The growth of the far-right and alt-right in recent years has seen social media and online videogames being used both as a catalyst and a focal point for the radicalisation of teenagers and young people. In early February, a 16-year-old boy became the UK’s youngest terrorism offender, admitting to 12 offences including downloading a bomb-making manual when he was 13 years old and leading the British version of a banned neo-Nazi terrorist organisation. The number of teenagers arrested on terrorism charges over the past 18 months is extremely concerning; 17 with the youngest being only 14 years old.
The accessibility of far-right content alongside its deceptive and predatory tactics, targeted towards young and impressionable young people is alarming. Despite the concerted effort from social media companies and internet service providers, far-right content can be accessed by anyone. In addition, far-right groups are increasingly making use of messaging apps and services which lack the same regulation as mainstream social media platforms.
With young people spending more time isolated and online during the pandemic, the possibility of exposure to these groups and their content is a legitimate concern for both parents and law enforcement. So, what are the potential methods to combat this growing proliferation of far-right extremism online?
The first response is support for vulnerable teenagers and young people. The far-right, along with other extremist groups, prey on young people affected by a variety of factors, including but not limited to, social exclusion, family difficulties, disadvantaged backgrounds, and poor academic prospects. Offering a better alternative via their ideology, as well as scapegoats and targets for hate, these groups lure young people in and bombard them with propaganda.
Addressing the issues in our society to ensure that people, especially teenagers, do not find themselves in situations where they are more susceptible to indoctrination and false promises is vital. However, this is difficult due to the multiple factors in need of addressing and the inability of the government to address these societal issues under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic.
Another answer is education. The far-right capitalises on the impressionability of young people and the unlikelihood that they will fact-check any claims made. Recent changes have been made to social media platforms to include fact checks on content related to Covid-19 to prevent the spread of misinformation and this should be applied to far-right content. Initially, this may be difficult as far-right content often presents itself as ‘patriotic’ and may not appear explicitly dangerous to those who aren’t aware of this tactic. Despite this, fact-checking could prove vital to dispelling dangerous claims at their source.
Additionally, education on these groups and how they operate can aid in disrupting their activities. For example, exposing the reality that these groups heavily rely on teenagers and young people to make up their memberships, and even their leaderships in some cases could help break some of the illusions that they project.
De-platforming is another important tool for curbing the proliferation of far-right extremism. Quickly deleting far-right accounts on social media denies young people easy access to harmful content. However, there is a risk that de-platforming forces far-right groups and their followers to use messaging services which are harder to monitor and moderate. Despite this, the important point to stress is that social media often acts as a means to lure young people to said forums and messaging services. Therefore, denying these groups the opportunity to use social media to spread their harmful rhetoric and lure impressionable young people towards extremism is a significant countermeasure.
These responses could serve to prevent disadvantaged young people whose life prospects and opportunities have been altered by the pandemic from falling victim to the far-right’s predatory tactics. Extremism thrives on tough times and desperation, and more should be done to protect young people from these dangerous and hateful ideologies.
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