Channels on the messaging app Telegram with almost 35,000 followers have been used to spread anti-vax information and to threaten broadcaster Jeremy Vine.
Sky News has found that people linked to these groups have also targeted doctors, nurses, teachers, and local councillors with letters accusing them of “genocide”.
On Sunday, some of these people delivered a letter to the home of Jeremy Vine in west London. In one video posted on Telegram, two men are shown talking to his wife at the front door of their family home.
In subsequent videos, one of the men is filmed explaining that he gave her a “letter of liability” for Vine’s role as a journalist at the BBC covering coronavirus stories. These men do not appear to have threatened Vine or his family – but in follow-up posts, others on Telegram, who are not believed to be these men, used threatening and abusive language about the journalist and linked him with Nazi iconography.
It follows a segment on the Jeremy Vine Show broadcast last Monday that focused on the take-up of COVID-19 vaccines. The panel discussed whether unvaccinated footballers should be banned following speculation in the press about high-profile footballers refusing vaccines.
Vine took a call from a viewer who believed that it is a personal choice for someone to get a vaccine. In an attempt to continue the discussion with panellist Angela Epstein, he then said: “I guess in the end Angela, we either allow this or we end up holding people down and jabbing them by force.”
A clip of this statement was posted on Twitter by a user without the full context, making it appear as if Vine was advocating for this policy. It was then retweeted almost 500 times and viewed over 50,000 times. Copies of the video were also shared across the platform and into groups on the messaging app Telegram.
Clips like this presented without wider context is a tactic regularly used in the spread of disinformation.
Users in one Telegram account, which consistently posts COVID-19 vaccine disinformation, made continuous negative posts about the BBC journalist. Posts were made comparing Vine’s comments to inciting assault, murder and many people called for him to be sacked and investigated by Ofcom. One video was shared in the group of the clip repeating and being accompanied by pictures of Adolf Hitler and Nazi iconography.
Sky News has monitored these groups using Telegram to organise protests against vaccines and other COVID-19 restrictions. One of these accounts alone has over 25,000 subscribers.
We have discovered that a template of the letter believed to be the same as that addressed to Vine is available online. The group is seeking to orchestrate a wider campaign which targets members of local communities who have supported the vaccine rollout.
Videos posted in the Telegram channels show that letters have been handed to a nurse administering vaccines, medical staff in Cardiff, and to two local councillors in Leeds.
The letter links COVID vaccines to a wide array of conspiracy theories relating to 5G, mask wearing, globalist cabals, and genocide. There is no evidence to suggest that these theories are factually correct.
Kevin Ritchie, a Labour councillor on Leeds City Council who received one of these letters, said: “I found what was in the letter deeply offensive, accusing the vaccine rollout of being part of an orchestrated genocide.
“I believe the public health officials and the epidemiologists – the letter is offensive to all those who have suffered from actual genocides under the likes of Hitler and Pol Pot and in Rwanda.
“I also felt an undercurrent of intimidation with this letter – I don’t mind too much but I worry that other more vulnerable people may be worried by this, especially when you consider the rise of the far right and what happened to Jo Cox.”
The main organisers on the Telegram channels do not advocate violence, but regularly use inciteful language, championing a “call to arms” and referring to their movement as “the resistance”.
When Jeremy Vine posted on Twitter about his incident, threatening language was used towards him online.
One Telegram user noted, “wait till we come with the noose Jeremy”, while someone on Facebook said they hoped he’s “scared and never has a moments peace again”.