How extremists exploited Covid chaos

March 29, 2023

Image by master1305 on Freepik

Neneh Belle (name changed) reports on the ways online extremists took advantage of young people during the pandemic

While the internet has brought a plethora of benefits to our world, the dark side it hides has become more and more prominent in the last few years, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the isolation of lockdown many people turned to the internet for contact. Young people found themselves trapped in cyberspace, bombarded by misinformation, conspiracy theories and, most disturbing of all, grooming and radicalisation groups.

Grooming refers to the process of developing a relationship of trust with a young person, with the intention of manipulating and exploiting them in some way. Predators, usually pretending to be younger, engage their targets with fake interest and information and then lure them into a sexual relationship or extremist organisation. Check out the NSPCC page for more about grooming.

Concerns about online grooming and radicalisation groups grew substantially over the course of the pandemic. Jacob Davey, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a UK counter-extremism think tank, determined that there have been ‘quite significant spikes in extremist activity and also conspiracy theories’ during the pandemic.

A BBC article by Richard Morris, goes on to highlight how white supremacist and far-right organisations exploited the massive online audience they could reach.

Radicals can remain hidden behind the screen, taking on any false identity they wish in order to lure their victims

Back in February 2015, aged 15, Shamima Begum was radicalised. She was groomed online, having been sent propaganda videos. She then travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State with her friends Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana.

Nobody knows the whole Shamima story but after eight years you can hear what reporter Josh Baker discovered on BBC sounds. You can also check out more here in Jordon’s Exposure article.

Radicals can remain hidden behind the screen, taking on any false identity they wish in order to lure their victims.

More recently, Neo-Nazi Luca Benincasa , at just 20, was sentenced to over nine years in prison for a number of terror offences as well as possessing indecent images of children. Benincasa was part of The Feuerkrieg Division, an international neo-Nazi organisation that promotes extreme far-right ideology and violence, operating mostly online. The BBC reports that he ‘became increasingly involved with far-right ideologies during lockdown, described by the prosecution, as a “watershed moment”‘.

Young people no longer have to search for extreme, hateful content online – rather, it comes to them

During the pandemic and economic crisis that has hit the globe, many young people feel disillusioned and angry with their governments and the wider world. They’ve started seeking answers and a sense of belonging or comfort. This has left many vulnerable to falling into the hands of extremist groups.

Grooming and radicalisation however doesn’t occur overnight. The process happens gradually, and while difficult and highly sensitive, having more open conversations and raising awareness on this topic is a key way to combat online grooming and the radicalisation of young people.

As Joe Mulhall, director of research at the anti-fascism organisation Hope not Hate, puts it, “young people no longer have to search for extreme, hateful content online – rather, it comes to them.” In the past, extremists hung around schools, handing out leaflets. Now with a single click, young people are being manipulated and absorbing vast amounts of dangerous information into their impressionable minds.

If you or someone you love is affected by radicalisation, you can get support from Families For Life. You can also seek help from a parent or teacher.

Teachers can access resources at Educate Against Hate to safeguard their students from radicalisation and promote inclusive values in their schools.

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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