The outbreak of COVID-19 has sparked a spirit of generosity and kindness around the world; at the same time, online and in-person extremism has increased.
Experts attribute the rise of hate to a combination of social isolation, increased activity on social media platforms rife with misinformation, and the exploitative nature of extremist groups who urge individuals to make sense of a confusing situation via hateful narratives. “When society is under stress, extremist groups try to show they are the ones capable of providing security and safety,” Swedish counter-extremism consultant Robert Odell told TIME magazine.
Multiple extremist groups have taken advantage of the situation, from White nationalists to Islamic fundamentalists to anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. “Zoombombings,” in which someone hacks a group video call with hateful images or words, have targeted users — including college professors — from underrepresented backgrounds with racial slurs, swastikas, sexist language, and more.
Extremists even went so far as to hack a virtual graduation ceremony when, on May 9, Oklahoma City University’s online commencement was interrupted by the appearance of a racial slur and swastika across viewers’ screens.
Another form of harassment directed at faculty are efforts by conservative groups to record online classes and then share them on social media in an effort to prove claims of liberal bias or “radicalism” in American higher education, as described in a tweet by Charlie Kirk, the founder of the conservative group Turning Point USA.
Professors worry about the effect such actions have on the safety of educational spaces. “Faculty and instructors need academic freedom to develop [online] learning spaces that support free and open exchange without a threat of these exchanges harming their employment status,” said Dr. Safiya Noble, associate professor of information and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an interview with NBC News.
Extremists have also displayed xenophobic messages during anti-quarantine protests, vandalized property with swastikas and other hate symbols, and more.
Discrimination specifically against Asian Americans has amplified during the pandemic, with human rights groups recording a noticeable uptick in instances of harassment and physical assault against this community.
Political leaders have been accused of encouraging this discrimination, with President Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban blaming migrants for the spread of the disease.
In the absence of unifying political leadership, small acts of kindness undertaken by individuals and communities have the power to remind those who feel alienated or afraid that hateful ideologies are not the answer.
As told to TIME by college student and former White supremacist Mak Kapetanovic, such gestures are “what will kill this virus of extremism.”
Ginger O’Donnell is the assistant editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in the May/June 2020 issue.