Quarantined Radicals: Right-Wing Extremism In The Age Of COVID-19

Researchers are asking if this era of self-isolation will increase radicalization, but they need to look at the existing extremism COVID-19 is exacerbating.
Radical right meme Pepe the Frog.

Radical right meme Pepe the Frog.

Dr. Julia R. DeCook is an Assistant Professor of Advocacy and Social Change in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago.

There have been articles published that assert that there will be an uptick in far-right radicalization due to shelter-in-place orders currently occurring in many countries across the world—not to mention most of the United States. Some examples include a Rolling Stone article’s contact with researchers from the Southern Poverty Law Center and a new New York Times opinion piece.

Despite the fact that I do acknowledge the possibility of shelter-in-place orders being a fertile environment for radicalization that we’ve seen emerging in the digital era, the point must be made that it is also widely accepted that the journey of radicalism does not go from zero to literally Hitler. Rather, those who are already holding slightly radical ideas go further down the rabbit hole through internet searches and finding radical content that already supports their views, as nascent as they may be.

The case in point is that of mass murderer Dylann Roof, who searched for “black on white crime” on Google and was met with a number of websites espousing racist content. Although we can perhaps expect an uptick in activity, this blog post is going to explore the connections between the current pandemic and the increasing hate speech and violence against Asians and Asian Americans. In essence, the radicalization was already underway before the Internet and the pandemic intervened. In particular, the prevalence of right-wing ideas and casual racism, sexism, and homophobia in our day-to-day mainstream culture emerges in ways that people often don’t anticipate, or know to look for.

Indeed, the pandemic has not only brought anxieties surrounding health, but now with world economies entering recessions and possibly depressions, anxiety is the state of many people around the globe. Relying on the Internet for work, school, connection, and information means that many people are spending more time online than before. Many scholars before me have noted how the Internet is not a world apart, but rather an extension or mirror of our “face to face” reality.

Conspiracy theorists, political leaders, and other malicious actors have often used times of insurmountable crisis in order to push and advance their agendas. What is different about our current crisis is the digital aspect of it, and although it is too soon to tell what the outcomes of this pandemic may be, the online discourse from not just far-flung Internet subcultures but just online spaces like Twitter are demonstrating how this is taking shape.

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Radicalization Of The Already Radicalized

Address the contradiction in attacking someone suspected of contracting COVID-19 and point out that they’re just looking for excuses. In my previous post, I noted how xenophobia was an emerging product of the online discourse that pointed to China for being at fault for the current COVID-19 pandemic. Mixed up with conspiracy theories, rumors, and other kinds of mis/disinformation, the hate speech and hate crimes being directed toward Asians and Asian Americans has seemingly gotten lost in broader conversations about COVID-19 disinformation. As Matthew Lee noted in his piece for NBC, this hate speech is not one that has emerged with the current crisis, but echoes already held public beliefs about Asians in Western countries being the yellow peril, as “perpetual foreigners who post a threat to stability and order.

Lee notes how little has changed in our society and its perceptions of Asian people. The casual racism of terms like “Kung Flu” and the “Chinese virus” have resulted in real-life violence. In Texas, a man named Jose Gomez attacked an Asian family at a Sam’s Club – slashing a toddler in the face and stabbing two other family members. He defended his actions by saying he thought the family was Chinese and infecting people with the virus. In Montreal, a Korean man was stabbed, as well as a number of sites frequented by Chinese and Vietnamese people being vandalized.

In the Bronx, an Asian woman was attacked by four teenagers who demanded to know why she wasn’t wearing a mask, and also accusing her of causing the virus. The issue here isn’t whether or not these victims were Chinese, since that is a moot point, but rather the idea that it does not matter what “kind” of Asian someone is – to those seeking revenge and an outlet, any Asian they encounter is the source of their discontent. The hate crimes are not only increasing in North America, but around the world. In fact, the irony of the hate crimes is that if someone is afraid of an Asian person having the virus, they wouldn’t want to be close to them. The physical assaults then demonstrate that the fear of the virus is an excuse, and the attacks are because of a deeper, more entrenched racism.

Although not an empirical study, the racist and xenophobic posts that I and other Asian Americans have been encountering online have been on Twitter, Instagram (see figure below), YouTube, FaceBook, and even TikTok. Although the usual perpetrators are also engaging in this hate speech, it’s present and widespread on mainstream social media platforms. The memes, hashtags, and content emerging range from racist hate speech, conspiracy theories, to absolutely absurd shitposts. Regardless of the genre of content, what it all reveals is what Lee has said: it merely makes visible the already existing anxieties, racist beliefs, and attitudes of those who create, share, and participate in this kind of online discourse. In fact, by taking advantage of fear, of people’s desperate need for answers, extremists will cash in on this crisis like any other one, and use these online networks to do so.

A screenshot of an Instagram story posted by “antiasiansclubnyc,” which has since been removed and banned.

A screenshot of an Instagram story posted by “antiasiansclubnyc,” which has since been removed and banned.

In conclusion, and to get more personal, I am not afraid of the possibility of further radicalization due to more people moving online for day-to-day life. Rather, I am more afraid of existing in the world as an Asian woman, and what this means for my partner, my friends, my family, and the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community. Because if things continue in the current trend, AAPIs will not only be blamed for the current health crisis, but will also bear the burden of being blamed for causing the economic crisis we are already experiencing. We’ve seen this before with things like the murder of Vincent Chin, who was brutally attacked and killed in 1982 by two white men who were angry about losing their auto industry jobs due to the growing presence of Japanese car manufacturers.

The long-term effects of a presidential administration that openly espouses hate speech as well as extremist communities that are using this crisis to recruit and mobilize their members will be significant. Although the Internet may serve as one of the primary spaces for socialization (and thus, radicalization), it is merely the portal through which non-members are able to see these beliefs and ideas on display. The real-life violence that has happened throughout the world as a result of further radicalization online is only a small part of the racist, misogynistic violence that has already long existed. Rather than wondering how this crisis and subsequent isolation will lead to radicalization, I would implore researchers and citizens to look at what has already occurred and is currently happening. The radicalization has been well underway, and just needed a spark (like a pandemic) to ignite its fire.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Racism / Radical Right / White Supremacy