Acts and threats of violence by people radicalised into extremism by opposition to pandemic measures are offering a growing problem in multiple countries. In New Zealand former prime minister Jacinda Ardern was subjected to numerous threats, and in Germany extremists are accused of planning a coup. The numbers of those involved may be small but they are intensely committed and disproportionately vocal, making the prospect of violence real. To stop this trend, politicians need to commit to not appeasing and normalising far-right views. Social media companies also must do much more to prevent the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Many reasons may lie behind the recent shock resignation of Jacinda Ardern as New Zealand’s prime minister. Ardern announced she ‘no longer had enough in the tank’ after more than five years in the role. She certainly served a demanding stint that included the pandemic, natural disasters and a far-right terrorist attack.

Her supporters denied speculation that the vitriol that came her way in recent years had anything to do with it. It’s to be hoped that’s true: there’s little doubt Ardern was the target of a continual and growing bombardment of online abuse, much of it vilely misogynist in nature, and it would be sad if other young, progressive women were deterred from seeking leadership as a result.

What’s been levelled at Ardern has far gone beyond the boundaries of acceptable political debate. Last year New Zealand police reported that threats against Ardern had almost tripled over two years. In 2022 two men were arrested for threatening to assassinate her. Ardern may need ongoing security after stepping down, something unheard of in New Zealand. All this is highly unusual in New Zealand, and its culture of easy access to politicians may be changing as a result.

The pandemic’s political impacts

It’s no coincidence that threats increased during the pandemic. Ardern took early and rapid action to control the virus, centred around strict rules and clear information connected by a message of empathy. This won her broad public approval and international praise. As a consequence, the Labour Party she led enjoyed a commanding win in the October 2020 election.

In recent times, the popularity of both Ardern and her party has declined. Ahead of the next election this October, the opposition has consistently led polls, not least because of economic downturn due to pandemic lockdowns. But there’s a group of people who’ve long made their mind up. They’re the ones who vehemently opposed pandemic restrictions and vaccinations, including temporary policies requiring proof of vaccination to work in professions such as healthcare and education.

In New Zealand, as in many global north countries where people have little experience of such emergencies, the pandemic was an unequally polarising experience. Almost all people went along with the rules, but a small and very vocal minority found them wholly unacceptable. They found in opposition to pandemic regulations a political rallying point – and a gateway into a world of disinformation, conspiracy theories and extremism.

Online extremism fuelled real-world aggression. In January 2022, Ardern’s transport was forced off the road after being chased by anti-vaccine protesters. For weeks in February 2022, anti-vaccine protesters camped outside New Zealand’s parliament, and it ended in violence: the protest site was set ablaze in response to a police raid, with police using pepper spray and sponge rounds.

Sparked by temporary vaccine mandates, the protest became a magnet for far-right extremists expressing a wide variety of grievances and using increasingly violent rhetoric. Among those drawn in were people vehemently opposed to gun control policies introduced in 2019 in the aftermath of an unprecedented act of terrorism in which a white supremacist attacked two mosques, killing 51 people.

New Zealand’s protesters found evident inspiration in the truckers’ blockade in Ottawa, Canada that began in January 2022. A protest against proposed mandatory vaccinations for truckers crossing the Canada-US border also quickly grew to accommodate an array of conspiracy theories and far-right views, receiving ready ideological and financial support from US-based Trump supporters. Some were prepared to move from violent words to deeds: in February 2022 an armed group connected to the protests was charged with plotting to kill police officers. Similar protests happened around the same time not only in New Zealand but also in Australia, France and the Netherlands, among others.

The potential for violence

Far across the world in Germany, there was perhaps a comic tinge to the events that unfolded in December. Police arrested 25 far-right extremists accused of plotting to overthrow the government. A tweed-jacketed aristocrat, Heinrich XIII, had lined himself up as the putative head of a re-established German Reich. A former member of parliament of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was to be the new justice secretary. A medical doctor was to become minister of health.

