The impact of COVID-19 on the day-to-day lives of people has been profound. The governments around the globe had to adopt measures in response to the pandemic, including limitations on movements, limited access to services or social distancing. There is still a high degree of uncertainty about the overall impacts of both COVID-19 and measures taken to suppress the spread of the virus, people feel insecure about the future, and distrust and dissatisfaction with governmental measures became common across societies. This environment creates appropriate conditions for extremism to thrive. According to Soufan Centre (2020), the fallout from the global pandemic will provide a boost to extremists from across the ideological spectrum; religious extremists might attempt to portray the pandemic as “God’s will”, right-wing extremists will portray the pandemic as linked to immigrants and non-whites, and left-wing extremist groups will be able to point to globalisation and the rich. All of these groups will try to take advantage of the impacts of the coronavirus and promote and spread their ideologies, which, as we can see, is already happening.
Increase in Online Content
Many far-right groups perceive global pandemic as an opportunity to undermine trust in institutions and democracy. The large increase in numbers of jobless people, who are frustrated with governments’ response to the crisis, constitute a new potential demographic for recruitment. Loss of one’s livelihood can represent a violation of one’s dignity and extremist movements like to exploit such vulnerabilities. And not only newly jobless people are the targets of extremist ideologies, but also people who have to work or study from their homes. Due to restrictions of movement, more people are spending time online with no distractions or protective factors such as school, work or friends with different views, therefore attracting followers and recruiting members through the internet is easier than ever (Reuters 2020).
According to Global Network on Extremism and Technology, extremists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland have been able to increase their online reach since the introduction of the lockdown measures. However, the digital growth of extremist movements has been unequal, the far-right groups are the most “successful” with the biggest rise in followers (18 % more followers), the far-left being in the second place (10%) and lastly, Islamist extremists (6%) (Guhl 2020). The pandemic followed a rise in the activity of far-right movements, especially in Germany. Researchers have identified around 50,000 German speakers with far-right beliefs using nearly 400 online platforms, for example, Telegram (encrypted messaging platform) and Russian social network VK. Analysis of those online groups have suggested that extremists have discussed spreading the virus by encouraging those with symptoms of COVID-19 to cough on Muslims and Jews and travel to more ethnic parts of town, for example, mosques and synagogues (Peachey 2020).
Nevertheless, it is important to mention, that far-right extremist movements managed to exploit not only the increased amount of people on the internet to their advantage but in some cases, they stick to their more traditional methods. In Germany, far-right extremists used community aid projects to spread their message and recruit. Members of the National Democratic Party of Germany’s’ youth wing offered going shopping for pensioners, The Third Way, a small neo-Nazi party, offered neighbourhood aid alongside conspiracies about the “true” origins of COVID-19 as well as advertising for planned demonstrations later in the year (Zeller 2020). In recent months, right-wing extremists in Germany carried out more than 90 anti-mask rallies, with the aim to use the displeasure in parts of the population and to “expand their ability to connect to the middle class under the common objective of opposing the measures” (Rettman 2020).
Blaming the “Other”
The rise in extremist followers is not only noticeable in Germany but also in other European countries. The U.K. government’s Commission for Countering Extremism warned, that the pandemic has increased the visibility of anti-minority tendencies. The report highlights a 21% increase in hate crimes towards East Asian and South-East Asian individuals in the U.K. since the pandemic started and a rise in hate crimes and incidents targeting Chinese people (Gehrke 2020). Blaming the out-groups is a common behaviour of extremist movements, promoting hostile and supremacist beliefs towards a group of people who are perceived as a threat. It often includes people with different racial, ethnic-religious or cultural backgrounds. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, rise in hatred towards Jews has been registered. In the UK, misinformation about Jewish people as primary spreaders of the virus has gained traction (CEE 2020, 9). Gates of Vienna, a European far-right blog, has published an article which suggests that Muslims get preferential treatment from authorities because police reportedly failed to disband a group of Muslims congregated in front of a Mosque in Berlin while they forbade a group of far-right protestors in Chemnitz from marching. A new report commissioned by members of the UK Parliamentary Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group warns that hate towards Muslims will most likely increase when lockdown measures are lifted, as a result of online Islamophobic and far-right conspiracy theories (Tony Blair Institute for Global Change 2020).
Conspiracy Theories and Disinformation
Furthermore, as the COVID-19 virus began to spread, conspiracy theories and disinformation started to be spread across the Internet via mainstream and alternative social media platforms. Only a few months into the virus, 32.5 % of the discussion threads created on the messaging board 4chan, known for misleading and inappropriate content, dealt with COVID-19 specifically (Burchill 2020, 12). Extreme right-wing groups and individuals seek to co-opt the pandemic using conspiracy theories to attempt to radicalize and recruit new followers. Some existing theories have been repurposed by recycling prejudices and narratives to fit the crisis, however, two predominant camps have emerged during the pandemic, the first group believes the virus is a hoax and the second accepts its existence, but believe it to be manufactured or spread maliciously (CTED 2020, 2).
Many conspiracy theories remain quite harmless; however, some have resulted in serious consequences. In many cases, people’s beliefs about the origins of the coronavirus can significantly influence their behaviour. The conspiracy theory that 5G internet is either causing or accelerating the spread of the coronavirus gained significant attention and resulted in attacks on 5G masts. Around 50 of these facilities were targeted for arson and vandalism in the U.K. in April. People who held coronavirus conspiracy beliefs were less likely to comply with governmental measures, like social distancing or take up future vaccines (CCE 2020, 7).
There has also been a significant rise in activity relating to the QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory about Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking ring and plot against Donald Trump. Originally US-based conspiracy theory started to spread in Europe where it merged with pre-existing conspiracies and groups, COVID-19 crisis being a catalyst. In July, the watchdog counted about 450,000 known followers of QAnon sites in France, Italy, Germany and Britain and the number of followers is still increasing. In Europe, the conspiracy is spreading the idea, that the global pandemic is part of a plan imposed by world elites, with Bill Gates at the top, to vaccinate the world’s population. Analysts are especially concerned about QAnon’s rapport with the far-right when both groups share core beliefs. In Germany, it has got “a footing among backers of the nationalist theory of a “great replacement” being orchestrated to supplant Europe’s white population with outsiders” (France 24 2020).
The coronavirus pandemic has indeed proven to be a threat multiplier when extremist groups managed to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to their advantage and thrive. With the further unfolding of the global pandemic, extremist groups could use the events to validate their own worldviews and expand their support base. There is a risk of the COVID-19 crisis drawing attention away from the threat of extremism expansion and reducing the focus on prevention and countering violent extremism. This would be a mistake; adequate resources must be ensured to support the deprived areas which have been hit by the pandemic and prevent the possible spread of extremist ideologies.
Written by Lenka Koprnová
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