Extremist avantgarde and fake news in time of pandemic – by Barbara Lucini

Fake news is not a new social phenomenon. The first of which is traced to the documentation dates back to the Napoleonic period, as an old saying quotes that those who possess information possess power.

Its origin is always strategic whether it is used for systematic war purposes or is put into circulation to create more general social disorders.

Fake news are always multidimensional and multilayer strategies such as: manipulation; amplification; using specific target and their vulnerabilities; reinforcement of stereotypes and prejudices.

In recent years, the fake news and the communication dynamics of which are substantiated have brought attention to the so-called hate speech and the social phenomena related to it, in relation to the type of target considered: there are many types of fake news that depend on the content, whether it is completely fake, manipulated, invented or if it is the context understood in the dual meaning of media frame and media ecosystem that assumes a deceptive trend.

What emerged during the pandemic was an intensive use, especially in the first period, of fake news spread through various channels and focused on multiple topics: from the origins of the virus, to institutional faults in the management of pandemics; from the ethnic responsibilities of spreading the virus to possible health remedies.

In addition to these technical and methodological issues, fake news produced by various extremist agencies and groups has emphasized that it is a source of attraction for far-right groups, as also from a cultural perspective, close in some cases to conspiracy theories that in what can be called a vicious circle promote the development of fake and manipulated news.

Alongside this cultural perspective, which is no longer ideological, it is also possible to identify a technological advance due to the online displacement caused by the lockdown: however, this does not mean that the central role of the offline activities of the more or less organized far-right groups have ceased: in fact, there is a phase of reorganisation and resilience of the more structured organizations, which aim to make a development in order to achieve a more important role on the socio-political and international scenario. It should also be considered that this advance will only be possible in mixed forms or new avant-gardes of extremism, whose ganglia are already branching out during this period of suspension from the active life of thousands of people in many countries.

The strategy that emerges as the one most adopted by the great plethora of far-right movements or groups is to amplify, starting from the management of the Covid-19, the attention, fuelling the clash and social tensions focused on issues indirectly related to the management of the pandemic: the unresolved issue of migrants; previous inequalities that emerged clearly during the pandemic; relations between institutions and citizens lack a basis of trust necessary for a minimum chance of pandemic governance; extensions of forms of organized crime in any sector of society.

Just as it has been for the processes of radicalisation and the fight against terrorism, many communication tools[2]  have recently been developed to try to stem the phenomenon of fake news:

as well as counter and alternative narratives tools, even the tools to counter the prevailing fake news have evident limitations and one of the most relevant is that they act only in the phase of reality check.

They are therefore technically effective tools but methodologically vulnerable, because they reproduce the same fragmentation and pervasiveness that are at the origin of the success of fake news: moreover, they do not act on the propulsive factor but only on their control ex-post.

The effect that this generates is that of a double Pandora’s box through which communications follow disharmonic and not specific flows for a target type.

What stated before identifies some important drivers for the management of future scenarios of conflict and social tension, which in this framework appear to be the primary legacy of the Covid – 19 pandemic:

  • the need to overcome the old classifications of extremism and political extremism. Many societies are experiencing mixed forms of extremism that need more attention both for the organizational modalities and for the purposes that are aimed at
  • the polarization of society is both cause and effect, in a double spiral, of forms of extremism more or less directly linked to the pandemic
  • fake news as a communicative strategy of various forms of extremism, need to be understood not only from a technical perspective, but also methodological and cultural: they are multichannel and as it reminds us Harari (2017)[3] since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite,[…]
  • understanding the advance of the new extremist avant-gardes, meaning with them all those more or less organized forms of violence and/or extremism, which undermine the social mood and which have risen to prominence in the time of pandemic
  • an effective crisis management should have included these communicative aspects, which relate for the most part to cultural perspectives, which have always unfortunately been excluded from this area, immolated by the gods of technology
  • fake news is an extremely sensitive issue because it concerns the relationship that all citizens have with regard to the freedom of expression and the way in which the democratic form is in crisis

In the not-so-distant future, but now suspended, the institutions and entire societies of many countries will have to deal with these issues; seriously address the power that the possession or generation of (false) information generates and how this undermines the balance of democratic states and their own resilience. Most of all we will need to strip off old labels, to understand the new that is advancing. to prevent the move from the era of the pandemic to the era of declared social conflict.

[1] This article is part of preliminary empirical considerations that the author will use during the effort of the COVID-19 and Viral Violence Working Group (National Science Foundation funded Social Science Extreme Events Research-SSEER Network& CONVERGE/Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, https://converge.colorado.edu/resources/covid-19/working-groups/issues-impacts-recovery/covid-19-and-viral-violence). This COVID-19 Working Group effort was supported by the National Science Foundation-funded Social Science Extreme Events Research (SSEER) network and the CONVERGE facility at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder (NSF Award #1841338). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF, SSEER, or CONVERGE.

[2] https://www.agcom.it/osservatorio-sulla-disinformazione-online







[3] Harari, Y. N. (2017), Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow, Random UK, UK