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The Potential Effects of COVID-19 on Radicalisation to Violent Extremism

The Potential Effects of COVID-19 on Radicalisation to Violent Extremism
21st September 2021 Dr. Garth Davies

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the newly discovered coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to be a pandemic. COVID-19 has upended virtually every aspect of life around the world. One of the immediate implications of the pandemic was a significant increase in the amount of time individuals spent online. It will take some time to fully realise the effects of this spike in activity. But it was immediately evident that radicalisation to violent extremism (RVE) could be effected. In the western world, the online milieu now dominates recruitment efforts, and online platforms have become central to the mobilisation of extremist groups. Engagement in forums affords extremist groups the opportunity to bring adherents, fence-sitters, or the merely curious further into the fold and increase radicalisation. The purpose of this study was to present the results of preliminary analyses of how the pandemic influenced posting behaviour across a range of extremist platforms.

Methods

Due to the nature of the pandemic, it is reasonable to hypothesize that, in relation to RVE, its effects are primarily online. For this reason, the study focused on the online impact of the pandemic. The first task was to select appropriate online sites. To maintain complete transparency, only forums that were open to the public were eligible for selection. To examine the wide diversity of extremism, forums were divided into four broad ideological categories: far-right, far-left, incels, and jihadist. For the jihadists, the search was limited to English language discussion boards. Finally, forums were selected based on their ‘popularity’ (i.e., level of posting) and/or representativeness. This process ultimately produced a list of seven forums: two far right, two incel, two jihadist, and one left-wing.

After the forums were identified, the next step was to extract the data (i.e., all of the posts) for analysis. This was done via the Terrorism and Extremism Network Extractor (TENE). TENE is a fully customizable Internet crawler.  To force uniformity, and with it, comparability, the time frame used for all analyses was 1 January 2020 to 21 April 2020. To assess the impact of the pandemic, the study employed a standard before and after interrupted time series design. The demarcation line between the before and after was specified as 11 March 2000, the date WHO officially declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. The relatively short follow-up period, coupled with the high level of variability in trends across most forums, require a certain modesty in the interpretation of the results.

This preliminary analysis of the forum data revolves around changes in online posting behavior: specifically, the aggregate numbers of daily posts. This measure was taken as evidence of the level of interest and engagement in the discourse occurring on that forum. More to the point, an increase in the daily number of posts following 11 March 2020 was assumed to be indicative of an increase in overall intensity, and therefore, an increase in the potential for radicalisation on that forum. Aggregate counts of posts are not an ideal proxy for online engagement or the potential for radicalisation. They do, however, offer useful preliminary indications of posting behaviour. Subsequent analyses will need to supplement the results presented here with further analytic approaches, including qualitative assessments, sentiment analysis, and quantitative text analysis.

A common way to evaluate interrupted time series data is segmented regression analysis. Among the several advantages of this technique is that it is not overly technical and is open to fairly straightforward interpretation. In relation to each forum, it allowed us to answer the following questions:

  1. After COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, was there a change in the trajectory of posting behaviour?
  2. Is there a difference in the mean number of daily posts before and after the pandemic officially began?

Results and Discussion

The results of the segmented regression analyses revealed significant increases in the trajectories of posting behaviors on the incels forum. At the same time, the average level of posts in the period following 11 March 2000 was notably higher for both of the right-wing forums, Stormfront and Free Republic. In contrast, no significant immediate changes were noted for either of the jihadist forums, or the left-wing forum. That the onset of the pandemic had the greatest impact on the far-right was not unexpected, given that the far-right was, and remains, uniquely positioned to exploit the pandemic. First, at the heart of the discourse surrounding COVID-19 are a number of issues that are well treaded territory, touching on many of the buzzword bingo issues for the far-right. For example, distrust of government has always been a central tenet of right-wing extremists. A novel virus is fertile ground for speculation regarding sinister governmental motives. A related concern for the far-right is the fear of government overreach. The shutdowns and strict social distancing rules put in place during the (first) peak of the pandemic were taken by the right as proof that the government was merely using the coronavirus as a camouflaged means of controlling the population. Another long established far-right trope is the demonisation of ‘foreigners’. This practice can be seen from attempts to attach labels implying blameworthiness to COVID-19 (i.e., Wuhan Virus, China Virus, &, most odiously, Kung Flu) to attacks on persons of Chinese (or more generally Asian) appearance.

