Crisis and Loss of Control: German-Language Digital Extremism in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published: 14th December 2020
Authors: Jakob Guhl and Lea Gerster

This report analyses the networks and narratives of German-speaking far-right, far-left and Islamist extremist actors on mainstream and alternative social media platforms and extremist websites in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our results show: Extremists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland have been able to increase their reach since the introduction of the lockdown measures.

However, this growth is not evenly distributed across the different ideologies and platforms. In the course of the crisis, far-right extremists gained more followers than far-left and Islamist extremists. Especially on alternative platforms such as Telegram, the channels of right-wing extremist conspiracy theorists grew, in particular in the two months immediately following the introduction of lockdown measures.

The report shows that extremists interpret the COVID-19 pandemic along pre-existing ideological patterns, cling to narratives and enemy images and link these to the current crisis topic. Thus, right-wing extremists use the crisis to mobilise against minorities and the government, left-wing extremists place the pandemic in an economic and anti-capitalist context, and Islamist extremists interpret the crisis primarily along religious lines.

Jakob Guhl is a Coordinator at ISD. He is the co-author of research reports on right-wing terrorism, Holocaust denial, right-wing extremism on alternative social media platforms, the reciprocal radicalisation between right-wing extremists and Islamists, coordinated troll campaigns, hate speech and disinformation campaigns in the run-up to elections.

Lea Gerster works as an Analyst at ISD. She deals with the dissemination of extremist ideologies, disinformation and conspiracy theories in the German and English-speaking world.

Editorial Oversight: Huberta von Voss-Wittig, Executive Director ISD Germany