Extremists are using the coronavirus to radicalize and spread conspiracies online
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As cities and countries around the world take drastic steps to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus, extremist groups are trying to use the pandemic to radicalize people online.
According to a report released by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, "Supporters of domestic and international extremist groups have encouraged followers to conduct attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic to incite panic, target minorities and immigrants, and celebrate the deaths of their enemies."
Oren Segal, the vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, says the ADL has been monitoring how extremist groups have been weaponizing the outbreak for several months. "Extremists never miss an opportunity to leverage a crisis to amplify their agendas," Segal said. "Whether it's blaming Asians or Jews or others … that's just part of their fundamental ideology, is to blame others for world problems."
As the New Jersey report noted, it fits a familiar pattern: "In order to remain relevant, extremists routinely manipulate crises to validate their ideologies and incite potential attackers."
Already, Chinese-Americans and people of other Asian ethnicities have reported a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes and a disturbing rise in anti-Asian rhetoric connected to the virus.
"I think that the ease at which some people are referring to this as the Wuhan flu, Chinese virus or the 'Kung-Flu' is damaging," Segal said. "That is just casting doubt on a whole community and American Chinese and American Asian communities."
Segal says the goal of extremist groups is to feed off of the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that people are experiencing due to the crisis.
"People in desperate times embrace all sorts of ideas maybe they normally wouldn't in order to make themselves feel better," he said. "And that's what extremists are providing: somebody to blame."
Kieren Aris has been tracking how extremist groups have weaponized COVID-19 for Moonshot CVE, a London-based group that aims to disrupt and end violent extremism.
"Looking at the conversations that these people are having in their communities, they definitely are talking about how they use this crisis to draw people into their groups to recruit," Aris said.
Groups like white supremacists use moments of chaos as part of a theory called accelerationism — the idea that participating in mass attacks will accelerate the collapse of social structures and enable a rebuilding of society in the form of a racially pure nation.
"They are using this to justify how the liberal democratic order is not right and not working," Aris explained. "They see this crisis as an opportunity to bring about social chaos. That confusion is a fertile ground for people to be exploited and taken advantage of ... and those narratives tend to talk about duty or a call to action or a rallying cry to say we need to go out and spread this virus."
On online message boards known for trafficking in white supremacy, threads about the coronavirus include discussions about using the virus to target non-white communities. Hashtags like #sneezethenshake and #spreadcorona have emerged, as well as memes encouraging people who become infected to go to mosques and temples.
"They're talking about actively spreading the virus," Aris said, adding that "99.9 percent of those people are just sh**posting and taking advantage of the situation, but there are people who will look at that who are experiencing a lot of issues right now, they're facing loneliness, frustration, diminishing mental health, they're isolated, they may have economic concerns they may have lost their job. They could be looking at that and they could be feeling very frustrated and see that as something to give them a bit of purpose right now."
The online message boards have also become flooded with conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus. Aris, who has been monitoring sites like 4chan, 8kun and the messaging platform Telegram, says the conspiracy theories most prevalent on the sites tend to be anti-Semitic.
Segal says the Anti-Defamation League is concerned that this online rhetoric could lead to real-life harm.
"Conspiracy theories are the lifeblood of anti-Semitism," he told CBS News. "One of the key hallmarks of anti-Semitism over the years has been this concept that Jews control and manipulate world events at the expense of non-Jews. And so, whether it's war or it's a financial crisis or whether it's a global pandemic … anti-Semitism always pops up."
With businesses and schools largely shut down, Segal fears that more people spending time online will potentially be exposed to propaganda pushed by extremist groups.
"It's on gaming platforms, like Steam and Discord. I mean, it's on TikTok. It's everywhere," he said. "That's the thing we need to remember, as our kids are probably spending even more time on streams now because they are not in school — these are the same spaces where extremists operate."
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