. His actions in the real world include a multitude of graffiti in schools, streets, medical centers, harassment of public figures or disruption of the vaccination appointment system, calling to reserve and then changing the appointment or not showing up.
However, the most persistent actions of this group are set against the internet. Viral_Vendetta is coordinated in Italy in a central channel on Telegram with more than 18,000 members together with smaller subgroups dedicated to organization. Meta (new name for Facebook) announced in its latest threat report that it had suppressed “a network of accounts originating in Italy and France that threatened medical professionals, journalists and politicians with massive harassment.” It was the first time that Meta warned of this specific type of action: the “ brigading ” or “brigade attack”, which means, in the language of technology, “networks where the people work as a team to comment, post or participate en masse on other platforms to harass or silence ”their victims. The actions, in addition to Facebook, are also given on YouTube, Instagram and other platforms, coordinated from Telegram.
This type of harassment to silence opponents is not new. The novelty is that Meta has included it in its list of actions that may imply suspension of the account. In association with Meta, network research company Graphika did an extensive report on Viral_Vendetta. “We have observed what appears to be a growing populist movement that combines existing conspiracy theories with anti-authoritarian narratives and disinformation about health,” says the text, which estimates that the organization has some 20,000 followers across Europe. “The group claims to be a self-organized collective of Internet 'warriors' engaged in a guerrilla campaign of 'psychological warfare' against the oppressive forces of 'medical Nazism.' The logo is inspired by the movie V for Vendetta, whose masks and imaginary have already been used for other revolts.
Viral_Vendetta was born in Italy in 2020 and in recent months has grown in the heat of protests over the obligation to use the Covid or Green Pass passport. The main difference between this group and other anti-vaccine channels on Telegram is that it has a structure and aims to choose its members, the “ViVi warriors”, which in addition to being an acronym means “alive” in Italian. France is the second country they are trying to conquer, with a community that does not reach 2,000 people. In Spain they feed on translations from Italian, some sporadic graffiti and a mini Telegram channel with 140 people where most of the activity comes from the original group and translations from Italian.
However, the proof of their level of organization is that they already have initiation subgroups. According to an insider in the French community who recounted his case on the French TV channel LCI, aspiring “ViVi warriors” must listen for about 90 minutes of conspiracy theories about the “Nazi Bill Gates”, microchips and artificial intelligence, then answer to five questions in a private Telegram chat with an administrator (four in writing and one with audio). At the end they must give personal details such as email address and Facebook account. Meta detected the fraudulent activity of this group in part because there were members who managed several Facebook accounts.
This process of gamification and obtaining internal degrees distinguishes them from other communities of this type in Europe. “I wonder if for some of the most active members of the V_V movement this is like an online game that they have lost control of,” explains by phone Jack Stubbs, Vice President of Intelligence at Graphika. “It's definitely not a joke, but we have seen an element of gamification in the way they are organized, particularly in the process of initiation and similar recruitment,” he adds.
Viral_Vendetta seems to attract new members on mainstream social networks, such as Facebook, and then direct them to Telegram, where they are organized in a more hierarchical way. Once a member becomes a “warrior” he receives a number, which gives an idea of how long he has been in the group. That number, along with the logo, is added to the Facebook profile, which grants status. The proof that there are very few in Spain is that it is easy to find the first members.
In Spain, the “initiation” channel on Telegram, which is only accessed with a link, has 120 members. In addition to some graffiti in the north of Madrid, the most “disruptive” action they have undertaken has been to attack the comments of a Facebook post of the Diario de Mallorca entitled “La pediatra de Educovid emphasizes that children between 5 and 12 years old are the age group with the highest number of infections ”. In the dozens of comments you can see the logo and messages typical of the activity of this group, which are always written in capital letters. Although it is a Spanish medium, the majority is still Italian members of the group. The post says that there are more than 1,000 comments, but far fewer appear when they are displayed. It is possible that the fallen comments were victims of Meta's operation against Viral_Vendetta.
His messages include a “warrior dodecalogue” where they expose their aspirations: the importance of the double V symbol, anonymity as a basis to remove the ego or the rejection of physical violence. Among those principles is his broad interpretation of the term “no-vax.” “The no-vax has become anyone who defends the right to be able to say no to health treatment, be it diagnostic or therapeutic,” they affirm.
The clarity of messages without nuances and the labeling of all those who do not think like them as Nazis are other characteristics of the group. For example: “The V_V fight for freedom and rights and those who want to take them away from us are criminal Nazis.” Also, the centrality of the digital struggle in a world dominated by “mental manipulation”: “The bombs are not raining but we are equally in danger.”
“Online actions are fundamental”, they say in that list of principles , “because it is a territory in which the system operates with manipulation and propaganda and the V_V must act in coordination, occupying the territory online with the counter propaganda and with the symbol that represents the non-violent struggle of all for freedom and rights. To occupy as much territory is online than real, allows to give resonance to the struggle ”.
The group's Telegram channels celebrate each and every one of the press articles, the actions of the police or Meta against them under the apparent premise that every appearance is positive and serves to control space. “We think they're deliberately trying to get the public's attention and crave notoriety,” says Stubbs. “When you write about them in the media, they celebrate it. After Meta's announcement, of our report, we saw comments where they said it was a great success that shows that they are reaching the center of society. But I think it is really important to educate people about these types of groups and movements that are involved in tangible and harmful behavior ”, he adds.
These groups not only aspire to make themselves known to the general public but also compete with each other for the attention of the faithful. The Italian organization Viral_Vendetta and its French and to a lesser extent Spanish and British tentacles may be the competence of the German Querdeken if one day one of the two aspires to be the conspiratorial movement of reference in Europe, as is QAnon in the United States and they manage to reunite the greater number of people with unfounded fears about the pandemic.
Speaking after the police operation in Italy, the vice-president of the Italian Assembly's Constitutional Affairs Commission, Annagrazia Calabria, said: “From the police operations against the No Vax activists, a disturbing and surreal image is emerging, in which the protest against the vaccination campaign takes on the characteristics of a sect with different levels of initiation to violence. ”
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