Is pandemic isolation pushing people towards extremism?

Over the past year, as the UK and much of Europe have navigated through various stages of lockdown, there has been an increasing concern about the impact of prolonged isolation on mental health and the potential for this to heighten individuals’ susceptibility to extremist ideologies.

The leader of the Wales Extremism and Counter Terrorism Unit (WECTU) highlighted last year that the pandemic might raise the risk of young people being radicalized. There’s an emerging worry that the radical right has seized the chance to weave COVID-19 criticisms and conspiracy theories into their established narratives.

Social isolation is acknowledged as a factor that can lead to radicalization or make individuals more open to exploitation, as outlined in the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. Social psychologists and radicalization researchers have found that isolation can magnify grievances, making individuals more susceptible to extremist ideologies. Studies have shown that those feeling socially excluded are likely to experience a range of negative emotions, including anger and sadness, which can decrease self-esteem and lead to a search for belonging—even if it means aligning with groups holding extreme views.

However, it’s critical to note that isolation alone cannot be seen as a direct pathway to radicalization, particularly into far-right extremism.

The COVID-19 lockdowns have intensified feelings of social and economic exclusion for many, potentially deepening the pool from which the far-right draws. Economic insecurity and social exclusion, already significant factors in radicalization processes, have been amplified by the pandemic response.

Before COVID-19, regions like London, the North West, and the North East of the UK, which were already seeing high levels of radicalization referrals, faced severe lockdowns and economic hardships, potentially exacerbating the situation. The UN has warned that forceful imposition of preventative measures could alienate vulnerable community segments further. Additionally, the pandemic’s economic fallout has left more people without work or education, feeding into the far-right’s narrative.

The closure of educational institutions has raised additional concerns. Schools have been a major source of referrals to the UK’s Prevent programme, designed to identify and support individuals at risk of radicalization. With schools closed, the vital contact between students and educators that facilitates these referrals has been disrupted, potentially leading to both missed cases and unwarranted ‘panic’ referrals.

Despite students returning to schools, the reliance on online spaces for communication remains, creating new challenges for monitoring far-right recruitment. Extremists have been actively targeting young people online, exploiting the isolation and boredom induced by lockdown measures. The use of encrypted platforms by the far-right, such as Gab or Telegram, has surged, making it harder to track recruitment efforts.

The European Council has cautioned that the radical right is exploiting the pandemic to adapt their narratives for recruitment purposes, pushing conspiracy theories ranging from ‘Plandemics’ to racially charged accusations.

The radical right’s exploitation of COVID-19 skepticism has not only fueled its existing ideologies but has also enabled it to attract a broader audience, from virus deniers to those convinced of its reality. This adaptability, combined with the dissemination of disinformation targeting various minority groups, signifies an escalating threat of radical-right extremism that seems to be intensifying in the pandemic’s wake.

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