On 24 July 2021 in Australia, against the backdrop of a city and state sinking further into crisis, a rally of thousands took place. The central concept was ‘freedom’. This was a local manifestation of global conspiracist efforts, with a small German group seeding a wave of rallies around the world via social media. In Australia, a growing handful of figureheads has emerged, some with concerning ties to violent extremism and cultic groups like QAnon.
The size of the rally, however, indicated that this central coordinating group of conspiracy theorists could not account for all present. Many others with more grounded concerns had evidently felt the need to have their frustrations heard. While Western countries have gone some way to mitigate material impacts of the pandemic, many are still suffering, and arguably everyone is dealing with an unprecedented level of uncertainty and powerlessness.
The otherwise-uninitiated bulk of participants at events such as the July rally are not only targets for recruitment by more experienced and organised conspiracy theorists. Neo-Nazis and other violent extremists have been active in exploiting the propaganda opportunities presented by COVID-19, honing in on issues such as the restriction of personal freedoms, and the associated disinformation and misinformation. The Australian National Socialist Network (NSN) has recently been subject to an extensive exposé which revealed the group’s ties to international terror groups and celebration of the Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant.
The NSN and its affiliates have spoken online about the recruitment potential of anti-lockdown actions, and in the violent demonstrations in Melbourne recently, white supremacist propaganda with QR codes leading to further material was distributed openly. Given the presence of elements such as this within the conspiracist milieu, it is prudent to understand and address the vulnerabilities of the wider populace before those issues are assimilated into extremist narratives.
Terror Management and COVID-19 Politics
A compelling analysis of the psychological effects of events such as pandemics is Terror Management Theory, which posits that people react to the “basic anxiety associated with the salience of death by increasing their adherence to affect-laden and identity grounded generalized beliefs (ideologies, religious credo, traditional values), usually based on the ingroup-outgroup polarization.” In other words, distressing situations tend to cause people to double down on their existing worldview as a source of stability. The specific ways this manifests can be beneficial or deeply pernicious.
A recent study has indicated some common psychological traits among COVID-19 non-compliers, some of which imply certain shared values. These traits include low-agreeableness, aversion to new experiences, extroversion, prioritising freedom and self-interest, perceiving their culture as tolerant to difference, less trust and engagement with official information sources, and unhealthy coping strategies. To the extent that these relatively new findings are reliable, they are potentially informative in terms of how to approach those at risk of influence by conspiracists or extremists. Forthcoming research has identified engagements on Telegram where fascists and neo-Nazis appeal to comparable traits and values to influence online conspiracist spaces.
Reframing Sacred Values
The term “Sacred Values” is used by cultural anthropologist and violent extremism scholar Scott Atran to describe motivating beliefs that are held to be inviolable, beyond negotiation and held apart from prospects of success or failure. The presence of Sacred Values is observed across places and cultures, bound up with peoples’ identities. They are powerful factors in both conflict and its resolution – the question is how to reframe them to serve the latter end.
Atran proposes a number of strategies to reframe Sacred Values. Doing so is never an easy task but the approach is potentially informative in countering appeals to these same values by harmful actors. One approach is to refine Sacred Values to exclude outmoded claims. In the example given by Atran, this involved two sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict both conceding that their narratives included historical inaccuracies. More generally it means building trust by admitting fallibility, and could involve establishment figures acknowledging that past words and actions mean sections of the population have good reason to distrust the government.
Another strategy is to exploit the inevitable ambiguity of Sacred Values. As previously mentioned, the recent anti-lockdown protests centred around the ambiguous concept of ‘freedom’. Unpacking and clarifying what this value actually means to different people might open up ways that this can be addressed and individuals more effectively supported.
While Sacred Values are held to be inviolable, it is possible to shift the context in which they apply. This need not appear disingenuous so long as the reasoning is sound, and may encourage an individual to provisionally prioritise some values over others. For instance, arguments may be made that immediate self-interest, in keeping healthy and safe, provisionally takes precedence over the exercise of personal freedom, or that the eventual reinstatement of that freedom necessitates increased engagement with official sources of information.
An important part of building trust and reframing values is to apologise for what you sincerely regret, however this is a fraught undertaking as if this is viewed as insincere it can exacerbate the issue. An acknowledgement that many people have been let down or hurt by aspects of the pandemic response may be appropriate in this sense, however the nature of the messenger needs to be carefully taken into account as politicians and media figures may already be too distrusted by many for such a gesture to be effective. Relatedly, it is essential to demonstrate respect where possible. Ways to do this include avoiding trying to bypass Sacred Values with money or other incentives, and find concessions that can be made that are symbolically important.
In many cases it may be possible to reframe responsibility. Measures such as lockdowns and the flow-on effects from those lockdowns are essentially caused by the virus – while the details may be debated, the pandemic necessitates government actions that change peoples’ lives immensely. This message may be lost on individuals who deny the reality of the virus, but effectively reminding many others who have been affected is a worthwhile pursuit. Measures may be necessary in support of the message, such as addressing misinformation, and the benefit will likely be lost if this reframing is used to excuse missteps that were in fact within the government’s control.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security notes that, with the advent of frequent lockdowns and restrictions on movement, extremists have unprecedented access to a home-based online audience for propaganda and grooming. They have also taken notice of the opportunities afforded to them by various discourses arising around COVID-19. Vast swathes of the Australian population are likely to be in various stages of lockdown for the rest of this year, and the situation is similar in many other places.
The psychological consequences of the circumstances thrust upon us may include some inspiring acts of generosity and solidarity. However our responses can just as easily manifest as polarisation, confusion, fear and conspiracism – mental states that are amenable to violent extremism. To counter this, it is crucial that people are supported as they make sense of the world and their society. To do this, it is necessary to understand what people need, both materially and in terms of values.