Extremists use online games and Covid conspiracies to recruit young people | Prevent strategy

Right-wing extremists use Covid controversy and online gambling as a way to recruit young people, as data show that half of the most serious cases of alleged radicalization reported by schools and colleges now involve right-wing extremist activity.

Figures released by the Home Office show that twice as many young people in education in England and Wales last year were considered at risk of radicalization from the extreme right wing compared to those at risk from Islamic extremists.

The new figures from the government’s Prevent anti-extremism program, covering 2020-21, show that 310 people were referred to Prevent by schools, colleges and universities because of right-wing extremist links. Only 157 were deported due to vulnerability to Islamic extremism.

But while fewer than one in five cases of suspected Islamic extremism were escalated by the authorities, almost one in three cases involving right-wing extremism were passed on to the government’s Channel scheme, which aims to protect people most likely to be radicalized and drawn into terrorist activity.

Sean Arbuthnot, a Prevent coordinator for Leicestershire, said that while right-wing extremism has been on the rise for several years, online apps and platforms are increasingly popping up in referrals, including gaming platforms and chat apps such as Discord, which right-wing groups sought. to reach the young.

While eight violent and racist right-wing groups have been banned by the government, Arbuthnot said he was concerned about right-wing extremist groups that have not yet been banned from joining existing controversies.

“[Some] during the pandemic conducted leaflets campaigns in which they wanted to promote the narrative that Covid is a scam, that hospital wards are empty and that one should not get the vaccine. Then they load their leaflets with pseudo-scientific evidence. But at the same time, they are throwing out leaflets claiming that white people will be a minority in Britain, which plays into people’s fears, ”Arbuthnot said.

“If you interact with them on a YouTube platform and scroll through the comments section, you may find links to more encrypted chatrooms or extreme right-wing codes or characters and symbols that you may be tempted to explore.

“It’s one of the worrying ways right-wing extremists can play on the fear that results from Covid-19 and conspiracies, to care for, in essence, vulnerable young people in the online space.”

A school principal in the East Midlands – who asked not to be named – said the shutdowns and the extended time outside the school meant there had been a “shock” at hearing students return to school with dangerous and extreme attitudes.

“A few came back and it was as if they spoke another language that I imagine they may have only picked up online,” she said.

Research from UCL’s Department of Education earlier this year showed that teachers are experiencing an increase in extremist views and conspiracy theories among students, but feel they lack the training or resources to tackle it.

Becky Taylor of the UCL Institute of Education said, “The teachers we spoke to told us that it was rare for young people to join extremist groups, but it was very common for young people to express extreme views in schools.”

Of the teachers surveyed, 95% had heard students express racist attitudes, 90% had encountered homophobia or conspiracy theories, and nearly three-quarters had encountered extremist attitudes towards women or Islamophobic attitudes.

“For teachers in the classroom, because young people can get pretty deep into these views and can be very well versed in all the arguments, if you are not an expert in these things yourself, it can be very difficult to challenge them,” Taylor said.

Owen Jones, director of training and education for Hope Not Hate, said the charity saw younger students become involved in far-right extremism, including boys as young as 13, often using the Telegram messaging app.

Schools are “ill-equipped” to tackle the problem, Jones said, because the language of the new extreme right or all-right has changed so much that many teachers may have no idea what students were talking about.

But Arbuthnot said schools and colleges in Leicester had developed tailor-made projects using local organizations and charities that adapted their techniques as they became aware of new dangers.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the Prevent numbers underscored the need for improved support for schools in tackling these issues, as well as more action from platforms to block and remove harmful content and robust online regulation.

While the total number of referrals from the education sector under Prevent has fallen – from close to 2,000 to 1,221 in 2020-21 – the extended closure of schools, colleges and universities after March last year is responsible. The largest category of referrals was for individuals with unstable or unclear ideologies, but fewer than one in 10 of those referrals were Channel cases.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said: “It is very important that if anyone has a concern about someone they think may be radicalized that they act early and seek help.”

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