Extremists Use COVID-19 Fears To Spread Hate, Authorities Say

With the coronavirus crisis, researchers warn extremists have a captive audience for their message: millions of young Americans who are out of school and spending hours unsupervised on social media.


White supremacists and other extremists have been busy. Authorities say they're trying to exploit the fear that many of us are feeling right now to spread hatred. For the moment, they have a captive audience. There are millions of young Americans who are out of school and at home spending time online. NPR's Hannah Allam covers extremism. Hi, Hannah.


KING: So what are you seeing? How are extremists trying to take advantage of this situation?

ALLAM: Well, they seem to be adapting very quickly. For white supremacists, it's about blaming Asians, Jews, Muslims and others for the virus. There's overlap with another subset - the accelerationists. These are people who see violence as a way to speed up or accelerate the collapse of society so that another model, typically a white ethno state, can emerge in its place. Last month, the FBI says it foiled a plot in Missouri where a violent extremist allegedly planned to bomb a hospital that was treating coronavirus patients. Monitoring groups have recorded a surge in hostility and even violence toward Asian Americans.

And but here's the thing - extremists are indoors right now, just like everybody else. So most of that activity is online, and there's been a wave of virus-related hate on encrypted platforms and on Zoom and across social media.

KING: All right, so you're talking about some really scary stuff here - people who want the collapse of society. And at the same time, we have millions of kids and teenagers, they're not in school; they're online all day, a lot of them, and so that's where the risk lies.

ALLAM: That's right. I mean, the online space has long been the point of exposure in radicalization for young people. But there is this extra risk now because of just how destabilizing the pandemic has been. The experts I talked to point out that kids aren't just out of school and missing a lot of those milestones - prom and graduation - but many of them will also see a parent get laid off or they'll know someone who's sick. And at the same time, they don't have their usual access to teachers and pastors and coaches to lean on.

I called Shannon Foley Martinez down in Georgia about this. She's a former white supremacist. She herself was radicalized at a very young age - skinhead by 16. But she got out of that movement. And for the past 25 years, she's worked with families and institutions on prevention. She's worried about this moment. Here's what she had to say.

SHANNON FOLEY MARTINEZ: For young people who are growing up where they've been alive since 9/11 - we've been at war the whole time, there's, you know, at least a couple of recessions, there's COVID-19, they're watching a political system where people are growing increasingly polarized and seem to talk past one another so that any sort of political solution seems more and more unlikely - it terrifies me.

ALLAM: Yeah, she said this is the time to talk to your kids about what they're looking at online and make sure they're not channeling any fears they might have into hatred or extremism.

KING: But how do you do that, though? Because you know kids and you know that there's a balance between keeping an eye on them and then just, like, spying on them to see what they're doing at all times.

ALLAM: And that balance is difficult. I mean, even before the pandemic, there wasn't a lot of guidance available and what little there was was designed for schools. But what we know is that - you know, the advice emphasizes the importance of making a connection with your kids, talk about their online lives, play video games with them. Shannon Foley Martinez actually says this is where the pandemic offers what she calls a hidden gift. Here she is again.

FOLEY MARTINEZ: If we don't do this work right now with our children, the likelihood of them finding resonance with this confusion and the sense of destruction that's out there in the world is very high. But we have a unique opportunity right now - because so many of us are spending much more time than we ever get a chance to with our children - to really, really hit the pause button.

ALLAM: Yeah, she says parents have the power to help shape the message right now, and it's long overdue to talk about this stuff. And she says focus not on blame and destruction but, you know, think about talking about rebuilding and life on the other side of the pandemic.

KING: NPR's Hannah Allam. Hannah, thanks so much for this.

ALLAM: Thank you.


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