Commentary |
11 September 2020

Countering extremism and conspiracies in a global pandemic

Originally published in ABC Religion & Ethics.

Less than a year into the new decade, Australia has faced not one, but two natural disasters: the worst bushfires in recorded history, resulting in catastrophic damage to the natural environment and livelihoods; and the COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis that has resulted in unprecedented restrictions and caused the largest economic decline since the Great Depression. Both disasters were also preceded by prolonged periods of drought.

The effects of these cascading crises have been most keenly felt in the city of Melbourne and state of Victoria. After initial success in managing the response, the potency of COVID-19 saw it infiltrate cracks in society: federal-state relations; political party factionalism; mishandled bureaucratic responses; and the realities of the neoliberal economic system in which the profit imperative overrides the common good.

The pandemic and the government-imposed restrictions have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in our society — from the lower socio-economic areas in the north and west of the city of Melbourne and new migrant communities, to those with pre-existing conditions, disabilities, mental health needs, and the elderly. But the pandemic has also given rise a prolonged period of collective stress and trauma which has made more people susceptible to disinformation, conspiracies, and extremist narratives.

The federal and state government response to the pandemic has been to resort to default disaster and emergency responses, which traditionally involve implementing short-term measures to manage immediate danger — including strict public-health measures and cordoned off disaster areas mandated centrally and with little oversight, through the declaration of states of emergency.

The actions undertaken by government under a state of emergency afford a higher level of executive power and decision making than is usually the case under a representative government. This is generally tolerated when there is an immediate, clear, and present threat, like a bushfire or flood. But in the context of a prolonged struggle against pandemic, little or no thought seems to have gone in to the consequences of the long-term application of a state of emergency and prolonged period of authoritative government. Yet the consequences and affects of a prolonged state of emergency can no longer be overlooked.

How extremism exploits the trust deficit

Victoria has faced a Stage 4 lockdown where residents are restricted to their homes for 23-hours a day, allowed just one hour for exercise, and one shopping trip. Victorians must stay within a five kilometre radius of home and are confined by curfew between the hours of 8pm and 5am. Police helicopters quite literally hover over the suburbs during these hours, with a particular focus, it appears, on the west, north, and outer south-eastern suburbs, where the pandemic has had the most significant impact on people’s livelihoods and where (judging by the limited data that is shared with the public) there are a number of COVID “hot spots.” To this must be added the virtual imprisonment of residents of a number of public housing towers for two weeks prior to the current lockdown, in a belated attempt to halt the spread of the virus.

Workplaces and business remained closed to all but “essential workers” (a highly contested term), resulting in economic limbo for hundreds of thousands. All but “essential” shops remain shuttered and churches remain closed — and all this while the rest of the Australia and, it seems, the world, has sped back up.

When societies suffer such collective stress during periods of conflict, emergencies, and disasters, more individuals become more receptive to extremist narratives and what is called “accelerationist” thinking (more on this below). These conditions have created ideal conditions for the spread of violent extremist narratives and conspiracy theories.

Early in the pandemic response, including during the initial lockdown of metropolitan Melbourne, a few fringe voices could be heard, largely amplified by the media. However, these quickly evolved from those traditionally associated with conspiracy theories — including “anti-vaxxers,” “sovereign citizens,” alternative wellness advocates, and more recently anti-5G activists — to include segments of society traditionally associated with the potential for violent extremism, including the alt- and far-right.

In a preliminary examination of some of the public statements of members of the Australian far right and alt-right, it is evident that as events unfold, disinformation and conspiracy theories around the pandemic are woven into narratives that reinforce extremist narratives. This includes the notion that governments are using the pandemic to increase their control — a trope common across conspiracy groups and the far-right. Blair Cottrell, who was found guilty in 2017 of inciting hatred against Muslims and linked to numerous several far-right groups over the past decade, stated:

Before a successful vaccine has even been developed or shown to be effective at all, state “health experts” demand that people who refuse the injections be denied employment and welfare benefits.

This seems to be playing out exactly as the “crazy conspiracy theorists” and “far-right extremists” said it would. Funny that.

Indeed, lines have been blurred between conspiracy theorists and extremists, with counter-terrorism police investigating an arson attack on a telecommunications tower in the outer-south-eastern suburb of Cranbourne West in May of this year.

One alt-right activist and active contributor to an alt-right media site has asserted that COVID-19 is part of a globalist plot to “enslave the planet,” referring to the pandemic as the “diversity flu” and asserting the need for white people to mobilise:

The only thing white people need to change is their mindset. You get a couple of months of hardship … the empathy of the white man switches off due to pure necessity. The one thing that has protected the people of foreign lands … is that we Europeans follow the rules … But what happens when our protection is gone and the surveillance is lifted? The white man remembers his inner brute. Even if there is only a temporary shutdown here, Australians will be a very different people after it is all over.

Another far-right extremist, known to fuse pseudo-scientific theories of white supremacy with a concern for the “soul,” has framed this similarly:

What we are fighting for is more than just to make our countries “White” in colour. We aren’t fighting for economic policies, immigration or social policies.

We are fighting for manhood, for blood, for honour, for truth and for our souls.

