The pandemic of lies online is costing lives. The pandemic has also increased anti-social behaviour from extreme radicalization which will extend long after the lockdowns. The UK’s youth seem to be a target audience.
Parents, teachers and groups such as Hope Not Hate, the Expo Foundation, and the Center for Countering Digital Hate are concerned that British youth returning to school next week have been exposed to extremist content online. The fact is, the far-right is exploiting the interchangeability and complexity of the online sphere. This interchangeability has fostered an everchanging lingo and glossary of new far-right symbols.
A neo-Nazi teenager, that set up FKD GB, a splinter group of banned National Action, was convicted of terrorism offences in January 2021. This teenager was radicalized and groomed online through forums such as Telegram, 8Chan (now 8kun) and GAB. The teenager has also influenced other youths, including Paul Dunleavy, 17, from Rugby, who was jailed last year for preparing acts of terrorism.
The online radicalization of youth has only ballooned during the pandemic.
Civil society and not-for-profit organizations, such as Owen Jones’ Hope Not Hate have taken the lead in battling online radicalization. Jones recently created a guide-book for teachers that focuses on new age internet-driven neo-Nazi symbols, logos, memes, and a appendix of common terms used by the far-right online.
The Expo Foundation, 2021 State of Hate: Far-Right Extremism In Europe, reported on a complex interwoven web of conspiracies that the far-right is promoting online in the UK. These include traditional anti-Semitic conspiracies with a contemporary twist, such as Covid-19 and 5G being Jewish plots. Other conspiracies include the typical anti-immigrant schemes, such as the government and the elites’ promotion of the ‘Great Replacement’ of white Britons. This was widespread in 2020 during BLM. Other simpler conspiracies include ‘immigrants bring diseases’ and Britain is being ‘invaded’ by illegal migrants crossing the Channel in little dinghy boats.
Although we can thank organizations such as Hope Not Hate and the Henry Jackson Society for their commitment to tackling radicalization and terrorism online, the UK government and Big Tech need to step up. The government’s ‘Prevent Strategy’ is outdated for the digital era, focusing on groups, instead of individuals and ignoring realities that Big Tech has a large role to play in preventing hate and radicalization of youth online.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate powered by young people, indicates in a study, major social media companies are not doing enough to tackle misinformation and radicalization online. The study indicated that out of 756 examples of misinformation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, only 9.4% were removed. It is quite clear that Facebook, with a stock increase of 23% since the end of 2019 is running off like a bandit, while grassroots groups, civil society, teachers, and parents are fighting the good fight.
Back in 2019, Sacha Baron Cohen described Facebook as the ‘greatest propaganda machine in history’, arguing that the company, which does not vet political ads for truthfulness, would have allowed Hitler to run propaganda on its platform. Google’s YouTube isn’t much better, riddled with far-right ‘stars’, such as Paul Joseph Watson, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) and recently, two silly blokes, Alan Leggett and Nigel Marcham, who watch out for Channel dinghy boats. YouTube also allows these individuals to promote their far-right pages and platforms such as Telegram, festering right-wing extremism into an echo chamber.
As a result of the lockdowns, British youth have spent much of the last year stuck inside, online, doom-scrolling. When a teacher assigns a project on the Holocaust or a study on Islam for instance, a student, researching online largely unsupervised could be exposed to extreme right-wing misinformation. This innocent exploratory process can lead a student to an alt-education, with Holocaust deniers and as well as far-right podcasters promoting extreme radical views on youth. Social media, search engines, and alt-platforms use algorithms, which then push impressionable youth down a rabbit-hole, increasing susceptibility of grooming by radicals. Moreover, many young boys, feeling isolated have turned to the incel movement online, which holds dangerous views on women.
Some recommendations include a research initiative by the Commission for Countering Extremism to examine the most effective ways to counter the distribution of online extremist content on alt-tech platforms. Additionally, regulatory agencies such as the Office of Communications and the Independent Press Standards Organization should be reformed and given more responsibilities.
Coming out of lockdown, it cannot be business as usual. No generation has had such an overabundance of information, nor has any generation in the digital age been subjected to a pandemic and numerous lockdowns. The combination, with a lack of government oversight online is a fertile environment for the radicalization of UK youth.