Neo-Nazis and far-right activists have been telling followers to “deliberately infect” Jews and Muslims with coronavirus, a UK government counterterrorism agency warned on Thursday, as extremists attempt to capitalize on the pandemic.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s Commission for Countering Extremism said it has received increasing reports of far-right, far-left and Islamist extremists exploiting the crisis to promote divisive, xenophobic and racist narratives “to sow division” and create social discord.
The commission said it had heard reports of misinformation and harmful propaganda across the ideological spectrum: Islamist groups were “propagating anti-democratic and anti-Western narratives,” claiming that Covid-19 is divine punishment on the West for alleged “degeneracy,” or punishment on China for the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
“We have heard reports of British Far Right activists and Neo-Nazi groups promoting anti-minority narratives by encouraging users to deliberately infect groups, including Jewish communities,” the report warned.
Other conspiracy theories included one that suggested that the virus was part of a “Jewish plot,” or that 5G was linked to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, far-right politicians and news organizations have used the virus “to push forward their anti-immigrant and populist message,” the report said, warning that the prevalence of such content normalizes hatred towards ethnic, racial and religious communities.
Concerns were also raised that lockdown could lead to people becoming more susceptible to radicalization and grooming.
In June, Chief Superintendent Nik Adams, the national coordinator for the UK’s Prevent counterterrorism program warned that some vulnerable people will be “drawn towards terrorist activity,” as schools, mental health services and public health services are hit by the pandemic.
The commission also cautioned that baseless conspiracy theories and misinformation were largely being spread online – one fake social media post about Muslims breaching lockdown was shared 2,700 times, the report found.
A study cited by the report found that some 90% of posts containing misinformation were not acted on by social media companies, even after being flagged by volunteers.
“The pandemic has not discouraged extremists from propagating their hateful ideologies,” lead commissioner Sara Khan said in a statement.
“They have, as is always the case in a crisis, fully exploited the lockdown to promote dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation, most notably online.”
Khan said extremists seek to “mainstream” their narratives “for the sole purpose of inciting hatred, violence, public disorder and a breakdown in community cohesion.”
She cited the way extremists discussed the 5G conspiracy theory on fringe social media platforms such as Telegram, with 50 masts being targeted and vandalized in April.
The commission called for the government to include “clear plans” to counter extremism during the coronavirus pandemic and in future crises, and for a new counter-extremism strategy – with details of how to tackle extremism locally – to be published.