The radical right is weaponising COVID-19 online

1st May 2020 / United Kingdom
The radical right is weaponising COVID-19 online

By Bethan Johnson: In the last four months, Coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread across every populated continent and infected more than two million people, with estimates of many more to come. More than just a tragic outbreak of an infectious disease, COVID-19 is proving to be something of a social and political Rorschach Test.

Before movement restrictions came into effect, in multiple cities in the UK, for example, several Britons were arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated assault, beating and attacking members of the Asian community, these representing just the horrible tip of an iceberg that includes unreported crimes and other forms of race-based discrimination against members of the Asian diaspora in the UK.

Beyond even these responses are those of the extreme radical right. On the one hand, reports have emerged from the US about the foiled attempt to literally weaponise COVID-19 by a neo-Nazi group. On the other is the rhetorical weaponising of COVID-19 online. From mainstream websites including YouTube and Twitter, to more specialist platforms such as Gab and Wire, extreme content has been flooding in about COVID-19, using it as a topical mechanism for reiterating racist and anti-state narratives essential to extremist ideologies. We can know that this is happening by simply believing what known members of the extreme right-wing are saying about their take on COVID-19, statements about “how we use this story,” or admissions that “it does look like the kind of event that’ll benefit people like ourselves.”


What is actually happening is the rhetorical weaponising of COVID-19 online

Much of the content, for example, blames the outbreak on Chinese food standards and practices. This line of thinking is then expanded to more general commentary on the perceived brutality of Chinese food practices as compared to those in western or ‘white’ countries, an argument still further broadened to present the nature of western standards and values as antithetical to ‘foreign’ ones.

Those, meanwhile, unwilling to draw links between COVID-19 and its origins in China or Chinese culture are accused of pushing a ‘PC’ or an anti-white agenda, with one YouTube channel stating: “Just as the globalist left is indifferent to the suffering of white children in order to keep their diversity nightmare alive, so are they indifferent to the consequences for global health of not telling the truth about non-white cultures. It’s typical leftist madness, but this time it’s deadly leftist madness.”

Given travel’s role in COVID-19’s global transmission, commentators also extrapolate that homogenous nation-states with hard borders would prevent crises such as this (or those in the future, they also warn), or otherwise link/blame migrants and non-white communities, multiculturalism, or current thinking on borders and diversity with the virus. The triggering of closed borders, meanwhile, is described as a positive for society, as well as a victory of nationalists. “We have to frankly be shameless as in using the coronavirus as a reason to advocate against mass immigration,” YouTuber Millennial Woes explained in an AMA.

These strands combine to create a harmful meta-narrative for the extreme right, feeding into all the parts of human nature that seek to explain that which we do not understand or cannot control. The content gives audiences people and policies to blame—in the form of non-white people and pro-immigration politicians—and actions to take, i.e. to embrace extremist ideas and join an extreme right-wing group that will fight to end the globalised multicultural order.

The narrative is proving troublingly popular. Beyond positive responses to extremists’ content on COVID-19, a basic analysis of the number of views of videos about COVID-19 often have as many if not more views (often in the thousands or tens of thousands) than videos posted on other topics previously, or those posted around the same time that are not about COVID-19.

The issue of the rapid consumption of extremist content speaks to the other serious threat this pandemic poses to the fabric of our society. Isolation and social distancing not only grant those already radicalised more time to connect with one another, to plan and prepare propaganda or future attacks, they also allow new people to be indoctrinated as they consume easy to access extremist content online, with COVID-19 content as their gateway.


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Isolation and social distancing not only grant those already radicalised more time to connect with one another, they also allow new people to be indoctrinated


While not all those who encounter COVID-19-related extremist pieces will take the next step along the path of radicalisation, some will. Given all that we do not know about COVID-19 and all that we fear, people’s concerns leave them vulnerable to internalising racists’ messages about the inferiority of non-white cultures and the threat of multiculturalism to western lives. Experientially, radicalisation online appears to be most true with young people, whose knowledge of the internet, desire for answers, and continuing journey of self-discovery combine to leave them most amenable to radical content, a reality that extremist groups cater to online.

Meanwhile, by closing schools and essentially halting community interactions, we are necessarily having to cut off a critical element in combating the spread and acceptance of racist messages: a robust, real-life counter-narrative to racist rhetoric. Isolated at home, people are not so able to have stereotypical narratives or caricatures exposed as divorced from reality, to see the richness we gain from living in a diverse society.

In these unsettling weeks ahead, there are things to be done to prevent radicalisation during our time of social distancing. Social media platforms need to monitor content not only for false medical information, but for radical racist content.

But we too, as individuals, need to be critical consumers and disseminators of news. We should think about how we pass our time in isolation, particularly if there are young people in our homes, to prevent ourselves from being caught up in hate-filled narratives and sucked into the rabbit-hole of extremist content online. With concerns about a global pandemic, adding to it worries about racism and radicalisation may feel too much to bear. However, this is something we have to consider and be vigilant against, as we are also at a critical moment in the long-term psychological health of our nation.


Bethan Johnson is a Researcher Fellow at CARR and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, where her doctoral research examines the intellectual underpinnings of violent sub-state nationalisms in the Cold War West. This article was also published at openDemocracy


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