Extremists Are Exploiting the Pandemic: UN Report

Stop the Virus of Disinformation. Photo: UNICRI
Stop the Virus of Disinformation. Photo: UNICRI

Criminals and violent extremists are exploiting the pandemic to build their support networks, undermine trust in government, and even weaponize the virus.

These are among the findings of a research report published on Wednesday (November 18) by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI).

“Terrorist, violent extremist, and organized criminal groups are trying to take advantage of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic to expand their activities and jeopardize the efficacy and credibility of response measures by governments,” UNICRI Director Antonia Marie De Meo wrote in the introduction to the report, entitled “Stop the virus of disinformation”.

“It is also alarming that some terrorist and violent extremist groups have attempted to misuse social media to incite potential terrorists to intentionally spread Covid-19 and to use it as an improvised form of a biological weapon,” Ms. De Meo wrote.

According to the report, there are cases in which right-wing extremist groups explicitly asked their followers to spread the virus by coughing on their local minority or by attending to specific places where religious or racial minorities gather.

Other groups, according to the report, advocate to spread the coronavirus disease in countries with large populations or high levels of pollution.

The researchers examined three groups of non-State actors: right-wing extremists; groups associated with the ISIL or Da’esh terror group and Al-Qaida; and organized crime groups.

They described how extremists, especially right-wing groups, used social media to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation about the virus, expanding their networks by exploiting algorithms that identify potentially sympathetic people who have liked and forwarded particular memes.

The UNICRI researchers identified several instruments to debunk disinformation and misinformation, including data science tools, fact-checking apps and artificial intelligence, but warned that technology countermeasures alone cannot stop abuse of social media.

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Rakesh Raman