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OP-ED: Are extremists exploiting the pandemic?

  • Published at 02:00 pm July 13th, 2020
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Conspiracy theories and disinformation are spreading at an alarming rate

When Sara Khan, lead commissioner for an independent Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) in a flagship report “Challenging Hateful Extremism” talked of how effective existing British laws are in dealing with hateful extremist activity -- policy-makers and government officials in Britain were dumbfounded.

The report, launched on June 10, observes that the far right to the far left and Islamist groups have fully exploited the global coronavirus crisis to promote dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation, mostly online.

A private study has been posted by the United Kingdom government’s official website, which says CCE advises the government on new policies to deal with extremism, including the need for any new powers.

The non-governmental organization, CCE, supports society to fight all forms of extremism and has closely worked with the British Police Department.

The extremists joined in separate social media space, joined by #CovIdiots across all spectrums. From far right and far left, all are agog in 5G conspiracy theories on platforms such as Telegram, a multi-platform messaging service platform.

Conspiracy theories need just the right ingredients to take off within a population, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been a breeding ground for them.

The independent commission has pulled together several other pieces of research to draw a broader canvas of the extremist threat during the pandemic. A narrative spread like wildfire on social media that the wireless network 5G technology fuelled the coronavirus pandemic.

The conspiracy theory on the Covid-19 outbreak believes that the virus pandemic is part of a strategy conceived by global elites -- such as Bill Gates -- to roll-out coronavirus vaccines with tracking chips that would later be activated by 5G, the technology used by mobile technology networks.

Such mindless #CovIdiots in Bangladesh are equally active in social media. They are active in posting conspiracy theories in attempts to inject into the novice minds of young and old, rich and poor that coronavirus is a Western conspiracy by Christians and Jews responsible for funding research in Wuhan labs.

Well, wearing masks, using sanitizers, washing hands, and testing for coronavirus are selling points of multinational companies and their accomplices in the country.

What about those millions who are infected, hospitalized, and dying from coronavirus? The #CovIdiots mysteriously remain silent and dish out stereotypical responses to such pressing issues.

The study further emphasized that hateful extremists have used divisive, xenophobic, and racist narratives to sow division and undermine the social fabric of Britain.

Unless the British government urgently invests in counter-extremism measures, extremists will seek to capitalize on the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 to cause further long-term instability, fear, and division in Britain.

For a democratic government, in the United Kingdom, the impact of extremist propaganda and disinformation shouldn’t be undermined. These conspiracy theories are harmful, dangerous, and are used by extremists to cause division and breed hate, reiterated Sara Khan.

Now a social media strategy needs to be developed to challenge dangerous conspiracy theories based on the harm they cause. This will enable practitioners on social media platforms to better challenge harmful conspiracy theories before they escalate.

Bangladesh shouldn’t miss the opportunity to join the global effort to classify dangerous conspiracy theories. 

A fresh counter-extremism strategy must include an assessment of how extremism manifests locally, the harm it causes, the scale of support for extremist narratives, and how best to pre-empt extremist activity.

The assessment should also include the people most vulnerable to extremist narratives, to deliver vital interventions to engage and support these guiltless people. 

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter @saleemsamad.

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