A second advantage the far-right holds in utilising the pandemic is its well-established history and practice of exploiting crises and sowing discontent: this has long been the bread and butter of the far-right. The far-right received the coronavirus pandemic in much the same manner as any other event: with disinformation, conspiracies and scapegoating. Many regarded it as a significant opportunity to energise followers and attract new recruits. Not only have right-wing extremists been developing this playbook for a very long time, they were among the first groups to fully embrace the potential for online radicalisation and recruitment. More generally, in a climate of fear and distrust, the far-right is in the best position to harness anti-government resentment. They are able to say to followers and prospective recruits: “See, we were right! We told you so!”

Finally, the far-right was aided and abetted by former President Trump, who routinely played to the far-right members of his political base. Many of his talking points about, and responses to, the coronavirus echoed those promoted by the far-right, further energising their efforts. From the start of the pandemic, the US president downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, arguing that it was equivalent to a minor flu and that it would be over soon. This provided the basis for those who characterised the disease as a hoax. He bolstered scapegoating efforts by singularly referring to COVID-19 as the China Virus. Furthermore, he explicitly belittled and ignored the conclusions and advice from health experts and scientists, casting aspersions on both. He advocated treatments that range from the questionable (hydroxychloroquine) to the potentially fatal (ingestion of disinfectants). Overall, he was instrumental in ‘muddying the waters’ and creating a context within which disinformation thrives. Such narratives also helped spark the ‘freedom movement’ protests.

In addition to highlighting the far-right, the results also demonstrate the growing potential of the threat from incel extremists, who were able to adapt their rhetoric to fit with the pandemic. For example, the increased traffic on incel forums may have partly reflect a certain schadenfreude. During the initial lockdown phase of pandemic, incels took delight in the fact that ‘attractive people’ and ‘normies’ were unable to have sex. Many posts on these forums regard the coronavirus as karma for having casual sex. Moreover, members of these forums sought to use the need for self-isolation and social distancing as a validation of their lifestyle. Finally, incels took pleasure in the wearing of masks, which they regarded as a sort of ‘equalizing force’, making it hard to distinguish ‘perfect tens’ from others who may be less attractive. Thus, like right-wing extremists, the incel movement attempted to exploit the pandemic for the purposes of recruitment and radicalisation.

Of course, the immediate effects of the pandemic were not uniform across the ideological spectrum. Although jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, have been active throughout the pandemic (e.g., continued to commit attacks, tried to inspire/provoke attacks, and attempted to incorporate COVID-19 into their fundamentalist narratives), the influence of the pandemic on the English-based jihadi forums studied here proved to be negligible. This is not to suggest that jihadist groups are no longer a threat, or even a diminished threat; particularly now, when jihadism has been pushed off the front pages by other events, most notably the pandemic and protests motivated by various social justice movements. Jihadist groups have proved to be remarkably resilient in the past. But at this time, the large-scale attacks that have been their calling cards for recruitment and radicalisation have been particularly difficult: physical movement has been curtailed; people tend not to congregate in groups; and there is an absence of dramatic large (but soft) targets, such as sporting events and concerts. Of course, at the height of their influence, jihadist groups were also dynamic forces on the Internet. It is difficult to believe that they have abandoned even the English language aspect of their recruitment and radicalisation operations. Still, if the pandemic has had an impact on jihadi messaging in the West, it has occurred on more private and secure platforms than those examined in this research.

In a similar vein, there is no evidence that the pandemic influenced posting behaviour on a well-known left-wing forum. In comparison with the far-right, there are relatively few open access left-wing forums that can even remotely be considered to be extreme. There is, for example, no open access forum for Antifa. Again, all of the provisos are valid here: the extreme left may simply be operating on different platforms or in different spaces. But given the success the far-right has had in generating interest in the movement (not to mention recruitment) on the open Internet, the reasons for the relative absence of far-left forums remain unclear.

There is heated debate over whether or not a fabled ‘turning point’ in history is occurring, but that can only be adjudicated in time. At present, what can be said is the pandemic caused by COVID-19 has been exploited by some groups, most notably right-wing extremists and the incel movement, to bolster their causes.