The pandemic has made young people especially vulnerable to being radicalised by online extremists, a conference has heard.
Prolonged lockdowns and increasingly online lives put youngsters at risk of becoming aggressive.
Robert Muggah, a security professional and founder of the SecDev group, said the pandemic had created a “simmering diet of fake news” that has brought extremist views into the mainstream.
“A particularly vulnerable group in all of this are younger people,” he told the Oslo III conference on preventing extremism.
“Roughly 1.5 billion students have had school disrupted, and have spent much more time online in the last 20 months.
“What we’ve seen in study after study ... is the connection between self-isolation, increased time online and potential thoughts or behaviours associated with aggression, including potentially participation in hate groups.”
The risk of radicalisation and recruitment by extremist groups was “especially real” for young people, Mr Muggah said.
“We’re only just starting to see this deep burden on young people, in terms of physical and mental health.”
A recent report found that mental distress had risen especially sharply among young people during the pandemic.
Many countries have closed schools and universities because of the pandemic and young people’s lives have become more reliant on the internet.
The study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said more funding would be needed for mental health care after the pandemic.
Fears over far-right
Roudabeh Kishi, the director of research at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled), told the Oslo event that far-right groups had benefited from anti-lockdown movements.
She said militia groups and the pro-Donald Trump “Stop the Steal” movement drew momentum from anti-lockdown protests in the US.
Elsewhere, far-right activists have become increasingly involved in lockdown protests in Germany.
Protests involving far-right groups were more likely to turn violent, according to Acled.
“These far-right actors have successfully influenced the movement by capitalising on demonstrators’ distrust and dissatisfaction with the government to advance their own agenda,” Ms Kishi said.
Mr Muggah said the digital revolution brought about by the pandemic had given extremists a larger potential audience.
About 400 million people went online for the first time during the pandemic, he said, while the health crisis had led to public mistrust of governments, which played into the hands of extremists.
“There appears to have been a fairly tight relationship between strict lockdowns and increased demand for extremist content,” he said.
“Covid’s been really a boon for conspiracy. It’s feeding a simmering diet of fake news which is spilling over into the real world."