Criminals exploiting pandemic to undermine trust in govts: UN

Criminals and violent extremists are exploiting the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to undermine trust in governments and even weaponise the deadly virus, the UN said in a report.

According to a research report published on Wednesday by the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups were trying to take advantage of the pandemic to expand their activities and jeopardize the efficacy and credibility of response measures by governments, reports Xinhua news agency.

“It is also alarming that some terrorist and violent extremist groups have attempted to misuse social media to incite potential terrorists to intentionally spread Covid-19 and to use it as an improvised form of a biological weapon,” UNICRI Director Antonia Marie De Meo said in the report titled “Stop the virus of disinformation”.

According to the report, researchers found that social media could be used to “inspire terrorism”, motivating self-radicalized terrorists to perpetrate real attacks.

“There are cases in which right-wing extremist groups explicitly asked their followers to spread the virus by coughing on their local minority or by attending to specific places where religious or racial minorities gather.

“Other groups advocate to spread the coronavirus disease in countries with large populations or high levels of pollution,” it said.

The researchers examined three groups of non-state actors: right-wing extremists; groups associated with the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda; and organized crime groups.

The UNICRI researchers described how extremists, especially right-wing groups, used social media to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation about the virus, expanding their networks by exploiting algorithms that identify potentially sympathetic people who have liked and forwarded particular memes.

The conspiracy theories often melded different and contradictory stories, the report said, including “the identification of the 5G mobile phone signal as a vehicle to transmit the virus, or the false claim that the pandemic has been masterminded by Bill Gates to implant microchips into human beings, or the false idea that the virus is a hoax and does not exist”.

The economic crisis created by the pandemic was also giving criminal groups openings to take control of legitimate companies and shops that may be at risk of bankruptcy, citing the case of drug cartels trying to take over pharmacies in four Mexican states, and investigations into extortion in Italy.

The report comes as the overall number of global coronavirus cases has surpassed the 56 million mark, while the deaths have surged to more than 1.34 million, according to the Johns Hopkins University.

In its latest update on Thursday, the University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) revealed that the current global caseload and death toll stood at 56,178,674 and 1,348,348, respectively.