From jihadists to COVID conspiracy theorists - ‘People must be able to distinguish facts from fake news’

ZURICH

Experts based at the centre for the fight against radicalisation and violence in Winterthur are now also directing their forces on conspiracy theorists - ‘People must be able to distinguish facts from fake news’

From jihadists to COVID conspiracy theorists - ‘People must be able to distinguish facts from fake news’
Shutterstock

From jihadists to COVID conspiracy theorists - ‘People must be able to distinguish facts from fake news’

Shutterstock

The pandemic is also changing the work of those who fight to prevent extremism and violence. The so-called skeptics and those who believe that COVID-19 is the result of a plot or a hoax are being observed in the canton of Zurich at the centre for prevention against extremism and violence. The focus is in fact shifting to them: In the first two years from its inception (from 2016 to 2018) it focused mainly on Islamic extremism, now they also turn to conspiracy theorists.

Since the start of the pandemic, a growing number of conspiracy theories have circulated on social media stories such as: Bill Gates - the creator of the virus to another extreme that the Federal Council’s real intention would be to introduce a dictatorship. In the canton of Zurich there were several demonstrations organised by so-called «skeptics». According to Winterthur specialists it is clear: a form of extremism can develop in people who are susceptible to these type of theories.

The pandemic presents aspects relevant to the themes of violence and extremism, also writes Professor Dirk Baier an expert on delinquency and crime prevention at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) in a contribution published in of the report. Events like these lead to insecurity, fear and a feeling of threat. It is fertile ground for conspiracy theories, continues the expert, based on a vision of the world as a place divided between good and bad. A thought that brings these theories closer to extremism. In fact, a survey conducted by interviewing young people from all over the country, adds the professor, indicates that a marked conspiracy mentality is associated with media.

That is why it is important to give young people, the skills to correctly identify and classify the information to which they are exposed. People must be able to distinguish fake news from facts. In addition to the general competence and media literacy of our society, adds Allemann, in the future the actors of the world of education, social work and work with young people will have to seek solutions to help separate the facts from the rest. Solutions that the centre against extremism also wants to help find, since these do not yet exist.

It all started with radical Islam

The Winterthur centre was opened after cases of radical Islam in Zurich, especially in relation to the An’Nur mosque. Since its inception (2016), the unit has dealt with 150 cases. Among the cases faced in the last year: a university student who refused to shake hands with women and a high school student who feared that his partner had exposed the ideals of the extreme right.

Reports concerning alternative theories around COVID-19 there have been some. However, director Urs Allemann cannot enter into the merits. To conclude, the expert warns: Each case is unique. It is not certain that if a person believes in conspiracy theories he is radicalised or has slipped into extremism.

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