Posted on March 23, 2020

How Social Distancing Could Lead to a Spike in White Nationalism

EJ Dickson, Rolling Stone, March 18, 2020

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.”


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.