Extremism in the time of COVID-19: Excerpt from a Bussola Institute Study
The impact of the COVID-19 upon the world in 2020 has been profound. Across the globe the day to day lives of people have changed dramatically and it is unlikely these changes will diminish anytime soon. There has been an extensive range of action taken in response to COVID such as stay at home orders, including working from home; limitations on movement within and between countries; limited access to various public and private services. These measures have had knock-on impacts such as a major downturn in economic activity, stressed supply chains, and disruptions to transport networks, amongst others. Both the threat posed by COVID-19 and the impact it has on our day to day lives appears set to continue for a considerable period of time.
Governments have taken extensive measures to protect populations and campaigns to inform the public on how to hinder the spread of the virus. These efforts have been delivered with varying levels of competence and success. A common feature in the measures to address the virus has been uncertainty. There is extensive uncertainty about the continuing impact and evolution of the virus and uncertainty about what measures work to counteract the virus. Hasty and often complex government guidelines have resulted in uncertainty throughout societies. And uncertainty about the economic impact that is going to result is a major force in people’s lives. With all of this uncertainty comes feelings of distrust, dissatisfaction, and division among and between societies. Feelings of hatred and grievances have become more pronounced as individuals seek to find spaces of more certainty and comfort in the face of the pandemics. In this sort of environment, extremism is able to thrive.
Extremists have taken full advantage of the uncertainty being faced and continue to exploit the circumstances in order to gain further support for their ideologies. The pandemic brings new opportunities for extremists to exploit discontent and uncertainty through fostering victimhood narratives, spreading distrust of government, pursuing disinformation campaigns, dangerously fuelling nationalistic feelings, and generally spreading animosity towards “others”. In this environment we have seen a proliferation and continuation of divisions and hatred along with, unfortunately, acts of violence.
The uncertainty surrounding the virus and responses fit easily with the core messages of extremist groups. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other groups whose ideology is based on religious beliefs, speak of the virus being the will of God and how non-believers will be struck down. Of course, this overlooks the fact the virus is not making much distinction between ideological positions and members of the extremist groups can also be afflicted. White supremacist groups (a highly diverse category) are placing global responsibility for this crisis with members of various minorities, the Jewish faith, or anyone who disagrees with their politics. Nationalists around the world are seeing the virus as a conspiracy by one or another state to weaken their home state. Across the ideological spectrum there are calls to action that involve supporters perpetuating more attacks or causing conflict between social groups, rising up against the government or other identified forces, as a means to bring about the downfall of law and order so that the new order based on the extremists’ world views can be achieved.
Within the extremist narratives, there is little concern for verifiable facts or coherence in the claims and argument made. Extremists narratives are commonly fraught with an absence of coherence, based on the expropriation of selective facts strung together to sometimes outlandish lengths. The only objective for the extremist is that the matter being articulated lends supports the overall ideology and that the message is continually amplified.
The use of disinformation during the pandemic has been massive. The most obvious use of disinformation has been in the apportioning of blame for the virus upon particular groups or in the creation of various conspiracy theories. The continual production of disinformation in times of uncertainty fuels various conspiracies where blame is placed upon others, which even if it does not lead to direct violence remain damaging to societies. The blame dimension in messaging cuts across the ideological spectrum of extremism. In India, extremist Hindu nationalists have placed blame and responsibility for the virus upon the Muslim population. Anti-immigration groups in France and Germany have circulated information that Muslims have been spreading the virus on purpose and the source of the virus has been tied to asylum and immigration centres.
Following on from blame, extremist narratives then attempt to motivate supporters to take action against the identified out-group(s) they deem to be responsible. White supremacy groups called on followers who are infected to spread the virus in minority communities and amongst law enforcement. ISIS directed its followers not to travel to Europe, as a highly infected area, but has called on supporters already in Western states to launch attacks and support prison breaks to release more supporters.
The COVID-19 world and the uncertainty it contains provides a context for extremist narratives to connect with a wide range of emotions and grievances that people hold. It does not appear that matters will improve quickly, even if the virus is brought under control. The economic impact of COVID-19 is going to be multi-dimensional and potentially long-lasting. Governments need to continue with immense levels of public spending to support health care systems, to maintain employment levels, to provide public support due to job losses and to maintain particular sectors of economic activity.
In these circumstances, states and societies that are already facing economic uncertainty will experience continued underdevelopment. Research has shown that following major financial crises, extremism is likely to grow. The research shows that during and following financial crises uncertainty in society grows and that people are more easily taken in by extremist rhetoric. And it is already well established that economic deprivation and absence of opportunities for personal development fuel grievances as individuals feel excluded. The EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator has warned that “The massive amount of money that will be spent to address the economic, social and healthcare consequences of the virus risks being at the expense of security. We must prevent the one crisis ending up producing another.”
With demands for national public spending likely to remain high, resources for counter-terrorism efforts overseas will also be limited. This may open an opportunity to move away from current trends in overseas counter-terrorism, where military/security responses or the funding of stand-alone projects are the norm and, instead, focus attention and resources on long-term community building measures that work to minimise divisiveness. However, as cooperation between governments has been lacking in response to the pandemic, enhanced and effective international cooperation in response to terrorist groups may be limited.
Feelings of anger, disillusion and contempt for others as a result of the pandemic will continue and this will continue to fuel extremist views. Divisiveness is becoming a normal part of the political process, domestically and globally. This results in responses to the pandemic being designed on the basis of competition rather than addressing the actual lived experiences of people in society. Attention needs to be given to the lived experiences of people, in particular the marginalised, as this is where extremist groups can penetrate, either through service provision and support or by providing supportive messages that people will grasp on to. At this stage, it is unfortunate that the uncertainty of the current impact of COVID-19 will continue into the post-COVID world (whatever that may look like, another dimension of uncertainty) as conditions are likely to remain responsive to ideas and actions related to blame and hatred. Extremists will welcome these circumstances as it supports their objective of gaining further support for their ideologies, regardless of the damage it causes.
The preceding is a summary of a study entitled Extremism in the time of COVID-19 published by the Bussola Institute, Brussels, Belgium. The full study is available here.
 Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, Christoph Trebesh, “Going to extremes: politics after financial crises, 1870-2014,” European Economic Review (2016) 227-260. The research only examines electoral democratic systems.
 Luke Baker, “Militants, fringe groups exploiting COVID-19, warns EU anti-terrorism chief,” Reuters, 30 April 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-eu-security/militants-fringe-groups-exploiting-covid-19-warns-eu-anti-terrorism-chief-idUSKBN22C2HG.
 United Nations, A UN Framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19, April 2020, pp. 29-31.