As the world continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, there is increased concern that the situation will give rise to more people being drawn into extremism. The closure of schools and youth groups has meant the closure of support networks for young people, isolation from friendship groups and increased use of the internet, often unsupervised. Those adults trained to identify the possible risk indicators of a young person being drawn into extremism – teachers, healthcare staff and social workers – are no longer spending as much time with the young people in their care. With fewer people to identify the risks and with the knowledge of where and how to access support, it is no surprise that there has been a decline in Prevent referrals since the beginning of lockdown in March (Jones, 2020).
Young people’s vulnerability to the messaging of extremist groups is further exacerbated by the fear and uncertainty the pandemic has brought to their lives. In March, young people’s texting service Shout reported that 25% of the messages they received were now about coronavirus and research by YoungMinds found that the pandemic has had a profound effect on the mental health of those under 25 with pre-existing mental health conditions (Venema, 2020).
To add to the concerns, extremist groups are actively exploiting the vulnerabilities of young people and the pandemic in general. Islamist extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State have used their propaganda vehicles to call for a change of venue for attacks, suggesting attacks on hospitals treating COVID-19 patients would have a greater impact at the moment, hoping to take advantage of over-burdened security forces and vulnerable health care systems. In addition, both extremist groups have suggested that coronavirus is ‘the wrath of Allah’ and damage to Western governments and economies should be celebrated (EPC, 2020). Al Qaeda publications are encouraging non-Muslims to use this time as an opportunity to learn more about their extreme interpretation of Islam (EPC, 2020) and it is thought that rising unemployment, strict quarantine measures and lockdown fatigue are key ingredients for online grooming tactics. While little is yet known about the full motivations behind Khairi Saadallah’s murder of three men in Reading in June, investigations are taking place to determine whether he was influenced by online material and whether this had taken place during the lockdown period (Sengupta & Dearden, 2020).
Far-right groups suggest that governments are using the pandemic to divert people’s attention away from migration issues, have blamed ethnic minority communities for the spread of the disease (EPC, 2020), and have celebrated reports of disproportionately high numbers of black and ethnic minority people dying from coronavirus in the UK (Dearden, 2020). The Commission for Countering Extremism has recently found that far-right activists and neo-Nazi groups are encouraging followers to deliberately infect Jewish people and Muslims with coronavirus (Dearden, 2020).
Conspiracy theories such as China or the US being to blame for coronavirus, or that the pandemic is a hoax created by governments have been utilised and perpetuated by far-right groups. The newly formed UK Freedom Movement attempted to instigate mass protests against lockdown, their stance against which has been fuelled by their distrust of traditional media outlets and the government. Leaders used social media platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram to encourage people to join their protest (Sabbagh, 2020). Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that traffic to far-right sites has grown. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue has reported that the user base of an international white supremacist Telegram channel focussing on coronavirus grew from 300 to 2,700 people in a month (Sabbagh, 2020).
However, it is important to acknowledge that young people can stumble across information on mainstream internet and social media sites without actively seeking it. YouTube is now young people’s most popular source of news and young people now watch more YouTube than live television (BBC, 2019). This, combined with the knowledge that YouTube algorithms recommend increasingly more alternative and extreme videos the longer the user watches, which is exacerbated in turn by videos autoplaying one after another, means that it is hard to deny YouTube’s role in young people being drawn into extremism. And while some social media sites are working hard to remove extreme content when it is uploaded, the pandemic has generated a flurry of misinformation which has been hard to keep up with. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate has recently found that social media platforms are removing less than one in 10 posts spreading misinformation about coronavirus, including far-right and Islamist extremist conspiracy theories (Dearden, 2020 (2)).
