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How Social Distancing Could Lead to a Spike in White Nationalism

“We are seeing a huge uptick” in rhetoric from hate groups during the pandemic, said one expert on a call with the SPLC

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Anti-extremism experts are “quite concerned” about hateful rhetoric spiking in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — not just because of a rise in anti-Asian sentiment related to the virus, but also due to people in self-quarantine being more exposed to extremist movements online.

During a call with reporters to discuss the findings of the annual Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) “Year in Hate” report, anti-extremism experts spoke at length about their concerns about violent white-nationalist rhetoric mounting in the midst of the pandemic, fueled in part by actions taken by the Trump administration.

“We are seeing a huge uptick” in such rhetoric, said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center. “A lot of it is happening on YouTube platforms and videos and others, at a time where much of the country is sheltering in place or practicing social distancing. Ironically, it will serve to give these individuals much more access [to an audience] than they would normally have.”

Ward also spoke to mounting anti-Asian sentiment in the midst of the panic over the pandemic, as exemplified by two recent hate-crime arrests in New York City and increased reports of discrimination against Asian people in Portland, Oregon. A recent report of a Trump administration official referring to the virus as “Kung flu” to a reporter of Asian descent has arguably added fuel to the fire.

“Certainly you’re beginning to see a rise of anti-Asian violence, but to be clear it is not happening in a vacuum,” he said. “We have an irresponsible president who is continuing to refer to COVID-19 as a Chinese virus. That is intentional, and in a time of great panic and fear that will only lead to physical violence being expressed.

“We can fully anticipate to see a rise in anti-Asian violence in the U.S. unless our elected officials speak out very clearly that that type of rhetoric and behavior simply won’t be tolerated,” he added.

Anti-extremism experts also pointed out that in addition to anti-Asian sentiment, anti-Semitic sentiment has also been widespread in the midst of the pandemic. Much of the rhetoric has focused on either conspiracy theories about COVID-19’s origin centering on Jewish philanthropist George Soros, or Jewish communities where the virus took root, such as in New Rochelle, New York.

“This is a time where vulnerable communities are going to continue to be targeted, and we need to be looking closely at how the administration is responding,” said Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry at Muslim Advocates.

Anti-extremism experts expressed concern about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on hate groups’ ability to recruit and radicalize new members. While Ward noted that he had not seen an increase in rhetoric from accelerationist groups in recent weeks — a term for a splinter group of extremists that pushes for violence to bring about societal overhaul — “this is the kind of thing that folks who espouse neo-accelerationist ideology are looking for,” he said. “They want to capitalize on crisis and chaos.” (Indeed, one tweet shared with Rolling Stone shows a screen-grab of a Telegram thread in which ecofascists theorize about targeting electricity systems in areas where people are quarantined for this purpose.)

The SPLC annual report documents the number of active hate groups in the United States. According to the report, while the number of hate groups has dropped slightly over the past year, from an all-time high of 1,020 in 2018 to 940 in 2019, the number of anti-LGBTQ groups in particular, though, has risen by nearly 44 percent.

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said this increase has been taking place in concert with a rise in anti-LGBTQ (particularly anti-transgender) state legislation, such as a law preventing transgender children from joining sports teams that passed the Idaho Legislature earlier this week.

“It’s honestly quite shocking. It goes beyond what we’ve seen with the Trump administration initially focusing on rolling back protections,” Minter said. “Now, I think we’re entering a new phase of actually targeting LGBT people that is very much at the moment focused on transgender people, and these laws would single them out for exclusion, which is very dangerous.”