Is pandemic isolation pushing people towards extremism?
Right-wing extremists are taking advantage of COVID-19 restrictions and conspiracy theories to radicalise and recruit new supporters
While the UK and, indeed, most of Europe has been under some form of lockdown over the last 12 months, there has been growing discussion about the detrimental effects of extended isolation and lack of social cohesion. Not just on people’s mental health but on their vulnerability to various forms of extremism.
The head of Wales’ Extremism and Counter Terrorism Unit (WECTU) warned last year that the pandemic could increase the risk of radicalisation among young people. There are fears that the radical Right has spotted an opportunity to align COVID-19 criticism and conspiracy theories with longstanding right-wing tropes and narratives.
Social isolation, or loneliness, is recognised as one of the vulnerabilities that might lead to radicalisation or potential exploitation, according to CONTEST, the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy .
Isolation exacerbates already existing grievances, leaving individuals vulnerable to extremism, say social psychologists and scholars of radicalisation. Recent research says that those experiencing social exclusion reported strong feelings of “anger, frustration, sadness” alongside “lowered self-esteem […] and less meaningful existence”.
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Psychologists argue that to regain this feeling of belonging, individuals may become more open to opportunities for social inclusion – even if that means conforming to a new group that espouses views vastly different to their own. The same research shows that individuals who have become isolated and excluded are more likely to engage with and join an extremist group, compared to people who are not isolated.
Yet, it would be both inaccurate and problematic to suggest that isolation is a determinable marker of potential vulnerability, or a causal explanation of far-Right extremism.
Isolation exacerbates already existing grievances, leaving individuals vulnerable to extremism
The enforced isolation brought on by the COVID-19 lockdowns compounds existing experiences of social exclusion or deprivation, such as the inability to access economic opportunities.
Scholars have explored the role of economic insecurity as well as experiences of social exclusion as tenets of radicalisation processes for the far-Right. These factors are not determinants of radicalisation, but they have been compounded by official responses to the pandemic.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK, the areas with the highest levels of overall referrals to the UK’s multi-agency safeguarding hub for radicalisation, Channel, included London, the North West and the North East.
These were also the areas most harshly affected by measures to combat the pandemic, with stricter lockdowns and tier regulations than elsewhere. They also suffered more extreme economic and social consequences due to business, workplace and school closures.
The UN projected that limiting freedoms – especially “local authorities imposing preventative COVID-19 measures through force” – could lead to further disenfranchisement of the most vulnerable members of the population. Criticism of the restrictions has also become enmeshed in conspiracy theories and disinformation.
.Also, more people are out of work or education due to the global pandemic, which often exacerbates existing grievances, such as social isolation.
All this provides fertile ground for the far-Right, which can thrive by exploiting these disadvantages to its own benefit and send people down the path of radicalisation.
Out of school
The closure of educational institutions adds to this concern. The education sector has continually accounted for around a third of all referrals made to the UK’s Prevent programme (the Channel hub then assesses and provides relevant support, where deemed necessary, to vulnerable individuals). This referral process is the basis of the Prevent Duty, where public sector workers, including teachers, are tasked with spotting concerns within their everyday practice.
The closure of schools has inevitably limited contact between students and teachers as it has shifted learning from the classroom to online spaces. Recent research shows the important role of educational staff – not only in these processes of referral from a governmental perspective, but in providing support for students from a safeguarding one. Limiting contact and meaningful classroom dialogue makes it more difficult for staff to recognise when students may be facing challenges.
These limited opportunities for institutional support, in combination with increased isolation, can drive the marginalised and excluded further towards far-Right narratives.
But this scenario also raises concerns about the potential rise of ‘panic’ referrals, because teachers do not have the chance to observe their students on a day-to-day basis.
The number of referrals for extreme right-wing content increased by 43% between 1 January and 20 November 2020. Whether this is due to the far-Right taking advantage of isolation, or a pre-emptive fear of such exploitation, requires more research.
Although pupils have returned to their physical schools in the UK, the increased use of online spaces remains as we await a full ‘return to normal’.
Individuals engaging with the far-Right are not always acting of their own accord. Rather, charismatic extremists are deliberately targeting young people who may have become socially isolated and bored under COVID-19 measures. They sense an opportunity to recruit new members by promulgating conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
This is becoming harder to monitor as the number of users joining encrypted channels associated with the far-Right, such as Gab or Telegram, has increased during the pandemic. Telegram alone gained 100 million new users between April 2020 and January 2021.
People are also spending more time online. The Council of the European Union warns that the radical-Right is “capitalising on the corona crisis” by adapting their narrative to encompass COVID-19 conspiracy as a means of recruitment.
Radical-Right ideologues have employed disinformation campaigns to push a number of conspiracy theories such as the existence of a ‘Plandemic’; Bill Gates and vaccine microchips; and subversion by racial minorities.
A growing threat
Interestingly, the discourse has become so resilient that right-wing extremists can now pander to COVID deniers while simultaneously attracting those who believe the virus is real. A report from the Community Security Trust shows how prevalent antisemitic tropes are in the conspiracy theories circulated by the far Right.
But the Jewish population is not alone in becoming embroiled in these conspiracies. Claims from scientists linked to Steve Bannon that the Chinese government is seeking to eliminate the white race through the spread of COVID-19 play into ideas of ‘accelerationism’, a fascistic theory encouraging the breakdown of society that is proposed by radical-Right terrorists such as Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant.
Right-wing extremists can now pander to COVID deniers while simultaneously attracting those who believe the virus is real
Disinformation stories about Muslims breaking lockdown during Eid have also racialised these theories, allowing extremists to feed on Islamophobia.
This kind of propaganda has had such an effect that it has even inspired plots to use COVID against minorities in a wave of Islamophobic/antisemitic attacks – such as the British National Socialist Movement encouraging supporters to “visit your local mosque or synagogue” if infected with the virus.
Radical-Right extremism was already increasing prior to the pandemic, but its co-opting of COVID scepticism and conspiracy is highly likely to exacerbate this ever-growing threat.
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