Far-right and neo-nazi groups are instructing followers to “deliberately infect” Jews and Muslims with the coronavirus as they fan conspiracy theories around the pandemic, a UK government counterterrorism agency warned Thursday.
The UK’s Commission for Countering Extremism published research saying it has received increasing reports of extremist groups of all kinds — far-right, far-left and Islamist extremists — exploiting the public health crisis to “sow division” in communities.
“We have heard reports of British Far Right activists and Neo-Nazi groups promoting anti-minority narratives by encouraging users to deliberately infect groups, including Jewish communities,” the report warned.
One conspiracy theory detailed in the report claims the virus is fake and part of a “Jewish plot” to mislead the public while another falsely claims that Muslims are responsible for the spread of the contagion by keeping mosques open during lockdown.
On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, the report also warned about Islamists “propagating anti-democratic and anti-Western narratives,” claiming that COVID-19 is “divine punishment” on the West for alleged “degeneracy,” or punishment on China for the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
“Groups from the Far Right to the Far Left and Islamist groups have fully exploited the lockdown to promote dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation, most notably online,” said the government agency’s commissioner, Sara Khan, in a blog post.
“We have already seen how extremists discussed the 5G conspiracy theory on fringe social media platforms such as Telegram.”
Conspiracies falsely linking the virus to the mobile network have led to 50 incidents this April in the UK where residents either burned down or otherwise vandalized 5G masts, according to the report.
The report also criticized social media companies for “not doing enough” to snuff out the easily debunked conspiracies spreading on their platforms.
Of 649 posts flagged for misinformation relating to the virus on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter between April 20 to May 26, only 9.4 percent were acted upon and just 6.3 percent were eventually removed, according to data from the London nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Far-right politicians and news outlets have also played a role in normalizing hatred against religious and ethnic groups by “push[ing] forward their anti-immigrant and populist message,” the report said.
The UK report follows State Department findings last month warning the threat of racially and ethnically motivated terrorism from white supremacists is “on the rise and spreading geographically” across the country and world.
In Britain, the commission called for the government to develop “clear plans” to cut-off and counteract violent extremist views and ensure that existing laws against inciting hatred are enforceable online.
“We need to be on the front foot to counter the activity of hateful extremists who seek to divide and undermine everything our country stands for,” Khan said, “and we must begin work on it now.”