We live in an extremely fortunate age where even when isolated from our friends and loved ones, we are still able to connect over the internet. However, several groups and radical extremists are using this tool of connection to their benefit, especially during this time of stress for so many. This begs the question: in an age where anything can be found online, what dangers are at stake now that everyone is online?
During this time of questions with limited answers, feelings of: loneliness, anger, uncertainty, and alienation are compounded and intensified. These feelings are valid as the whole world is united in experiencing this collective trauma and our responses to it, whatever they may be, are normal for an abnormal situation. This is a time when our most vulnerable (our children) are feeling threatened due to increased hate online and the spike in exposure to radical groups.
There was a spike in physical hate crimes in London prior to the lockdown. Take the attack of Jonathon Mok that happened back in February; he was kicked and punched in the face which resulted both in a bruised face and a golf-ball size swollen eye. All of this happened at 9pm on Oxford Street, not a time or location associated with crimes and attacks, however, he was attacked because he was Asian and his “coronavirus” was not wanted in the U.K. If there was a spike of hate crimes prior to the lockdown it is only logical to conclude that the hate would move online as everyone else was forced in.
As lockdowns have been happening around the world there has been a 12-15% increase in internet usage, a staggering amount when you consider how many people already use and have access to the internet. There has also been an increase in activity on extremist friendly websites such as: Telegram, 4chan and Gab, which are all linked to racist and antisemitic slurs and memes. This exposes our marginalised youth to hate, radical groups and ignorance.
This danger also has the opportunity to infiltrate every home as schools move to online classes and everyone is, who can be, working from home. Lessons are taught through webcams and assessments must be submitted online. This means that people, specifically the youth, who previously had limited or no access to Wi-Fi or a computer before may now gain this opportunity. However, without careful monitoring it can become a disadvantage for some during this troubling period as what it can expose them to or online recruitment tactics can be used.
Oren Segal, who is the Vice President of the Anti-Defamation League’s Centre on Extremism in the U.S., said in this time of isolation it is the perfect time to strike as extremists “use every opportunity they can to create division”. There is no better time for extremist and radical groups to recruit online as we are all forcibly divided in order to take care of those vulnerable around us during this pandemic. They can now focus their attention and efforts elsewhere in their agenda to enlist our youth. Oren Segal is also worried about a rise in radical and racist content online as stay-at-home orders forces communication online. This coupled with a spike in hashtags usage makes it impossible for social media platforms to filter out all the hateful content. Poorly regulated internet and social media forums, already struggling, cannot handle the influx of new and constant users thus leading to an even more congested filter system.
Robert Orell, the Swedish Counter-Extremism consultant, claims that it is the failings of individual governments and how they are handling the COVID-19 crisis in their respective countries to the rise of extremism online. During times of chaos and uncertainty the people turn to their government to guide them and provide answers. The government having its own uncertainties and contradictions leads to a lack of faith amongst the people and thus they will seek answers elsewhere. This is when someone becomes vulnerable and can fall victim to online extremism and radicalism. It may also occur due to hate also being spread online along with misinformation regarding BAMER and marginalised people.
Orell claims that Islamic groups will look “at the distress in society and try to show that they are the ones capable of providing security and safety” this is how they will entice and trap our children as well as adults. Islamic groups have already started taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation claiming that it is an act of God to punish the sinners and those against the enemies of Islam but that it is also a “painful torment” against the “crusader nations”.
Here at JAN Trust we are dedicated to protecting our youth from extremist dangers and hateful content online as well as making the adults in our community aware of the risks the Internet holds. Through working together, education and awareness we can fight both the pandemic and the rise of extremist and race-hate threats online as seen through our Web Guardians™ programme. We must trust our children, but we must understand that we are all at risk during this time of uncertainty.
JAN Trust launched Web Guardians™ in 2010, an innovative programme designed to educate and empower women to prevent online extremism, radicalisation and gang violence, ultimately building community resilience. We are proud that we have delivered over 315 sessions of Web Guardians™ giving women new confidence and safeguarding knowledge to protect their children from extremism radicalisation and gangs online.
In combination with Web Guardians™, JAN Trust spent several years researching internet extremism and we published our findings in 2012. The report is called ‘Internet Extremism: Working Towards a Community Solution’, shows clearly why a project such as Web Guardians™ is essential to deal with online extremism, radicalisation and gangs on the internet promoting violence.
It is crucial that we are educated about our children’s presences online more so than ever. JAN Trust’s Web Guardians™ Programme’s mission is to educate mothers and communities with this scary reality of online radicalisation. As we are all stuck inside find out how to keep your children safe and make yourself aware of online dangers that have only increased during this crisis at: https://webguardians.org/about/.