The far-right have also utilised the recent outrage at the murder of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests to propagate white supremacist narratives online. Police forces have confirmed that there has been a rise in political activity in direct response to the Black Lives Matter protests (Townsend, 2020). In June a Burnley FC supporter, who had previously been pictured with the English Defence League’s Tommy Robinson, flew a plane with the banner ‘White Lives Matter’ over a Premier League match. The far-right have also conducted counter-demonstrations to the Black Lives Matter protests, encouraging people to join them by perpetuating ideas that their identity is under threat, stirring up community tensions and providing drink and adrenaline at a time when young people have not been able to socialise.
While police, security forces and schools remain resolute in their fight against radicalisation and extremism, this upsurge comes at a time when authorities are already under immense pressure. Official guidance suggests that if someone has a concern about a young person being at risk, they should visit the Let’s Talk About It website for more information and help. Some other useful websites are below:
- Childline: www.childline.org.uk/info-advice/your-feelings/anxiety-stress-panic/worries-about-the-world
- Educate against Hate: educateagainsthate.com/
- NSPCC: www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/online-safety
- Parent Info: https://parentinfo.org/
- ParentZone: www.parentzone.org.uk
- Thinkuknow: www.thinkuknow.co.uk/
- UK Safer Internet Centre: www.saferinternet.org.uk
- MyTutor for parents, ‘The Screen Time Diet: helping your teen find the balance with tech’: https://www.mytutor.co.uk/blog/the-screen-time-diet-helping-your-teen-find-the-balance-with-tech/
In addition, EqualiTeach has put together an e-learning course to help people understand the threat of far-right extremism, providing knowledge, skills and confidence to support people to understand what extremist groups to look out for, how they recruit online, what the possible indicators of someone being drawn into extremism are and how to access advice and support.
‘Protecting Young People from Radicalisation and Far-Right Extremism’ is accessible here: https://elearning.equaliteach.co.uk/courses/Protecting-Young-People-from-Radicalisation-and-Far-Right-Extremism
We also have an e-learning course which supports parents/carers to help children and young people to think critically about fake news and prejudice, accessible free of charge here: https://elearning.equaliteach.co.uk/courses/helping-children-to-think-critically-about-fake-news-and-prejudice
Please contact EqualiTeach to find out more about the consultancy services, workshops and training that we provide to further safeguard young people from the harms of extremism: Rachel Elgy, Business Development Manager: email@example.com
European Policy Centre (2020) In Chaos they thrive: The resurgence of extremist and terrorist groups. http://www.epc.eu/en/Publications/In-chaos-they-thrive-The-resurgence-of-extremist-and-terrorist-group~32c800
Sengupta, K and Dearden, L (2020) in The Independent. Reading Terror Attack: Libyan Suspect May Have Considered travelling Abroad to Join Islamist Group, Security Sources Say. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/khairi-saadallah-uk-police-terrorism-isis-prevent-a9578031.html
Jones, H (2020) in Metro. Fears that lockdown is increasing online radicalisation amongst young people https://metro.co.uk/2020/05/13/fears-lockdown-increasing-online-radicalisation-among-young-people-12698499/
Venema, V (2020) BBC. Coronavirus: ‘It’s just anxiety, anxiety, anxiety’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-52110460
Dearden, L (2020) in The Independent. Neo-Nazis telling followers to ‘deliberately infect’ Jews and Muslims with coronavirus, report warns https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/neo-nazis-coronavirus-jews-muslims-racism-antisemitism-islamophobia-a9608851.html
Sabbagh, D (2020) in The Guardian. Police vow to break up two anti-lockdown protests in UK cities. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/may/14/police-vow-to-break-up-planned-anti-lockdown-protests-in-uk-cities
BBC (2019) YouTube is most-watched platform for young people, report says. https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/49261194
Dearden, L (2020) (2) in The Independent. Coronavirus: Social media firms only taking down one in 10 posts reported for ‘dangerous’ misinformation, research finds. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-social-media-misinformation-facebook-twitter-a9547446.html
Townsend, M (2020) in The Guardian. Far-right thugs exploit Black Lives Matter movement, warns UK anti-extremism chief. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/28/far-right-thugs-exploit-black-lives-matter-movement-warns-uk-anti-extremism-chief