LONDON, May 10 (Reuters) - Extremist groups, especially on the far-right, have used conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic as a recruiting tool to attract young supporters, a senior British police officer said on Monday.
"Recent analysis suggests that conspiracy theories are particularly engaging for a younger audience," Matt Twist, one of Britain's top counter-terrorism officers, told reporters.
"Extremists on both sides, particularly the right wing terrorism space, use memes and conspiracy theories as a way of hooking in young and vulnerable people on social media platforms."
There have been a mass of conspiracy theories since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, from whether COVID existed and how it was spread, to myths around vaccines.
Twist said the pandemic had meant more people spending time online, while it had been easier for conspiracy theories, such as the claim illnesses were linked to 5G network towers, to reach a mainstream audience.
"You can't tackle every conspiracy theory and there is a fine balance between people's rights to free speech and people's rights to have a view," Twist said.
"It's where that becomes corrosive, where that's used as a sort of hook to get people into more extreme ideology, and therefore sort of pushing them towards terrorism."
In February, Britain lowered its threat level from international terrorism to ‘substantial’ from ‘severe’, the third highest tier which means an attack is deemed to be likely
Twist said British police and security services had foiled four potential attacks since the start of the pandemic - meaning 29 plots had been thwarted since March 2017 of which 18 were Islamist inspired, 10 right wing, and one left wing or anarchist inspired.
Counter-terrorism arrests were at their lowest for a decade and referrals to Britain's counter-radicalisation programme were sharply down, but there was particular concern about a growth in young people being involved in far-right terrorism, Twist said.
Of the 19 children aged under 18 arrested for suspected terrorism last year, 14 were held in relation to right-wing ideology.
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