The plotters were from the Reichsbürger movement, which denies the legitimacy of the post-war German state, its borders and institutions. It seems the plan was to storm parliament and take politicians captive, at which point it was assumed the military and public would rise in support. Once in control of the government, the plotters planned to renegotiate the treaties that established modern-day Germany and make friends with Russia.

One obvious current of inspiration for the planned attack was the 6 January 2021 US insurrection. Part of the danger of what happened in Washington, DC is that it normalised political violence and offered a model to imitate. This was recently seen in Brazil, where thousands assaulted the institutions of federal government to try to destabilise the newly inaugurated administration.

In Germany the ground had also been prepared by the Querdenken – lateral thinking – movement that emerged in protests against pandemic lockdowns and vaccinations. It started out claiming to be non-partisan, merely bringing people together to question pandemic measures. Some supporters came from the left, often starting from a point of suspicion about the motivations of large pharmaceutical companies. But as time went on the movement increasingly embraced far-right thought.

This connected with other extremist strands brought together under the pandemic: the Reichsbürger movement, the racist ideology long espoused by the AfD and fellow European far-right parties, the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory birthed in the USA and the anti-migrant ‘great replacement theory’ that far-right politicians like Hungary’s leader Viktor Orbán have introduced to the political mainstream. Pandemic conspiracy theorists and QAnon adherents were reportedly among the alleged coup plotters.

In Germany, as in New Zealand, opinion polls showed widespread support for the state’s pandemic measures. Once pandemic restrictions eased due to extensive vaccinations, most people moved on. But a minority remained, in Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere, for whom the pandemic was a galvanising issue, a gateway into a conspiratorial rabbit hole. Once brought in by pandemic scepticism, some have proved intensely committed and incredibly vocal, having reach beyond their size.

It’s tempting to laugh this off as inconsequential, although there are many heart-breaking tales of family and friendship bonds being shattered as people have drifted off into this world. In Germany, frontline politics wasn’t affected. The AfD has long profited from anti-migrant rhetoric, but its attempt to seek political advantage from an anti-mask, anti-vaccine stance at the 2021 election failed, and its support fell. But the potential for violence is no laughing matter. The narratives shared are lurid and violent, filled with fantasies of executions and sexual violence towards women. It would take only a handful of people – a minority of a minority – to act them out for tragedy to result.

Germany’s alleged coup plot smacked of self-delusion, but the group targeted in the December raids had an armed wing. One of those arrested is a member of Germany’s Special Forces Command, an elite force long accused of links to far-right extremists. Other members were military reservists. The police reported that weapons had been found at over 50 locations, and the group apparently had a hitlist of targeted politicians and journalists. The group appeared to be well-funded. It wouldn’t have succeeded in overturning the government, but it might have managed to kill people in the process of failing.

This isn’t the first such threat. In August 2021 police reported a credible assassination plot against Michael Kretschmer, head of the German state of Saxony. Kretschmer made himself a target by introducing restrictions on non-vaccinated people during a severe wave of the virus. In April 2022 police arrested four people suspected of planning to abduct Karl Lauterbach, the health minister. Police found several weapons in the raid.

Around the world, protests against pandemic measures have sometimes turned violent and politicians have been the subject of credible threats. Attacks on and threats towards journalists have risen too, in Germany, New Zealand and wherever conspiracy theories have taken hold. In France, a trial began in January of a far-right group accused of plotting to assassinate President Emmanuel Macron and planning to attack mosques. The group started out on Facebook.

Social media in the spotlight

Disinformation and conspiracy theories preceded social media, but it’s impossible to imagine them spreading so fast and penetrating so deep without them. Social media algorithms create the rabbit holes that suck people in: people are exposed to endless streams of unverified, increasingly simplified and extreme content that reinforces beliefs. Communities form around these. Social media’s capacity for rapid sharing of disinformation means a lie can spread around the world and take hold however many refutations are made. For some, this is the pathway to violence: a study in the UK showed that most convicted terrorists had been radicalised online.

