COVID-19 used by criminals to undermine trust in governments: UN report

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at the launch of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019, at the UN headquarters in New York, on March 10, 2020. (Photo: Xinhua)

UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 18 (Xinhua) -- Criminals and violent extremists are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine trust in governments and even weaponize the virus, the UN said in a report on Wednesday.

According to a research report published here on Wednesday by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), Terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups are trying to take advantage of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic to expand their activities and jeopardize the efficacy and credibility of response measures by governments.

"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 introduction to 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 in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da'esh) and Al-Qaida; 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.