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How extremists are exploiting the pandemic

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Commissioner opinion, Latest news, Opinion and analysis
Picture of Lead Commissioner Sara Khan
Lead Commissioner, Sarah Khan

We’ve published a report today, looking at the way in which extremists have sought to exploit the current pandemic. My Commission has pulled together research from various areas, to get an overall picture of the extremist threat during the pandemic. We found that hateful extremists have used divisive, xenophobic and racist narratives to sow division and undermine the social fabric of our country. Unless the government urgently invests in counter extremism work, extremists will seek to capitalise on the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 to cause further long-term instability, fear and division in Britain.

Groups from the Far Right to the Far Left and Islamist groups have fully exploited the lockdown to promote dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation, most notably online. We have already seen how extremists discussed the 5G conspiracy theory on fringe social media platforms such as Telegram. In April 50 5G masts were targeted for arson and vandalism in the UK.

In our report we’ve drawn attention to a variety of conspiracy theories that have been spread by groups across all spectrums. The impact of extremist propaganda and disinformation to our democracy cannot be overstated. These conspiracy theories are harmful, dangerous and are used by extremists to cause division and breed hate. This is why I have called on policy makers to develop a system to classify dangerous conspiracy theories based on the harm they cause. This will help practitioners and social media platforms better challenge harmful conspiracy theories before they escalate.

The Government also have to work closely with local authorities to understand and develop a strategy to deal with local extremist trends. For example, by understanding and countering anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, the Government will be better placed to ensure there is sufficient uptake of any future vaccinations.

In addition to classifying dangerous conspiracy theories, we have also made the following recommendations to Government:

  • A commitment to ensure hateful extremism falls within the remit of the new online harms regulator and that existing laws on inciting hatred are enforced online.
  • A call for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to drive forward a COVID-19 cohesion strategy to help bring different communities together to prevent extremist narratives from having significant reach and influence.
  • A new counter-extremism strategy must include an assessment of how extremism manifests locally, the harm it causes, the scale of support for extremist narratives and how best to pre-empt extremist activity. This should also include assessing who is most susceptible to extremist narratives, in order to deliver vital interventions to engage and support these people.
  • For the Government to work closely with local authorities to understand and develop bespoke support and interventions to pre-empt and deal with extremist activity.

We need to be on the front foot to counter the activity of hateful extremists who seek to divide and undermine everything our country stands for; and we must begin work on it now.

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