Isolation, frustration with the pandemic, and increased time spent on the internet risks pushing young people into dangerous spaces online.
Since its early days, COVID-19 has been accompanied by a number of conspiracies regarding the pandemic and the public health measures put in place to tackle it. Far-right groups have been at the forefront of many of these. The characteristic anti-establishment rhetoric of the far-right has found new expression in conspiracy theories portraying the pandemic as either a “hoax” or as part of a globalist plan targeting white people. Far-right groups have also helped the spread of fake information blaming BAME communities, particularly Muslims, for the virus’ spread.
This sentiment has gone hand-in-hand with a concerning rise in hate crime both on- and offline. Violent attacks against East Asians rose by 21% in the initial stages of the pandemic, and by one-third after the easing of the first lockdown in May. Conspiracy theories portraying Muslims as “super spreaders” aided a 40% rise in online Islamophobia during lockdown, whilst Muslim women in particular have reported targeted attacks, including being spat on by individuals claiming to be infected.
The growing influence of far-right sentiment – the largest number of cases referred to the government’s Channel programme over the last year were related to far-right extremism – is made even more concerning by the growing radicalisation of teenagers and children. Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu recently warned that growing numbers of young people are being drawn into far-right and neo-Nazi extremism, revealing in November that 17 children – some as young as 14 years old – have been arrested on terrorism charges in the last 18 months. The ages of those radicalised are growing increasingly young: of the 682 children referred to the government’s Channel programme in 2017-2018 on suspicion of far-right extremism, 24 were under the age of 10.
An ideological focus on building the “next generation” makes teenagers and children a key demographic for recruitment by far-right groups, many of whom have developed online tactics specifically designed to attract young people. This includes the use of memes and videos on mainstream social media sites such as Facebook and 4chan – many aiming to draw young people onto far-right forums and encrypted group chats – and even “shoot ‘em up” video games themed around killing ethnic and religious minorities.
With ‘stay at home’ orders and school closures increasing the amount of time that young people are spending online – and isolated from their friends, school, and employment – children and teenagers are at further risk from exposure to extremist material online or of falling victim to deliberate grooming tactics. Many will be lured by memes and games, whilst others may be curious about COVID-19 conspiracy theories and drawn onto extremist websites and social media pages. The pandemic may also worsen the socioeconomic and psychological push factors that are typically behind far-right radicalisation. Worries about employment and money and frustration over the government’s pandemic response may lead teenagers to extremist sites in search of alternative answers. Psychological push factors made worse by COVID-19 and the lockdown – including feelings of isolation and alienation, as well as existing mental health problems – may increase the ability of far-right groups to provide a sense of community and purpose.
This crisis has been worsened by the decreased capabilities of safeguarding services during lockdown. Isolated at home, children are denied access to actors like teachers, social workers and therapists that may be able to identify the signs of radicalisation and with whom young people may be able to discuss their concerns. In response to reports that only around 2% of referrals to the Prevent strategy for counterextremism come from family and friends, the government have recently launched the ‘ACT Early’ programme to encourage people to report their loved ones. However, given an overall lack of trust in the government’s countereterrorism strategy, and a number of controversies surrounding its implementation, it is currently unclear how effective this new programme will be.
JAN Trust is committed to protecting young people from becoming vulnerable to radicalisation, and to raising awareness about the risks posed by the internet. Our Web Guardians™ programme aims to build community resilience, educating and empowering mothers to counter extremism and gangs online.