LONDON: Extreme Islamist and far-right content on social media increased markedly during the COVID-19 lockdown period between April and July this year, according to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index.
“It should be no surprise … to see extremists of all stripes, including far-right and jihadist groups, opportunistically using the ongoing pandemic to advance their movements and ideologies,” Milo Comerford of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) wrote in the report, which is published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
“A range of malign actors have been using COVID-19 as a ‘wedge issue’ to promote conspiracy theories, target minority communities and outsider groups, contest government legitimacy, and call for extreme violence,” Comerford continued.
Although the report does not include hard data from the first wave of lockdowns across the world, provisional data suggests that “while the pandemic has reduced overall terrorist activity, in many countries there has been little impact.”
The report shows that administrators of pro-Daesh pages on Facebook have used a number of strategies to evade being banned or removed, including content masking, coordinated ‘raids’ and hijacking hashtags.
“Pandemic-related ISIS content tracked by ISD researchers generated over half a million views, and we have even seen the strategic use of paid ads to spread ISIS content and attempt to drown out other COVID-19-related posts,” Comerford wrote, referring to the extremist group by its English acronym.
The report also states that hundreds of extreme far-right groups saw a rise in membership during lockdown. One white-supremacist channel drew more than 6,000 new users in March alone.
“(Social media) has provided a means for extremists — including those from the far right — to challenge mainstream messaging and promulgate twisted perversions of the truth, to amplify conspiracy theories, and spread sickening and divisive images, messages and themes intended to stoke anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, and racism, as well as distrust in systems of government and governance,” UK Security Minister James Brokenshire said during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on Thursday. “Terrorism, in whatever form, seeks to divide us and undermine our shared values.”
Figures released on Thursday by the UK Home Office showed a rise in the number of people referred to its counter-extremism program for the first time in four years.
The data showed that 3,203 of a total 6,287 referrals were for individuals with a mixed, unstable or unclear ideology, and that 1,487 referrals were related to Islamist radicalization, and 1,387 related to right-wing radicalization.
“The opportunities for mobilization represented by COVID-19 has helped catalyze these increasingly disparate and diverse violent extremism challenges,” Comerford wrote.
“The trends indicated by the Global Terrorism Index, and confirmed by extremist mobilization during COVID-19, show the need to understand the rapidly changing manifestations and organizing principles of violent extremism.”