How Coronavirus will impact the fight against the radical right

The world has been brought to a stop after Coronavirus’s unprecedented expansion throughout the world, with many nations enforcing full lockdowns and quarantines in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. Aside from the most immediate and pressing health risks, COVID-19 will have a critical impact on the tourism, arts and entertainment sectors, among many others who will most likely need government bailout to survive.

In these critical times, all scrutiny will be on governments’ response to the crisis. It is to be expected that all available resources will be mobilised to cope with the effects of controlling COVID-19. Whether that is a temporal or more permanent status quo remains to be seen.

What radical right groups have been saying about Coronavirus

Yet, as with every destabilising event, radical right groups are already trying to capitalise on the Coronavirus crisis.

A global pandemic of this scale is ripe ground for the spread of conspiracy theories. Notorious conspiracy theorists, such as Infowars’s Alex Jones – who among other things claims that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged –  is now arguing that China has manufactured COVID-19 as a bioweapon to bring down the Trump presidency. In the US, the different takes go from defending Bill Gates created the virus to claiming Democrats are promoting the hoax of coronavirus to hurt Trump’s chances at re-election. Politicisation is already having a clear effect in the development of these conspiracies.

Other conspiracies have adopted more racial overtones. The Anti-Defamation League has found several anti-Semitic and xenophobic posts claiming that virus is a Zionist creation and that Jews are profiting financially from the epidemic. Moreover, online chatter is encouraging people who have contracted Coronavirus to try to infect Jews and non-whites. It is expected that given the circumstances, the levels of hate online will rise first before they are replicated offline.

As expected, Coronavirus has also served as an excuse for radical right groups to promote their narratives. Paul Joseph Watson, a British radical right ‘influencer’ with almost two million followers on his YouTube channel, has claimed that political correctness is to blame for the spread of the virus, while condemning the mayor of Florence for launching an anti-racism campaign to protect Chinese people in light of the epidemic originating in Wuhan. In this crisis, the radical right can easily find a fertile ground to promote its rhetoric, because they will blame the Establishment for not closing borders to contain the virus– a measure that is obviously central to the radical right’s regular playbook.

More worryingly, white supremacist forums already show how accelerationist groups are framing COVID as the beginning of a series of events that will lead to civilizational collapse. The idea of committing acts of violence to accelerate a civil war is already well enshrined in these groups’ DNA, but COVID might present an opportunity for some of these groups. While researchers have stressed that this type of chatter has not turned operational yet, it is no less worrying how the current crisis is already reinforcing the ideological mindset of some of these groups.

How will Coronavirus impact the fight against the (violent) radical right?

On the one hand, Coronavirus seems to be restricting if anything the physical movements of radical right groups. British journalist Lizzie Dearden has reported that several UK-based radical right activist groups and figures, such as Britain First or Tommy Robinson, have cancelled meetings and gatherings to protect their supporters from getting COVID-19. On the Islamist side, even ISIS has reportedly told its members to “avoid Europe” in the coming weeks,

Some voices have already raised the alarm that a prolonged quarantine – and therefore more time to spare – could drive people already on the brink of extremism to engage more profoundly with online discussions on radical right forums. Unfortunately, we still, however, do not have a clear picture as to how relevant online radicalisation is to the radical right, how it works and particularly where it links with violent acts. Yet if the traffic on these forums is expected to increase or intensify, security forces and tech companies will need to remain vigilant in monitoring developments on this front.

Some of the knock-on effects of Coronavirus are that it might impact the sense of urgency in the global fight against the radical right. In the UK, trials that were due to start before April are effectively being halted if they are supposed to last more than 3 days, which would apply to most terrorism arrests. The measure does not affect trials already in course – in fact, four members of proscribed neo-Nazi group National Action were convicted on January 19, 2020.

This stand-by goes hand-in-hand with the uptick in arrests connected to the radical right in recent months, including the foiling of a terror plot in Germany, the arrests of several members linked to The Base and Atomwaffen in the US and one arrest this month in Australia for planning an attack in New South Wales. Indeed, the hearing of the Poway synagogue shooter has already been postponed – judiciary and security measures will need to be put in place to ensure that situation is manageable.

What will radical right parties make of it?

Perhaps the biggest impact of COVID-19 on radical right will come through populist parties, who are already claiming victory as nations keep closing their borders to contain the spread of the virus. In Europe, Orbán has already blamed migrants for the crisis. Asked about why Hungary still has closed universities but not schools, Orbán said that “there are a lot of foreigners there and our experience is that primarily foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners”.

While there has been a steady growth in populism from the radical right in recent years, a crisis of this magnitude can exacerbate the sense of legitimacy that these parties have in adopting nationalist measures. It is not unimaginable that this situation might give radical right parties a precedent to further harden their policies on immigration.

In a post COVID-19 scenario, this rhetoric could quickly turn racial. Indeed, some narratives in the radical right based on so-called “scientific racism”, for example, already rely on a dehumanising language that portrays non-white people as being more prone to having “diseases”. We could very easily see extremist groups start adopting this language vis-a-vis the Chinese and thereby other non-white populations.

Concluding Remarks

We are very much living in exceptional times, where countries have been forced to shut down their borders in a way that could not have been envisioned only a few weeks ago. Nationalist forces have been attempting to turn the tide of globalisation for quite some time. COVID-19 might just be the perfect excuse for them to do so.

Ms Cristina Ariza is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Research Analyst at the Institute for Global Change. See her profile here.© Cristina Ariza.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).