Moderation is part of the response needed, but there’s a tech industry crunch underway: major companies have laid off over 70,000 staff in the last year. That can only mean less moderation and more opportunities for disinformation and hate speech to thrive.

Since Elon Musk, who recently shared a far-right conspiracy theory, took over Twitter, moderation systems have been dismantled and many staff have been laid off, including the entire human rights team. Its Trust and Safety Council, a key advisory group drawn from civil society, has been dissolved. Among those fired were staff in Brazil: disinformation then went through the roof in the run-up to the January insurrection. It’s a pattern seen globally.

Musk’s changes may have been motivated partly by his self-professed belief in so-called free speech absolutism, and partly from a desire to make Twitter profitable by cutting costs. When social media companies slash jobs meant to eliminate disinformation and hate speech, it suggests these were little more than window dressing to start with.

But a further route to profit is by enabling and encouraging conflict. Controversy is what compels people to join in and keeps them engaged. Conflict is good for business, and social media companies have few incentives to prevent it.

Responsible action needed

The pandemic offered a major entry point into the conspiratorial world, but there will be others. Far-right groups are opportunistic: they look for issues they can latch onto to make headlines and recruit support. Some supporters stick after the immediate issue has passed. New Zealand no longer has pandemic restrictions, but it’s now home to extremist movements that can be expected to stay active even after Ardern’s resignation.

Once brought in by pandemic scepticism, some have proved intensely committed and incredibly vocal, having reach beyond their size.

Currently in some countries, notably the UK and USA, culture wars are waging about trans rights. Unlikely alliances are being struck between some self-professed ‘gender critical’ feminists and ultraconservative groups, with both camps opposed to what they characterise as ‘gender ideology’. The vitriol is strong and frequently crosses the line of reasonable discourse. Disinformation is ubiquitous. In the USA, QAnon supporters have moved into this territory, portraying trans people as satanists and child abusers.

Things get much worse when what starts out as extremism enters the mainstream. The political centre shifts rightwards when politicians from mainstream centre-right parties adopt extremist rhetoric and give it credence. This is happening in the UK, where the ruling Conservative Party, almost certain to lose the next election, has fallen back on culture war issues to try to prop up its dwindling vote and sow division among the opposition. It’s currently in dispute with the devolved Scottish government, which passed a law to simplify gender recognition, a policy that until recently it supported for the UK as a whole. As a result, not only is a constitutional crisis looming, but also polarisation and hatred are increasing.

There are numerous other examples of extremist discourse being normalised, whether out of ideological or opportunist motivations. It isn’t just Trump in the USA, Orbán in Hungary or the far-right parties that have recently come to power in Italy and become the power behind the throne in Sweden. It’s also being invited in by supposedly mainstream politicians in reaction to pressure on their voting bases from the right. At the last French presidential election, for instance, in response to the threat of far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, candidates from the supposed centre, Macron included, competed to look the most anti-migrant, further normalising racism and xenophobia in mainstream political discourse.

This needs to stop, because there’s no firebreak that prevents extremist discourse going this far and no further. As the experience of the USA is showing, it will consume whatever territory is made available and still be hungry for more, and extremist violence will follow. Politicians need to refuse to normalise or appease it, as Jacinda Ardern did, and as her successor as prime minister, Chris Hipkins, must do.

Beyond this, if social media companies can’t be trusted to regulate themselves then governments need to set stronger rules. But this job clearly shouldn’t be left in government hands alone: under the guise of regulation, many have introduced unjustified curbs on legitimate forms of inquiry, debate and dissent.

This means civil society needs to get fully involved to help set the rules, fostering informed debates to strike the right balances between respecting freedoms of expression and protecting people from abuse and violence. There’s no easy answer to this dilemma, but the events that continue to unfold around the world keep demonstrating the importance of addressing it.


  • Mainstream politicians should commit to not appeasing, borrowing or normalising far-right discourse.
  • Governments, civil society and international institutions should work together to develop stronger policies on tacking disinformation, conspiracy theories, hate speech and threats.
  • Civil society should step up its efforts to combat disinformation.

Cover photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images