Terror and panic: how extremists have exploited the pandemic

Image: pxfuel

By Christine Rayner

Extremists and terrorists spreading hatred across the UK are flourishing under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic, a report warns.

Data collected by the Commission for Countering Extremism between 1 March and 5 June ,  reveals that deliberately circulated false statements and fake news aimed at “exploiting the crisis, to sow division and undermine the social fabric of our country”.

Lead commissioner Sara Khan says the report, published yesterday, draws attention to “a variety of conspiracy theories that have been spread by groups from the far right to the far left.  “The impact of extremist propaganda and disinformation to our democracy cannot be overstated, she says. “These conspiracy theories are harmful, dangerous and are used by extremists to cause division and breed hate.”

The independent commission was created in 2018 in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing, which killed 23 people and injured more than 800, “to challenge all forms of extremism and provide impartial advice to the government”. The report is published on the Gov.uk website.

Among its findings during the pandemic are that hate-filled propaganda is being circulated in the hope of destabilising the structure of society.

Khan is calling on policy-makers to develop a system to classify extreme views on the basis of the harm they can cause and she urges government to bring local authorities into discussions on how to deal with extremist trends at grass roots level, before they get the chance to spread.

The new strategy to fight extremism at local level should bring together different communities with a common aim, preventing the spread of hatred and harm it causes in communities, she says.

“We need to be on the front foot to counter the activity of hateful extremists who seek to divide and undermine everything our country stands for; and we must begin work on it now,” Khan urges.

The report quotes instances of far-right and neo-Nazi British groups urging the deliberate infecting of Jews with Covid-19 and claims by extreme Islamist factions that the virus is “divine punishment from Allah on the West for degeneracy” and that China is being punished for its treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Other fake news about minority communities includes claims that mosques remained open during lockdown and the conspiracy theories blaming 5G (fifth-generation technology for cellular networks) for the virus, which led to attacks on mobile phone masts and telecommunication engineers.

During the early weeks of the pandemic in the UK, a 21 per cent increase in hate crime towards east Asian and southeast Asian individuals was reported, the report says. One fake post accusing Muslims of breaking lockdown rules was shared 2,700 times. Of those who heard the claim that 5G was to blame for the virus, almost a third believed it.

It adds: “Lockdown has proved challenging to those delivering counter-extremism interventions. Those working in research and the counter-extremism sector need to support and work with practitioners to help develop new and effective online counter-extremism interventions. The scale and ease of access to online extremist driven content is proving to be particularly difficult to counter.

“Policy-makers and researchers need to prioritise this work. The government needs to invest in building a better understanding of ‘what works’ in relation to counter-extremism. This continues to be critical.”

The report concludes: “The short and long-term impacts of the pandemic could create conditions conducive for extremism. Extremists will seek to capitalise on the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 to cause further long-term instability, fear and division in Britain.

“Government needs to include clear plans to counter extremism in its response to this and future crises.”

Dr David Robertson, lecturer in religious studies with the Open University, said the report had overstated the case and was concerned at its “almost panicky tone”.

He said: “Is the harm caused by 5G conspiracies the same as anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim incidents? 5G conspiracies were underway before Covid-19 began, and the ethnic or religiously charged incidents, I think, speak more to the overall return of the right [wing] across Europe and the US — something that was well under way before coronavirus.

“I have no doubt that those who wrote the report did so in good faith, but I wonder if some of this broader context might help: that is, Covid-19 (and the fact that were all in lockdown and on the internet with little else to do) has brought these things to the surface, but Covid is not the cause — these were problems that were already on the rise.”

Dr Benjamin Lee, senior research associate at the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, said:

“The effects of Covid-19 and the lockdowns are likely to be far-reaching. This report shows a range of different extremist actors interpreting events and working them into their existing narratives. In the longer term, even greater shifts in the extremist landscape are possible as different extremist actors seek to shape themselves and their beliefs to new economic, political and social realities.”