MS Risk Blog

Coronavirus Effect on Far-Right Extremism in Western Europe

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Far-right extremism is not a new phenomenon and has a known history through-out western Europe. However, it has expanded once again finding a new voice and deep impact in 2020, with no major signs of slowing down. The far-right comprises a wide range of ideologies including, white-nationalism, white supremacy, and xenophobia and is widely known as right-wing extremism. The United States is often mentioned during recent discussions of the rise of individuals with far-right ideologies, but western Europe is seeing an increase in far-right activity as well. Germany leads the way, in the number of terror incidents by right-wing extremist, followed by Italy and the United Kingdom, despite decades of successfully promoting democratic political norms.

In recent years, far-right political parties in Europe have capitalized on crises to build their support bases and have made it to positions of power as a result. The refugee crisis, economic slumps, the opposition of multiculturalism have all provided opportunities for those seeking power, or in power, to gain support using scare tactics and uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for far-right extremists to fill the narrative with conspiracy theories and doubts. The far-right message has quickly adopted to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially on social media platforms. The combination of the flow of misinformation on social media and the increased amount of time people are spending online due to lockdowns has allowed for far-right ideologies to spread quickly and effectively. Global platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Parler have allowed for those who share ideologies to communicate globally and share support. When the United States Capitol was stormed on January 6, by far-right extremist, individuals in Germany and Austria were able to connect and share their support and, in some cases, donate money to other far-right organizations. Typically, far-right organizations are labelled disorganized and geographically focused, but the use of social media has devolved a web of connections that reach globally.

Far-right operations have not been limited to operating online. Anti-lockdown/anti-government protests have taken place across western Europe since March 2020, displaying extremist views. It is prominent in almost every western European nation. Demonstrations have topped tens of thousands of protestors coming together to object against lockdowns and governmental measures put in place to curb the virus. As the second and third wave of the coronavirus pandemic effects Europe, people are taking to the streets to protest against the restrictive measures and in most cases do so without wearing masks and practicing social distancing guidelines. Given the sheer size of the protest they can be described as super-spreader events.

Impatience is growing in populations that have been living in lockdown for months. While the main reasons behind the demonstrations can be viewed as legitimate, the groups that organize them are often infiltrated by far-right activists, anti-vaccine individuals, conspiracy theorists, and extremists or claim the virus is a hoax. In some cases, anti-lockdown protests have been infiltrated by right-wing extremists who intend to turn the protests violent. After a protest in Italy, the National Prosecutor Federio Cafiero De Raho said that the protests showed levels of violence that are not typically associated with the working class, and claims the authorities are investigating clues that will likely lead to the involvement of mobs and extremist forces. The British government published a study in July 2020 called “Covid-19: How Hateful Extremist are Exploiting the Pandemic” and results showed a link in the violence experienced during protests to increasing amounts of conspiracy theories that have spread since the start of the pandemic. The far-right has tailored the situation in a way that has thus far been successful. The combination of disinformation and the increased amount of time those are spending online provided those hoping to spread far-right ideologies with a unique opportunity.

As the far-right advance continues, it becomes increasing likely that the operations of the groups will continue with finding online platforms to share ideologies and demonstrating against western European governments. Despite the arrival of the first vaccines against the coronavirus and the disbursements of recovery funds, western European nations will most likely experience a hard hit on the economy. Unemployment will continue to spike, and business will continue to fail as governments renew lockdowns and strict restrictions. As stated before, far-right extremism capitalizes on crises. This presents opportunities for right-wing groups to continue their messaging.

Within the next six months, the far-right movement will likely continue to resemble how it does now but with more support. The spread of misinformation on social media sites has not decreased. Instead, it can be argued it has gotten worse, due to social media platforms banning key far-right leaders. This means that all the individuals who were using popular sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate are now looking for new sites to join. This may result in an influx of new users on lesser-known sites that could make it more difficult to investigate the information flowing on the platforms. It is possible that western Europe will recover from the increases in individuals with far-right ideologies, but with the pandemic having no clear end in sight this recovery is not close by.