AS we come blinking out of the Covid restrictions, with or without our vaccine passports, there is a concern, continuously voiced by police and security experts, that the boredom associated with the long months in lockdown will have proven to be fertile ground for those seeking to radicalise vulnerable people online.

Forced away from their normal social interactions – at work, at social gatherings, at college – which might challenge extremist ideas, there is a worry that for a few people, hours and hours of stewing in their rooms with nothing but the internet for company could lead to a post-pandemic spike in extremist violence of all types – jihadist, extreme right wing, and so-called ‘incel’ anti-female related crimes amongst others.

In September 2020, Neil Basu, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in Greater London, told MPs that his ‘greatest single fear’ was the ability of rising extremism to incite vulnerable people towards terrorism and that there was evidence of “people as young as 13 starting to talk about committing terrorist acts”.

For him, extremism and the Covid-19 pandemic created ‘the perfect storm’ which, at that time, we were still to see the effects play out.

Vulnerable people, already with a notion towards extreme ideas, became a captive audience for those exploiting their right to free speech online, wishing to peddle hateful ideologies on social media and other sites, to foment further social division and upheaval.

Our worlds shrunk overnight to the confines of our homes with the TV and the largely unregulated internet as our only windows on the world – the perfect opportunity for extremists to tap into a confused, isolated population looking for answers.

So, for example, we saw posts talking about divine retribution for the Chinese government for its treatment of Uighers from extremist Islamists on the one hand, and untrue posts blaming increased Covid rates in some parts of the UK on Muslims attending mosques.

Through an analysis of over 600 million tweets, a 2020 study by research company Moonshot CVE which studies extremism, found a clear spike in anti-Semitic and anti-Chinese narratives stemming from false information.

According to the same company, Americans sharply increased their searches for extremist materials online during the pandemic. And a UK study found that the pandemic increased radicalisation globally as people found they had more time on their hands to look into extremist ideas.

I’m not arguing that anyone who’s ever checked out these ideas will be radicalised or that they would move from thoughts to actions, but for those who already have pre-existing ideas or who are vulnerable, that surely must be problematic.

Counter terrorism experts seem to think that this is a clear danger as we move out of lockdown and there are more crowds, more face to face interactions and more opportunities for those who wish to harm us – all this running in tandem with a mostly unregulated internet. There is also the concern that mental health issues caused by isolation might further exacerbate the problem.

If the experts are right, should we all be thinking about how we prepare for our rediscovered freedoms in the face of this type of threat?

In our homes, do we know who our kids have been interacting with online, do we know what they have been reading, do we talk to them about what they’ve been researching or who they’re following on social media?

And, more importantly, do we listen carefully and actively? Do we challenge the conspiracy theories, misinformation and dodgy memes?

Do we check their internet histories, drop in on them whilst they’re ‘missing in action’ for hours in their bedrooms?

Sometimes, I’ll admit, it feels too much like hard work when I’ve had a long day at work, and sometimes the conversations/arguments over the dinner table end in tears, and three partially eaten meals, but it is worth it, just to be sure. Or as sure as I can be. Because, although the captive audience of the online extremists may not have had his or her normal social interactions with the outside world to challenge those thoughts, many still have some kind of family unit around them to question, challenge or confirm.

At a personal level, this is a small but powerful action we can take. As communities we must not be ashamed to talk about it as we move towards, what can loosely be defined, as normality.

The government will no doubt try to do its bit to mitigate against this potential problem. After the tragic death of Conservative MP David Amess last week, the Home Secretary Priti Patel has been talking about ending anonymity online which may go some way to bringing accountability for what one writes on social media.

But this is surely just tinkering at the edges and could backfire.

Let’s not forget that online anonymity has empowered Afghans to speak out against the Taliban, whistleblowers to speak out against corrupt companies, as well as, unfortunately, the sad haters who shuffle around the corridors of the internet.

More useful would be if social media companies agreed to an effective take-down policy of hateful and harmful materials and, as the police have argued for – in extreme circumstances only – the right to eavesdrop on end to end encrypted messages.

Of course, all this won't sit well with those rightly concerned about free speech and an increase in regulation, but a more unified approach needs to be taken – one where the bottom line is not whose free speech is being limited, but how many lives can be saved.

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