An international network with roots in the UK is pushing a message against life-saving pandemic health measures. Stickers from “The White Rose” group appeared around the world, from Australia to the USA to South Africa to Japan. Beyond limited reports of this guerrilla “activism” in a few local UK papers, the English-language reporting on the group remains weak.
Maybe the stickers have popped up in your hometown. A quick Twitter search shows their appearance in NYC, Wales, Kent, London, Bristol, Dublin, the Pacific Northwest, and Germany all in the past week. With black text on a white background, they bear phrases like “The media is the virus”, “This is child abuse” with a picture of masked children, or “Mass non compliance is the only way to end this nightmare”. At the bottom or on the side is a QR code and a link to a Telegram chat. The exact same stickers have appeared around the world and they all link back to the same place – “The White Rose”, a Telegram channel with just under 50,000 followers.
“The White Rose” Telegram channel is simple. The channel cycles through a set of messages. First, the channel shares instructions on purchasing a sticker printer and sticker designs advertising the anti-vaccination, anti-mask message with links to “The White Rose” Telegram channel. Second, the channel shares links to Telegram group chats for “local groups” with information on putting up stickers in users’ home area. Finally, the channel shares pictures of its stickers out in the wild.
Where did “The White Rose” network come from? Based on the concentration of groups, the network likely originated in the UK – 30% of “The White Rose” channels identified by DSRW are for locations in the UK, 35% for locations in the USA (which has a population about 5 times that of the UK) and 35% for locations in other countries. (Note – these numbers may be different as of the article release date.) “The White Rose” Telegram channel as it currently exists came into existence on 6 November 2020 and the first posts showing stickers placed in the wild originate in the UK.
“The White Rose UK” maintains a website using the same name and expressing identical beliefs to those found in their Telegram networks. The current website specifically claims that “we do not do stickers” and that “The White Rose” group on Telegram is separate from them. That two groups in the same country with the same ideology and the same name remains plausible at first glance. However, according to domain registration information, owners registered “The White Rose UK” website on 31 October 2020 and, on the current version of the website, the first post originates from 2 November 2020, lining up closely with the creation of the Telegram channel on 6 November 2020.
Archived versions of the website include no mention of stickers until a post from 12 February 2021 in which the website links to the sticker Telegram group but denies connections between the groups, instead acknowledging the groups “share the same values and goals”.
However, “The White Rose UK” does link to two spin-off groups, “The White Rose Ireland” and “De Witte Roos” in the Netherlands. Owners regiatered “The White Rose Ireland” website on 23 February 2021 and someone registered “De Witte Roos” on 2 April 2021. Unlike “The White Rose UK”, “De Witte Roos” specifically links to the international “The White Rose” Telegram channel and “De Witte Roos”’s Telegram chat is listed in the international “The White Rose” Telegram channel’s list of local chats. Clearly, the website and Telegram networks are the same or at a minimum closely linked.
Both the websites and the Telegram chats contain copious amounts of antisemitism. Invoking the name of the Scholl siblings, who the National Socialist regime decapitated for their opposition, in order to oppose needed health measures trivializes the Holocaust and the Scholl’s resistance. Similar references to the COVID-19 vaccine violating the Nuremburg Code also trivialize the Holocaust through over-exaggeration of the current situation that downplays the atrocities committed by the National Socialist regime. The British website makes multiple references to the “Great Reset” and its spiritual forebearer, the “New World Order” conspiracy theory, which itself holds deeply antisemtic roots. The Irish website takes the trivialization up a level, explicitly claiming that COVID-19 quarantine is the same as concentration camps. Supposedly, the entire Irish government is guilty of war crimes. Unsurprisingly, the websites of all three groups contain an overabundance of disinformation.
On Telegram, literal neo-Nazis come out to play. The White Rose Telegram network is arranged around the central channel, mentioned earlier, which shares links to location-specific group chats and channels alongside pictures of The White Rose stickers out in the wild. A “The White Rose Chat” also exists, with several thousand members and no specific geographic focus. The size of the group and the constant flow of messages make it near impossible to read through the entire group. Searching specific phrases reveals racist, antisemitic, homophobic, and transphobic comments from members of the chat. Messages and forwarded content referencing QAnon by name also filled the chat, along with explicitly neo-Nazi content that praised Hitler. Anyone with the link, which other channels share freely, may join the group chat, meaning that not all members of the group chat hold the same belief. However, Telegram’s lack of any content moderation combined with the lack of action from the admins of “The White Rose Chat” allowed the chat to become a festering cesspool of extremism and conspiracy theories.
In local groups, we found similar content. As the name Dirty South Right Watch implies, we looked mostly at local chats covering our focus area. In several chats, an account whose profile pic shows a man in a skull mask regularly forwards fascist and neo-Nazi content into the chats. In many of the groups, members sport Confederate-related names or display the Confederate Battle Flag in the profile pictures. Others display Proud Boy related material on their profile and share Proud Boy posts into the groups. Many of the local chats also share QAnon content alongside antivax posts. Individuals discuss how to craft and where to purchase fake vaccination cards. In many, the 6 January Capitol rioters are praised as true patriots and referred to as political prisoners. Some of the group chats exist now as virtual ghost towns, where the only posts come from bots pushing scams, porn, or promoting other COVID-19-denying pages.
The danger of the White Rose network comes from its aggregation effect. While the stickers are annoying, the simple messages themselves are unlikely to convince someone to take a hard anti-vaccination position who would not have otherwise. In a poll taken on the channel, responders indicated that nearly half the followers found the channel through other Telegram groups or channels. However, the network serves as a radicalization pathway for the garden variety COVID-19 skeptic. On Telegram, the distances between COVID-19 denial and explicit fascist thought small enough to be nearly nonexistent. Actors interested in winning followers for their extremist ideology find a fertile audience in the COVID conspiracy crowd. As we previously reported, The White Rose Network is closely linked with other groups and far-right activists are eagerly utilizing Telegram as a radicalization pipeline.