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The Coronavirus as a Means to an End: Extremist Reinterpretations of the Pandemic

The Coronavirus as a Means to an End: Extremist Reinterpretations of the Pandemic
8th April 2020 Manjana Sold

Various aspects of society and everyday life have become affected by the clampdown on the Coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions enforced to prevent it from spreading. While the spread of COVID-19 continues to be fought and researched under extreme pressure, many uncertainties remain regarding its origin and the social, political and economic consequences. These uncertainties are easily exploited by extremists such as right-wing and Islamist extremists. The spread of the Coronavirus is thus accompanied by the propagation of extremists’ discourses. Within a short period of time, they reach thousands of people – not only but especially via social media. 

Similar to mainstream actors, extremist groups refer to the virus on an “everyday basis” and provide practical instructions and guidance: In a recent issue of the Islamic States’ newsletter al-Naba, the group presented warnings and practical guidelines for its supporters in the context of the Coronavirus outbreak. The newsletter offered an infographic and a list of “Shari’i directives to deal with epidemics”. Advice included staying away from infected persons, banning ill people from travelling, as well as guidance on proper etiquette for sneezing and hand-washing. Above all, the directive stresses to believe and trust in God and seeking refuge in faith during the outbreak. Consequently, it should be noted that not all narratives expounded by extremist groups can be characterized as extremist. The illustrated tips, for instance, are very similar to those issued by the World Health Organization.

However, by using the virus to perpetuate their radical online discourses, extremists of all stripes have been trying to reframe the current global health crisis according to their purposes. In order to adequately react and strengthen societal cohesion, it is necessary to have a closer look at these discourses. In the following, we show how right-wing extremists and radical Islamists are currently propagating narratives and build upon reinterpretations and the discursive appropriation of the virus which frame the disease as both a blessing and as a curse. It is noticeable that some of the narratives, however, overlap with other extremists’ and even mainstream discourses.

The virus as a miracle weapon and soldier

Comparing the communication of right-wing and radical Islamist individuals and groups, one can observe that both interpret the outbreak positively to an extent. In this sense, right-wing extremists or populists welcome the general consequences of the Coronavirus, falsely claiming that it will be mainly fatal to women and foreigners. The global pandemic is read as a potential first step towards World War Three, with fantasies about the virus possibly being used to specifically kill “nonwhite” people, Jews, police officers or other members of law enforcement agencies.

“Positive” interpretations are also found in radical Islamist discourses: In Islamic States’ mid-March al-Naba newsletter, the group praised the disease and the widespread death and terror of the global outbreak as divine work. On a similar note, Islamic State supporters refer to the Coronavirus as a “Soldier of Allah”, bringing just punishment and “torment on the disbelievers” and on “Crusader nations”. The outbreak of the Coronavirus in China is often seen as a punishment for persecuting Muslim Uighurs. The virus’ severity in Iran is also interpreted as a punishment, as the Islamic State considers Shiites to have deviated from the “true” faith. According to both extremist worldviews, the virus thus has positive properties. Consequently, both right-wing and radical Islamist groups feel that the disease’s effects are at least partially aiding their causes. At the same time, both groups also use(d) the virus to strike fear amongst their enemies.

The virus as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories

In right-wing extremist circles, the Coronavirus is intensively discussed and used to spread panic and revive political demands such as the closure of borders in an attempt to spread right-wing ideology and tropes within society. Right-wing actors have fed conspiracy theories on how the virus was designed to have a demographic impact or to spark the Apocalypse. In other cases, the very existence of the virus is questioned. According to another prominent conspiracy theory spread by white supremacists, the Coronavirus is a bioweapon that was developed in the laboratories of large corporations in order to initiate compulsory vaccination. Furthermore, a vaccine is falsely claimed to contain mercury and metallic nanoparticles as well as cancer cells and could, according to right-wing dogmatists, be used to enslave humanity. Committed vaccination opponents often argue in the same way, which shows the connectivity of this argument.

Radical Islamists’ reinterpretations differ regarding their starting points, but reach similar conclusions: The Coronavirus is interpreted as a divine punishment for human sins, as diseases would only spread at Allah’s will. Relatedly, some jihadist commanders even warn of an Iranian deployment of infected people as biological weapons against rebels in Syria. Additionally, the Rothschild family or a “Zionist lobby” – common anti-Semitic tropes – are accused of a possible weaponization of the virus. Interestingly, “performing jihad” is seen as “the best guarantee of protecting yourself from the epidemic”.

Same same but different?

The illustrated mechanisms and figures of appropriation of right-wing extremists and radical Islamists with regard to the Coronavirus bear similarities – the virus is interpreted both positively and negatively, preexisting enemy images are strengthened, fake news and conspiracy theories are disseminated. Yet, there are also differences, as the groups might differ in their vulnerability: Whereas the further development of the pandemic is still uncertain, terrorist groups may be particularly susceptible if they cannot rely on functioning healthcare systems in a nation-state. Looking at for instance Western-based right-wing and Middle Eastern jihadist groups, it needs to be taken into account that the Coronavirus has mainly affected Western European countries so far, whereas it has not yet had the same impact in most of the Islamic world (with the exception of Iran). This difference sooner or later will be reflected in their communication.

Fostering social cohesion and confronting extremist narratives

Generally, the observation that extremists of all stripes discursively link the Coronavirus to their respective agendas is not surprising. Additionally, and as we indicated earlier, not all of the narratives expounded by extremist groups are to be characterized as extremist. Nevertheless, if one likes a specific post or content on a social media platform, then – due to algorithms – similar contents of different users or further posts of the same profile show up. As a consequence, by liking content, it is easy to unintentionally enter into more radical circles. It seems probable that this process is influenced by the pandemic: Due to the widespread clampdown of public life, a major part of social interaction shifts to the virtual world. Consequently, people might spend more time on social media and are confronted with narratives of all kinds. Related to this, self-isolation is feared to possibly raise the individual vulnerability to extremist narratives and expedite the spread of extremism, especially via the internet.

Conspiracy theories and misinformation, which currently mainly spread via the Internet, can harm the relationship between citizens and their governments, especially in extraordinary and uncertain times. Social divisions – which are currently particularly visible – are an ideal breeding ground for hatred and violence, and can easily be exploited by extremists. As Chelsea Daymon states, extremists make use of “current events for their own propaganda purposes” and to attract more attention. Each of their narratives carries the danger of creating or widening existing rifts within societies. It is thus essential to be aware of the need to protect societies from extremists and their views and to face the specific risks that emanate not only, but especially from extremists in these times. For example, it was pointed out that “misinformation and conspiracy theories can have deadly consequences”. And in fact, for instance xenophobic attacks towards people of Asian or Italian descent are already occurring. It is likely that extremists will use the Corona pandemic to justify further (racist) violence. Besides, another risk is that they use the current global health crisis as an occasion to sprawl their ideology – and that is why we need to confront not only the spread of the virus itself, but its exploitation by extremists of all kinds. One way to address extremists in digital spaces is to introduce counter-speech or alternative narratives. In times like these, social cohesion must be more determined than ever.

This insight has been published as well as part of the PRIF blog series “Corona Crises” []