Pandemic & ExtremismHow Has COVID-19 Changed the Violent Extremist Landscape?

By Michele Grossman

Published 8 December 2021

Coronavirus has highlighted how anxiety, uncertainty, and the reordering of democratic state-citizen relations can breed susceptibility to violent extremist thinking and action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the normative social order of democratic societies in profound ways: lockdowns, public health mandates, a range of restrictions on movement and behavior, and the rapid development of new-generation vaccines. This disruption has occurred amid an environment of risk and uncertainty that threatens peoples’ sense of security, stability, and resilience. The rise of pandemic-led conspiracy thinking has therefore been predictable.

There is a well-established relationship between conspiracy narratives and the sense of threat, particularly concerning system identity threat, or the view that society is fundamentally changing. QAnon influencers, for example, quickly harnessed their conspiracy movement’s anti-government, “Deep State” narrative of corrupt, shadowy elites to fit with how states around the world were responding to the pandemic’s public health threats.

However, QAnon’s dark prophesies of a New World Order that would upend civilization is not new, drawing together a pastiche of familiar, pre-existing militant narratives based on anti-Semitism, white nationalism, anti-vaccination, and anti-technology discourse.

Some of these older militant narratives have long been associated with violent action against minorities and violent resistance to the state. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the rise of pandemic-inspired conspiracist movements has been escalated and capitalized on by violent extremist movements across the board.

EUROPOL has warned that COVID-19 will continue to escalate violent extremist threats in various countries, increasing tolerance for violence in response to pandemic-induced stressors. This runs alongside evidence that ideologically diverse violent extremist networks are exploiting pandemic-related vulnerabilities through online propaganda and recruitment efforts.

As our AVERT Research Network submission to Australia’s parliamentary inquiry on extremist movements and radicalism argues, the extension of government authority and curtailing of individual liberties during a public health emergency have been consistently reframed by extremists as instruments of social control, government corruption, and state illegitimacy, accelerating what Ehud Sprinzak (1991) terms the “transformational delegitimation” of democratic societies and institutions.

New Gateways to Violent Extremism
While QAnon influencers were predictably nimble in exploiting gateway online anti-child abuse and exploitation networks to grow their impact, pandemic-inspired intersection of lifestyle and wellness, violent extremism, and conspiracy networks has been more novel.

In Australia, the former chef and dietary wellness influencer Pete Evans posted the neo-Nazi “sonnenrad” or “black sun” swastika for his many online followers, a symbol appropriated by the Nazis to signal the rebirth of Aryanism. Other wellness influencers have also energetically sought to monetize the surge of interest in anti-authority conspiracies by promoting product-based resistance to public health measures.