The “Pandora’s box” of conspiracy theories unleashed by the pandemic will not fade away after the lifting of restrictions, experts have warned. The past two years have seen an unprecedented rise in protests and online activism spreading claims ranging from 5G causing Covid to the virus being a “new world order” plot to reduce the population.
Anti-lockdown and anti-vax movements exploded, creating a melting pot of extremists alongside ordinary members of the public with genuine concerns. Researchers warn that many people who were exposed to Covid conspiracy theories early in the pandemic will now have consumed a wider range of material that could feed into extremist viewpoints.
Counterterror police have raised concerns that conspiracy theories were being used by vocal far-right activists and Islamists to draw in young and vulnerable people on social media, before exposing them to more extreme narratives.
Milo Comerford, who has been tracking anti-vaxxers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), said “no one is under the illusion that this is going to be solved by the dropping of restrictions”.
“For some people, life will go on and as things go back to normal, some of those fellow travellers will go back into the woodwork,” he told The Independent.
“This will be impacting our lives in different ways for years and years – there’s a huge amount of overlap between Covid and discussion about the environment, migration, government and tyranny and those will continue.
“The pandemic provided the platform and opportunity to mainstream ideas to a wider audience. Pandora’s box has been opened.”
Anti-vax activism was once a fringe movement in the UK, but since the pandemic began some protests have been attended by thousands of people.
Thousands more have conducted campaigns online, organising efforts to pressure hospitals, schools and employers on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
Jacob Davey, the ISD’s head of research for hate movements, said it was a “movement of the likes we have never seen before”, adding that “it makes for weird bedfellows but the old rivalries have been put aside for this great resistance”.
Anti-vax protests in London have seen left-wing human rights demonstrators mixing with 5G conspiracy theorists, far-right activists and “natural remedy” fanatics.
Mr Davey said that despite the obvious differences, the groups share a deep suspicion of the establishment and an affinity with conspiracy theories.
“Not everyone who is concerned about lockdown or restrictions is an extremist or a hardened conspiracy theorist but what we’ve seen consistently is this coming together of quite loose communities, which manage to bridge the gap between extremist movements on the right, established conspiracy theorist movements and the anti-vax community, and the left,” he said.
As the pandemic progressed, broader talking points emerged over government control of individual rights, corruption and perceived “elites”. Mr Davey said that anti-vaxxers are now “consistently engaged in a number of harmful activities”, including threats and intimidation towards people who administer jabs, and medical staff and volunteers.
Mr Comerford said politicians were increasingly becoming targets, following abuse hurled at Sir Keir Starmer, Michael Gove and other MPs by anti-vax protesters.
A report released by the Commission for Countering Extremism in July 2020 warned that the pandemic was being exploited by extremists to sow division. It said far-right activists had been encouraging followers to “deliberately infect” Jews and other minority groups, while Islamists were propagating anti-western narratives, claiming Covid was divine punishment for “degeneracy”.
The report said that 5G conspiracy theories had led to attacks on masts and telecoms engineers. Mr Davey said conspiracy theorist groups on the encrypted Telegram app “consistently see the spread of far-right and hateful talking points”, such as antisemitic conspiracy theories.
He added: “There is a fusion of ideas and the real risk is it potentially means you’ve got conspiracy theorists borrowing ideas from the far right, and the far right borrowing ideas from conspiracy theorists when they’re looking at what’s successful on the other side.”
And Mr Comerford said the pandemic appears to have accelerated a “breaking down of traditional ideological buckets”. The most recent figures for the Prevent counter-radicalisation scheme show that more than half of referrals are now classed as “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology”.
The category includes people who are drawing from multiple ideologies, or have “undetermined” or “conflicted” beliefs that often include conspiracy theories. The number of “mixed, unstable or unclear” cases referred onwards into the Channel intervention programme rose by 65 per cent in a year, and is expected to continue rising.
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