April 19, 2020

The Risks of Online Radicalization in the COVID-19 Era

Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Within the span of a few weeks, the social and academic lives of over 91% of the world’s youth have been completely upended, as 1.5 billion students’ schools have closed, leading to an unprecedented shift in youth online engagement. In the U.S. alone, over 55 million children now spend much of their days online in a variety of semi-structured learning environments.

Parents and teachers have been understandably overwhelmed with the immediate technical and logistical aspects of this shift. But it is just as important to be aware of the potential long-term consequences, too, including the increased risk of far-right radicalization and extremism.

Young people spend more time online during the Corona crisis. (Photo: Tom Woodward)

Long before the COVID-19 era, media headlines warned parents and educators of the growing dangers of online exposure to extremist propaganda and persuasive recruiters. As the Christchurch and El Paso shootings made all too clear, online spaces are a central way in which people encounter extremist ideas, share violent tactics, and circulate livestreamed attacks. More than ever, exposure to extremism requires no physical destination at all—its virtual spaces beam right across our screens in social-media memes, imageboards, chatrooms, and online games.

In the wake of COVID-19, access to those screens has expanded massively, in part through free devices and hotspots set up by school districts that aim to ensure equity in the availability of distance learning. Meanwhile, parents have widely acknowledged that they are allowing more online gaming and screen time than usual in an effort to secure more work time for themselves. Much of that access is highly unsupervised, as students navigate learning platforms, search engines, and chat rooms on their own.

This dynamic creates a perfect storm for extremist recruitment and radicalization. Extreme isolation and increased online presence on gaming platforms, social media, and more creates growing possibilities for exposure to extremist content and expands the gateways that can lead to extremist radicalization. Meanwhile, the tremendous insecurity brought on by the crisis can make the kinds of simplistic solutions offered by far-right extremists more appealing. For extremists, this is therefore an ideal time to exploit youth grievances about their lack of agency, their families’ economic distress, and their intense sense of disorientation, confusion, fear, and anxiety. In the absence of their usual social support systems and networks of trusted adults and peers—as daily interactions with coaches, youth group leaders, employers, teachers, and others have ended—youths become easy targets for the far right, who promise easy answers about who they can blame for their plight.

Extremists have already seized the opportunity to spread propaganda and white supremacist content through online channels. Disinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus, its origins, and the government’s response are circulating widely, with one recent report showing that 18 million of the 40 million tweets about COVID-19 in a two-week period were “manipulated to push harmful narratives to the public.” On April 1, a California train engineer deliberately derailed a locomotive and tried to crash it into a Navy hospital ship in order to wake people up to lies he felt the government was telling about the hospital’s purpose.

Some far-right groups use the crisis to promote themselves as stronger, better helpers of the people than current governments. Far-right groups across Europe have posted photos of themselves organizing “mutual aid” and food distribution to the elderly and low income citizens, or driving health care professionals to work—in the hopes of building solidarity and gaining broader support for nationalist and exclusionary platforms. Meanwhile, far-right extremist chatter in online spaces has called for followers to deliberately spread COVID-19 to Jews and the police—effectively calling for biological terror attacks.

Online educational spaces have been a particular target. Online classes, virtual conference presentations, and educators’ office hours have been “zoom bombed” by students or hackers posting racist content and videos. Far right provocateurs and activists, meanwhile, have urged college students to record online lectures and submit them so that they can “document and expose” faculty they deem too liberal.

What can be done?

Policymakers, law enforcement, and the tech sector are already working to address this challenge. Over a dozen tech vendors are actively engaged in combating COVID-19 disinformation, for example, by offering analysis, data tracking, and information to the public about misinformation.

But we urgently need educational responses, too.

Parents and caregivers are in need of particular support. They require resources to improve their recognition and awareness of far-right messaging, symbols, and recruitment styles, as well as the kinds of apps and chat functions extremists are exploiting. Parents need to be able to better understand the key emotional drivers that create vulnerabilities to far-right radicalization pathways. Recognizing the signs is not enough, though. Advice and training on how to effectively intervene when they do spot warning signs is a critical component.

Teachers also need help. They need to know how to protect their online classroom spaces from being “zoom bombed” with racist and misogynistic content posted by outsiders, and what to do when students share such content or usernames in chat rooms. Youths and adults alike need media literacy training in ways that go well beyond the basics about privacy and cyberbullying. The kinds of interventions that might effectively inoculate against hate require helping people learn how to recognize conspiracy theories, misinformation, fake news, and identify key strategies that extremists use to manipulate potential recruits.

Like the global pandemic itself, the challenge of rising far-right and white supremacist extremism is not a local or even national matter. Cross-national and global engagements about the COVID-19 pandemic need to include the sharing of educational and parenting strategies to combat the consequences of youth isolation, expanded online engagement, and the far right’s mobilization of the virus. There is no need for each country to reinvent the wheel.

Parents and caregivers are already struggling, and worrying about online radicalization may feel like piling one more thing onto already overburdened lives. But crises like these are multifaceted. And while it makes sense that our initial response to mass school closures has necessarily been oriented toward emergency logistical and technical needs, we also need to think bigger. As we shelter in place, track daily infection rates, and collectively grieve, we need to keep our eyes trained on how far-right extremists are seizing this moment for their own ends to recruit and radicalize youth.

As we now know all too well, the best way to stem the spread of a virus is through prevention. The same is true for the spread of hate and far-right extremism.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Professor of Education and Sociology at the American University in Washington, DC, where she directs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) in the Center for University Excellence (CUE). Her latest book, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right, will be published in fall 2020 by Princeton University Press.