Disasters and emergencies play into “accelerationism” theory, which posits that the liberal-democratic order is a failure and that one must accelerate its demise through stoking social division, committing acts of violence, and undermining government legitimacy. These disasters and the government responses to them have also caused a significant expansion of the so called “sovereign citizens movement,” whose broad collection of members proclaim independence from state laws and regulations. Such narratives are particularly likely to take root among those feeling disempowered, whether it be socio-economically, socially or politically.

Countering the COVID-19 “infodemic”

Governments have traditionally employed strategic communications campaigns to project an aura of control and authority, in order to mitigate the spread of disinformation that typically accompanies societal-level traumatic events. But in a time of social-media saturation and instantaneous global communication, we are faced with the task of countering not only a pandemic but what the UN Secretary General has labelled an “infodemic.”

The exponential spread of disinformation, rumours, and conspiracy theories is corroding public trust in government institutions and undermining the process of political decision-making. It is causing significant damage to the public sphere and shifting the acceptable bounds of political debate, thereby increasing polarisation and often resulting in extremist violence. Under our current conditions, governments have not fully accounted for the acceleration of violent extremist narratives as part of their disaster management, or in their strategic communication strategies.

As we have argued recently, governments should extend their conception of disaster management — particularly in this era of tech-enabled communication and the expansion of the far-right online ecosystem — to include understanding, responding to, and promoting resilience to extremist narratives. It is important for disaster-management and resiliency measures to recognise that when societies suffer from collective stress, anxiety, and, most importantly, anger during emergencies and disasters, they may be more receptive to extremist narratives and accelerationist thinking. In contrast to a static government communication strategy, these narratives evolve to capture events on a day-to-day basis, exploiting an ever-increasing deficit of trust among some segments of the community.

According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, there will be a global increase in disasters. If the Australian far-right has attempted to exploit both the bushfires and COVID-19 to further their extremist and conspiratorial narratives and to accelerate mobilisation, we can expect to see this dynamic replicated in future disasters, both in Australia and around the world. Therefore, this must be factored in government disaster-management responses.

Religion has a role to play

Beyond this, however, there must be significantly enhanced efforts to empower communities, to give accounts of their role in combatting bushfires and the pandemic, to make them feel part of something larger than themselves — that is, to feel a sense of belonging, in a time when social isolation and the loss of agency has never been greater. To this extent, organised religion has a powerful role to play in providing meaning amid adversity and in transcending social divides.

Natural disasters often appear beyond that which humans can control. Perhaps it is for this reason that disasters are often framed in theological terms. As Dónal O’Mathúna has pointed out, theological ideas about disasters are common in English metaphors, from floods being described “of biblical proportions” (referencing the great Flood in the book of Genesis) to disasters being described as “apocalyptic” (a reference to the day of judgement). The COVID-19 pandemic, accordingly, has been described as a plague (referring, perhaps, to the plagues in the book of Exodus). But even as natural disasters are described as “acts of God” and linked to eschatology, as David Chester points out, modern Christian theology has been largely absent from the debate about the human choices and actions that contribute to natural disasters and their management or mitigation.

Once again, extremist voices have risen to fill that void. In an online “conference” organised by Australian extreme right figures during the height of the pandemic, a number of alt-right figures spoke about the need to create an alternative “church” in order to spread their ideology and organise their communities. Taking inspiration from orthodox sects which emphasis unwavering traditional interpretation of sacred texts, ethnic identity, and traditional gender roles, these far-right figures sought to differentiate their church from mainstream Anglo-religious organisations, which they view as corrupt, by musing over the need to start an “Australian Orthodox Church” based on white identity. The current state of crisis is not only a sign of the decline and destruction of white civiliasation, they claim, but also an opportunity and a sign that “ a new white civilisation is coming and with a new culture, a new faith and new being.”

Among leaders of the far-right, there is increasingly rhetoric and explicit discussion about religion and the nature of the soul. According to one far-right extremist figure, “normies” — that is, those in mainstream society who have not yet accept the true beliefs of the movement — have no soul and are not fully human. It is not only minorities or groups that are traditionally targets of right-wing hatred who have no humanity, according to far-right figures, it is all of mainstream society that is considered “animal” or “homo sapien” rather than fully human. This is an alarming escalation of dehumanising rhetoric entangled in discussions and conceptualisations of spirituality and religion that we are just beginning to observe among Australian extreme right communities.

We have also seen an appropriation of language across the religious spectrum. Heroes of the far-right — including Brenton Tarrant and Kyle Rittenhouse — are elevated by supporters to something resembling sainthood status; far-right activism is divided into concepts of spiritual and worldly struggle (like in concepts of jihad); and Odinism and Norse mythology are infused throughout far-right writing. This raises important, but largely unconsidered, questions about how well the state, religious institutions, law enforcement, and legal frameworks are prepared to respond to such developments.

Given the appeal of conspiracies and far-right extremist narratives among the white Australian majority, majoritarian religious figures, while largely silent throughout the pandemic, should display leadership and speak a message of unity and common humanity.

If the acceleration of violent extremism is not addressed during these times of crisis, it will allow extremism and the distrust of government and mainstream religion to incubate and spread. This will make recovering and maintaining political legitimacy and trust in institutions in the long term all the more difficult.

Joshua Roose is a Senior Research Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University.

Lydia Khalil is a Senior Policy Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, a member of the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies, and a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute.

You can listen to Joshua Roose discuss the appeal of conspiracy theories in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on The Minefield.