The coronavirus pandemic has increased the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories in Britain, the U.K. government’s Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) warned.
According to a report published by the CCE on Thursday, the pandemic has increased the visibility of anti-vaccine, anti-5G and anti-minority conspiracy theories, and spurred the proliferation of far-right, far-left and Islamic extremism.
The report highlighted a 21 percent increase in hate crime toward East Asian and South East Asian individuals in the U.K. since the pandemic started, and “a worrying rise” in hate crime and incidents targeting Chinese people. According to the report, far-right individuals have also encouraged others to deliberately infect Jews and Muslims with the virus.
Extremists have “fully exploited the lockdown to promote dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation, most notably online,” said Lead Commissioner Sara Khan in a statement. “They seek to mainstream extremist narratives in society, for the sole purpose of inciting hatred … and a breakdown in community cohesion.”
The CCE said a false social media post accusing Muslims of flouting lockdown rules was shared 2,700 times, while social media companies didn’t take action on over 90 percent of posts containing misinformation after volunteers flagged them.
The report noted the proliferation of the conspiracy theory that 5G radiation causes coronavirus symptoms, noting that in April alone, around 50 5G masts were vandalized across the U.K.
Islamic extremists have also used the pandemic to spread conspiracies on social media, such as accusing the government of attempting to use future vaccines to deliberately harm Muslims, and claiming the pandemic is a conspiracy used to control the population.
“The short and long term impacts of the pandemic could create conditions conducive for extremism,” the report warns. “Extremists will seek to capitalize on the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 to cause further long term instability, fear and division in Britain.”
The report also warned that funding cuts to youth services “may result in younger people becoming more vulnerable to extremist narratives, and it is also making it less likely that risk factors would be noticed,” adding that the U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown “has proved challenging to those delivering counter-extremism interventions.”
The CCE called on the government to include clear plans to counter extremism in its response to the pandemic and in future crises, and to publish a new counter-extremism strategy.
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