How COVID-19 has changed the violent extremist landscape
A rise of pandemic-inspired conspiracists has been escalated and capitalised on by extremist movements
COVID-19 has accelerated the spread of conspiracy thinking, especially through social networks, highlighting how anxiety, uncertainty and the reordering of democratic state-citizen relations can feed susceptibility to violent extremist thinking and action. What does this tell us about the evolving challenges of violent extremism?
The not-so-new ‘new world order’
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the normative social order of democratic societies in profound ways, with lockdowns, public health mandates, a range of restrictions on movement and behaviour and the rapid development of new-generation vaccines.
This has occurred amidst an environment of risk and uncertainty that threatens the sense of security, stability and resilience for many populations, especially those inexperienced in coping with other kinds of crises such as wars or natural disasters.
The rise of pandemic-led conspiracy thinking has therefore been predictable: there is a well-established relationship between conspiracy narratives and the sense of threat or the sense that society is fundamentally changing.
In line with this, the extension of government authority and the curtailing of individual liberties during a public health emergency have been consistently reframed by extremists as instruments of social control, government corruption and state illegitimacy.
QAnon influencers, for example, harnessed this to feed their movement’s anti-government, ‘deep state’ narrative of corrupt, shadowy elites.
However, QAnon’s dark prophesies of a ‘new world order’ that would upend civilisation were in reality not so new, drawing together a pastiche of familiar, pre-existing militant narratives based on antisemitism, white nationalism, anti-vaccination and anti-technology discourses.
Some of these older militant narratives have long been associated with violent action against minorities and violent resistance to the state. It’s therefore unsurprising that the rise of pandemic-inspired conspiracist movements has been escalated and capitalised on by violent extremist movements across the board.
Europol has warned that COVID-19 will continue to escalate violent extremist threats in various countries, increasing tolerance for violence in response to pandemic-induced stressors alongside evidence that ideologically diverse violent extremist networks are exploiting pandemic-related vulnerabilities through online propaganda and recruitment efforts.
New gateways to (violent) extremism
What is new, however, is the emergence of unexpected gateways to extremist thinking and, potentially, action. While QAnon influencers were predictably nimble in exploiting online anti-child abuse, and exploitation networks online to grow their impact, more novel has been the intersection of lifestyle and wellness, violent extremist and conspiracy networks that became entangled through shared online hashtags and narratives.
Dis- and misinformation campaigns are designed to attack and undermine democratic systems and institutions, enhance social and political polarisation, destablise truth consensus and accelerate violent civil unrest
In Australia, for example, the notorious former chef and dietary wellness influencer, Pete Evans, posted the neo-Nazi sonnenrad or ‘black sun’ swastika – an ancient symbol appropriated by the Nazis to signal the rebirth of Aryanism – to his Instagram account. Other wellness influencers have energetically sought to monetise the surge of interest in anti-authority conspiracies by promoting product-based resistance to public health measures.
The weaponisation of COVID-19
In many ways, the promotion of conspiracies and disinformation can itself be understood as a form of attack. Dis- and misinformation campaigns are designed to attack and undermine democratic systems and institutions, enhance social and political polarisation, destablise truth consensus and accelerate violent civil unrest.
For such campaigns, the pandemic was a gift, swiftly weaponised and deployed by those who seek to escalate violent conflict – for example, by encouraging followers to deliberately spread COVID-19 disinformation as a means of hastening the collapse of civilisation or the elimination of hated ‘others’.
These efforts have been significantly aided by the ways in which the physical social isolation imposed by public health efforts to mitigate pandemic risks has been offset by increased online social engagement, as people seek to maintain both social connection and access to sense-making information that helps organise their experience of social chaos and upheaval.
This is particularly the case for young people, who are arguably bearing a disproportionate pandemic-related burden in terms of disrupted schooling, dwindling or precarious employment, isolation from face-to-face culturally diversified social settings, and mental health and housing challenges. Under these circumstances, the vulnerability of young people – already a generation of digital natives – to the online social harms of violent extremist conspiratorial ideology can become acute.
COVID-19 and extremist ideologies
But are these impacts likely to be acute or chronic? Will the cessation or moderation of the pandemic, driven by increased global vaccination rates and the restoring of individual liberties and movement, see extremist conspiracy take-up subside? Or will the longer-term social, economic and political impacts of the pandemic, which may well outlast the immediate public health crisis, provide fertile ground for continuing political and social polarisation that extremists can channel toward violent action?
While we may not be able to answer these questions yet, we need to be prepared for both scenarios. A key response for policymakers is to recognise and address the role that conspiratorial thinking plays in processes of radicalisation, the emergence of conspiracist movements as critical extremist actors, and whether strategies for inoculating against conspiracist-extremist appeals might be effective.
This needs to become part of but also go beyond the strategies and programmes deployed for preventing violent extremism. Policies that redress the post-truth environment in which conspiracist thinking flourishes, the economic inequalities that fuel its potency, the social divisions that nurture its narratives, and the technological affordances that drive its dissemination are all critical areas of investment in mitigating how COVID-19 can be weaponised by violent extremist movements.
*A version of this article was published in July 2021 in the CREST Security Review,
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