Exploiting Chaos: How Malicious Non-State Actors Are Using COVID-19 to Their Advantage in Cyberspace


Since the beginning of 2020, while societies and economies around the world have struggled to cope with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, cyberspace has given governments, businesses, and general end-users the ability to work, play, and connect in new and innovative ways. With everything from workspaces and classrooms to family gatherings and exercise routines forced online, the Internet has enabled people across the globe to carry on and maintain a sense of normalcy during very abnormal times. However, at the same time, while the world has been focused on the health, economic, political, and social ramifications of the pandemic, terrorist organizations, fringe groups, and extremist communities around the world have become emboldened, finding opportunity to exploit the situation, incite hate, (re)mobilize, and promote their ideologies online in novel ways. These groups—which we loosely classify as malicious nonstate actors for the purposes of this research —have been primarily focused on exploiting and contributing to the diffusion of information during the pandemic for their own strategic gain.

These actors are not primarily interested in for-profit criminal activities, but rather seek to weaponize the information environment toward other objectives. From synagogues and Jewish organizations worldwide being “Zoom bombed” with antisemitic messages (Schiffer 2020), to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda suggesting online that martyrs are immune to the virus (Hunter 2020) or that the coronavirus is a divine punishment targeting non-believers (Hanna 2020), to white supremacist groups using platforms such as Telegram and Gab to spread propaganda (Perrigo 2020), COVID-19 has added a new dimension to malicious online activities. That being said, the intent of this research – which was presented in more detail as a book chapter in Stress Tested: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Canadian National Security (West, Juneau, and Amarasingam 2021) – was to assess how malicious non-state actors have been using cyber space to exploit the pandemic for their own strategic gain, and what might these trends could mean for Canada’s national security over the coming years. All told, we focused specifically on three distinct yet overlapping online trends that have proven to be particularly detrimental to national security: delegitimation, recruitment, and incitement.

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Research Area(s):

Security and Counterterrorism

TSAS RB 2023-03

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