They also take the opportunity to undermine confidence in governments and to reinforce their image and attract new members.
MADRID, 18 Nov. (EUROPA PRESS) –
Terrorist groups, extremists and organized crime have seen an opportunity in the coronavirus pandemic, taking advantage of it to forge their support networks, undermine the confidence of citizens in governments and even incite to intentionally spread the virus, as if it were a weapon, mainly using social media.
That is the main conclusion of the report ‘Stop the disinformation virus: The risk of malicious use of social networks during COVID-19 and the technological options to combat it’ published by the Institute for Research on Interregional Justice and Crime of the UN (UNICRI) in which the messages in this period from terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, extreme-right groups as well as organized crime have been analyzed.
According to the director of UNICRI, Antonia De Meo, “terrorist, violent extremist and organized crime groups are trying to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to expand their activities and undermine the effectiveness and credibility of government response measures.”
Although the malicious use of social networks is nothing new, he acknowledges in the foreword to the De Meo report, “it is alarming that some terrorist groups and violent extremists have tried to misuse social networks to incite potential terrorists to intentionally spread COVID- 19 and to use it as an improvised form of biological weapon. “
Thus, messages on social networks have been used in order to inspire acts of terrorism. “There are cases where far-right groups, such as CoronaWaffen, explicitly asked their supporters to spread the virus by coughing on a local minority or attending specific public places where religious or racial minorities would gather,” the report explains. Other groups, such as Eco-Fascist Central, “advocate the spread of the coronavirus in countries with large populations or high levels of contamination.”
On the other hand, messages have also been detected in which, for example, members of the Islamic State who had contracted COVID-19 were called to “act as ‘biological bombs’ to deliberately spread the disease among their enemies.”
The report refers in particular to the case of Timothy Wilson, killed by FBI agents on March 24 in Kansas, United States, when he planned to detonate a bomb in a hospital that treated patients with coronavirus. The suspect was active on at least two neo-Nazi Telegram channels and maintained contact with a soldier who was planning an attack on a news network and discussed attacking the Democratic presidential candidate.
MINING THE GOVERNMENTS
The groups analyzed have also taken the opportunity to try to harm citizens’ trust in governments and to reinforce their message and with it their recruitment strategy, according to the report.
In this sense, on all the extreme-right groups, they have used social networks to spread conspiracy theories and misinform about the virus, expanding their networks by exploiting algorithms that identify people who can potentially sympathize with their ideas and who have Forwarded specific memes or said they like them.
Conspiracy theories that have spread include the “identification of the 5G mobile phone network as a vehicle for transmitting the virus or the false claim that the pandemic has been orchestrated by Bill Gates to implant microchips in humans,” or the false idea that the virus is a joke and does not exist. “
Finally, the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has also given the opportunity, mainly to criminal groups, to gain control of legal companies and shops that could be in danger of bankruptcy, thereby diversifying their business, as has happened with the drug cartels in Mexico, which have tried to take over pharmacies in four states.
In this sense, they have taken the opportunity to “promote a positive image” of themselves, opening, for example, a coronavirus treatment center in the case of Al Shabaab, and reinforcing the idea that they can be a “state within a state”, capable of to offer help and support to the population in situations such as the pandemic.
Thus, “some criminal groups have tried to play the role of the Government and official institutions within the territories where they have a strong presence, adopting strict sanitary measures, such as confinements, or directly supporting the population with food” and other aid. However, the report emphasizes, “their main objective is not to protect the local population but their criminal interests” in the event of the arrival of reinforcements from the security forces.
A good example of this has been the drug cartels in Mexico, which have distributed aid boxes with their logo, as did a daughter of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, among others. Some Italian mobsters have also resorted to this type of activity, which they have subsequently advertised on social networks, just like the Mexicans.