Written by Abdul Basit, Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. His area of expertise lies in extremism, terrorism and political violence in South Asia.
11 January 2021
The social and digital media have transformed the recruitment patterns, propaganda operations and narrative constructions of the non-state violent extremist groups. Social media, notably encrypted messaging apps, have allowed violent extremists to expedite the radicalization process by alleviating the need for in-person recruitment, brainwashing and training. Likewise, the decentralized flow of information has eroded states’ monopolies over framing public discourses and controlling the narratives. In turn, this has afforded unhindered freedom to violent extremists to convey across their worldview to a larger recipient pool.
During the 2014-2018 time period, the Middle Eastern terrorist group, the Islamic State, revolutionized social media for extremist purposes and other extremist groups followed suit. In 2020, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the upsurge in the use of social media provided extremist groups with a captivated audience spending more time online. The pandemic also generated bizarre conspiracy theories from its Chinese origins in a military lab rather than a wet market to the “hidden” purpose of the lockdowns and self-medications. For instance, many people still deny the coronavirus’s very existence and others have shown conspiratorial concerns about the Covid-19 vaccines.
The Christmas day bombing in Nashville, U.S., near the office of a telecommunication company providing cellular phone and internet service brought into sharp focus the role of conspiracy theories, fake news, misinformation, and disinformation in instigating violent extremism. Though the investigation is still ongoing, and the lone-bomber Tony Warner’s exact motives are not identified, it is widely speculated that he wanted to destroy the 5G tower.
Several far-right groups believe in the conspiracy that radiation emitting from the 5G towers causes the coronavirus. In 2020, several attacks were reported across Europe where violent mobs torched or ransacked 5G towers for the same reason. This trend is akin to the violent protests against technology by Luddites, a group of angry textile workers in the 19th century U.K. for losing their jobs. Luddites conspiratorially blamed the industrial revolution and machines for robbing them of their livelihood opportunities.
Keeping this in view, such trends are likely to gain traction in the post-Covid-19 scenario as many jobs are likely to be lost to the emerging technological revolution, particularly automation and artificial intelligence. In many sectors, robots will take over the jobs that humans perform. Those without the requisite skillsets would be confined to the margins of a cut-edge job market. This technology-induced job displacements may give birth to groups of angry young men and strengthen the existing ones, such as QAnon.
QAnon is a conspiracy group that believes that the so-called international establishment is adamant to deny the outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump from winning a second term, with its members running in thousands. The QAnon members showed up in significant numbers in Trump’s election rallies to show support and solidarity. Further, QAnon worked towards ensuring maximum voting of the conservative far-right base in the U.S. for Trump. Alongside another far-right group, the Proud Boys, the QAnon is also suspected of storming the Capitol Hill last week. The Capitol Hill attack, Nashville bombing and the Europe wide 5G tower attacks underscore the dangerous role of conspiracy theories and fake news in instigating violent extremism.
Alarmingly, this trend is just not limited to the Western far-right and neo-Nazi groups. In countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, the polio-vaccination-related conspiracy theories have resulted in parents’ reluctance to get their children immunized against the poliovirus and violent attacks against polio vaccination teams. Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan have attacked polio vaccination teams and issued fatwas against immunization.
This has compromised the global fight against poliovirus which is only alive in these three Muslim-majority countries. It is assumed that polio vaccination causes male infertility and the West (where the vaccine is produced) is using it to control the growing Muslim populations.
Similarly, the Hindutva and Buddhist extremists in India and Sri Lanka have attacked the already marginalized Muslim minorities in both countries for their high birthrates. Extremists in Sri Lanka and India conspiratorially believe that the Muslim communities are engaged in the so-called “population jihad” to outnumber them and turn them into minorities in their own countries. These conspiracy theories are deliberately promoted and amplified through various social media platforms to justify mob violence against Muslim minorities in both South Asian nations.
In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the Religion to Freedom Bill has been introduced recently against the so-called “love jihad.” As per the “love jihad” conspiracy, young Indian Muslim men allegedly lure Hindu women into marriage with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam. In accordance with the Religious Freedom Bill, inter-faith marriages, particularly of Hindu women with Muslim men, requiring a change of faith after the wedding can result in a jail term of up to ten years and a fine to the tune of 1 lakh INDR, among others. A bill of similar nature but with a different set of penalties and fines has also been introduced in Uttar Pradesh. Hindu nationalists belonging to various Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh subsidiaries are behind these anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and legislations.
Likewise, the Sri Lankan Buddhist extremist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (BSS), has engaged in rioting and violent clashes against the Muslim minority, 10 percent of the island-nation’s total population. The BSS militants have burnt and vandalized Muslim residences, business establishments and mosques on the pretext that its faster birth rate is “population jihad” to reduce the Sinhala-Buddhist majority Sri Lanka into a minority.
From the preceding discussion, it is evident that fake news and conspiracy theory have not only fueled extremism, but it has also resulted in various forms of violence. In the future, counter-extremism and counter-terrorism frameworks will have to factor in the social media strategies to holistically counter fake news and conspiracies preceded by a robust understanding of how extremist groups are employing them.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent the institute’s policy.