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Extremist groups have “fully exploited” the coronavirus pandemic in order to incite “hatred, violence, public disorder and a breakdown in community cohesion”, according to a new report.
Using “divisive, xenophobic and racist narratives”, extremists “breed hate” through “dangerous conspiracy theories”, most notably online.
The study by the Commission for Countering Extremism cited reports of British far-right activities and neo-Nazi groups encouraging people to “deliberately infect” Jews and Muslims.
There were also reports of Islamists claiming coronavirus was punishment against China “for its treatment of Uighur Muslims”.
The study comes a week after HuffPost UK revealed racists are using the local lockdown in Leicester to spread hate about its Asian communities.
Posts containing “misinformation” and fake news were shared thousands of times, and 90% of them were not acted on by social media companies after volunteers reported them.
The government must tackle the problem as extremists will seek to “capitalise on the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 to cause further long-term instability, fear and division in Britain,” the report said.
It also warned it was “critical” the government ensure it takes into account the “significant threat of hateful extremism and the dangerous narratives spread by conspiracy theories” in the current pandemic and in future crises.
The impact “extremist propaganda and disinformation to our democracy cannot be overstated”, the report warned.
Sara Khan, who leads the commission, said: “The pandemic has not discouraged extremists from propagating their hateful ideologies.
“On the contrary they have, as is always the case in a crisis, fully exploited the lockdown to promote dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation, most notably online.
“They seek to mainstream extremist narratives in society, for the sole purpose of inciting hatred, violence, public disorder and a breakdown in community cohesion.
“We have already seen how extremists discussed the 5G conspiracy theory on fringe social media platforms such as Telegram.
“In April 50 5G masts were targeted for arson and vandalism in the UK.”
Khan has previously described the government’s response to tackling extremism as “weak and “insufficient” and in need of a “complete and urgent overhaul”.
The former head of counter-terrorism, Sir Mark Rowley, is leading the inquiry which will examine whether existing legislation adequately addresses “hateful extremism”.
Hate crimes directed against south and east Asian people has increased by 21% during the coronavirus pandemic, MPs were told in May.