Conspiracy theories, extremism have contaminated the general public throughout pandemic as publicity rises

A report from the research firm Moonshot CVE, as Fisher notes, found that online engagement time by people living in states with local “stay at home” directives lasting more than 10 days increased 21%. Overall, there was a 13% increase in engagement in white-supremacist content on Google nationwide. This increase began around late March 2020, aligning with the imposition of these stay-home measures.

The states experiencing the greatest increase in this engagement were Connecticut with 66%, followed by Idaho (56%) and Kentucky (48%). It decreased in a number of states, including District of Columbia (-42%), Rhode Island (-38%), and Iowa (-30%).

A British study, from GSDRC Applied Knowledge Services, found that the pandemic has bolstered the spread of a range of extremist ideologies around the globe, including both Islamist radicalism and various forms of white nationalism. It found that a variety of new insecurities and fears fed into existing already driving radicalization, such as an erosion of trust in leaders and institutions, exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic such as the loss of business and employment.

The one-two emotional punch of economic insecurity and the specter of death from COVID-19 “reminded Americans of their own mortality,” while engendering a sense of “social dislocation and a loss of confidence in all institutions,” evangelical leader Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, told Fisher.

For many people, the protests and other forms of street activism were populated by people who may have been as motivated by the need for social contact as by the causes themselves, psychologists who have studied social isolation’s effects say. “By that view,” Fisher observes, “the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was both an insurrection plot and an impromptu meetup, an assault on the infrastructure of American democracy and a social gathering for people who believed they were defending their idea of nationhood.

The spread of online radicalization has had a number of profound effects in the real world. Some of these have taken the shape of acts of terrorism, such as the attempted attack on a Missouri hospital by a man who tried to steal a helicopter so he could “free” all the COVID-19 patients there, or the train engineer who attempted to ram a hospital ship he suspected of being part of a kidnapping conspiracy by derailing a locomotive. Other conspiracy theorists have set 5G cell-phone towers on fire because they believe the virus is being spread through that technology.

White nationalists also have tried to come up with ways to weaponize the pandemic, both figuratively and literally, but the bandwidth of right-wing extremists occupied by the “Patriot” militia movement has made much greater inroads with the broader population during the pandemic, primarily due to their organizing around protests against public health measures such as stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. Their numbers were amplified by their alliance with anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.

These coalitions had powerful real-world effects, including the threatened takeover of the Michigan Capitol in April by armed militiamen, some of whom later formed a plot first to take state officials hostage at the statehouse, then later to kidnap the governor. In Idaho, protesters led by Ammon Bundy’s “Patriots” invaded the statehouse with weapons. Bundy’s organizing has since metastacized into a regional “People’s Rights” army intended to resist pandemic-related measures.

Donald Trump’s post-election campaign to negate the results of the 2020 presidential election created a kind of perfect storm for all these strands to coalesce into a large far-right insurgency comprised of multiple factions. This army—whose components had actually begun commingling during the “Trump Train” campaign of intimidation late in the election season—came together seamlessly for the “Stop the Steal” protests at contested ballot-counting centers, as well as the large protests held in Washington, D.C., on November 14 and December 12, both of which produced significant street violence in the capital. The coalition of these extremists, primed for violence, is what finally came together for the Jan.6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“Pandemics create insecurity, while extremism offers a kind of certainty,” University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski told the Post. “Especially now, when trust is low in government, in Congress, in science, in medicine, the church—there’s nobody you can trust, so you trust your friends, your tribe. Extremists offer a black-and-white view,” he said. “There’s a culprit responsible for some evil plan to destroy the nation, and they have a plan for restoration that will bring back greatness.”

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