RIGHT-WING extremism has shifted since the Bendigo Mosque protests as COVID-19 has influenced adherents ideas, three terrorism experts have suggested.
They have tracked the way extremists have exploited COVID-19 for a newly published paper in academic journal Perspectives on Terrorism and found they bore some similarities to the anti-Islamic protests that marred debate on the merits of a Bendigo mosque between 2013 and 2016.
Charles Sturt University experts Kristy Campion, Jamie Ferrill and PhD student Kristy Milligan have depicted the Bendigo Mosque protests and others in Melton during the period as a "starting point" for numerous right wing extremists.
A number emerged, networked through the protests and then evolved in different directions, the researchers said.
"While competing flags or standards were often seen at the same event, this did not necessarily imply that their ambitions aligned, only their grievances did," the researchers said of protests during the period.
Bendigo became the scene of confrontations that at times descended into scuffles during rallies as police tried to separate protesters and counter-protesters.
Construction began on the building in 2019.
COVID-19 has brought together different extremist groups just as they did in Bendigo during the mosque protests and helped foster ideas linked to the "sovereign citizen movement", a broad ideology which can fuse white supremacy, anti-Semitic beliefs and conspiracy theories together.
That international, antigovernmental movement originated in the United States in the 1970s and before COVID-19 was most commonly seen in vexatious court action against legal authorities that adherents believed had no authority to impose taxes, enforce laws or restrict their movement.
Australian police and security agencies have been increasing their attention on people linking themselves with sovereign citizen movement ideas in the past decade because of their "increasing presence" in the country, the researchers said.
The country's extreme right-wing groups are fragmented but even before COVID-19 they were interacting with international peers, the researchers said.
As COVID-19 arrived in Australia in March, 2020, right-wing ethno-nationalists were incorporating COVID-19 rhetoric into longstanding racist and xenophobic agendas, including in social media posts blaming the virus on globalism, China and the deception of "elites", the researchers said.
"COVID-19 was used to buttress preexisting ideological beliefs, and further highlight the alleged peril posed by Asian immigration, globalism, left-wing opponents, and Jews," they wrote.
The rhetoric began to be influenced by conspiracists and anti-vaccination sentiment as governments brought in social distancing measures, and potentially exacerbated by rising unemployment.
COVID-19 has added new ideas to right wing extremism in Australia, though it is unclear if or how some ideas including those linked to the sovereign citizen movement might survive post-COVID-19, the researchers said.
It could create new, idiosyncratic beliefs that national security groups would need to manage for some time, they said.
"COVID-19 exposed the susceptibility and vulnerability of democratic societies to conspiratorial beliefs in times of uncertainty-especially those which, arguably, are crowdsourced such as QAnon," the researchers wrote.
Their paper also examined how COVID-19 influenced Australia's left-wing extremists as well as violent Salafi-Jihadists.
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