Violent radicalization during the COVID-19 pandemic: at the intersection of gender, conspiracy theories and psychological distress


  • Anna Levinsson McGill University
  • Rochelle L. Frounfelker Lehigh University
  • Diana Miconi Université de Montréal
  • Cécile Rousseau McGill University


Violent Radicalization, Gender, Conspiracy Theories, Psychological Distress, COVID-19 Pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a threat to health, economic stability and collective functioning. The related upsurge in psychological distress has fuelled the emergence of conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the virus. Worldwide, there is mounting evidence that these narratives have increased stigma and discrimination against diverse ethnic, age and occupational groups. However, the role of gender in the dynamics weaving together psychological distress, conspiracy theories and legitimation of violence toward other groups is still unknown. This paper addresses this knowledge gap, analysing a Canadian interprovincial survey conducted in November 2020. In total, 6003 individuals aged 18-35 years residing in large Canadian cities responded to an online survey administered in English and French between October 16 and November 17, 2020. A total of 4928 individuals with complete data on support for violent radicalization (VR), psychological distress, and endorsement of COVID-19 conspiracy theories were included in the analysis. This study indicates that for young Canadian adults, gender, endorsement of COVID-19 conspiracy theories and psychological distress, as measured by the Hopkins Symptom Checklist-25 (HSCL-25), have an interaction effect on support for VR, as measured by both the Sympathy for Violent Radicalization Scale (SyfoR) and the Radicalism Intention Scale (RIS) (both p-values <.001). While the magnitude of the association between support for VR and endorsement of COVID-19 conspiracy theories is greatest among individuals with scores of psychological distress above the clinical cut-off, there is a significant association between scores on support for VR and endorsement of COVID-19 conspiracy theories in both women and men, both above and below the psychological distress cut-off of the HSCL-25. Effective strategies to mitigate the relationship between violent radicalization and pandemic-related psychological distress must explicitly address gender differences in expression and management of psychological distress.


Abrams, D., Lalot, F., & Hogg, M. A. (2021). Intergroup and intragroup dimensions of COVID-19: A social identity perspective on social fragmentation and unity. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 201-209.

Alcalá, H. E., Sharif, M. Z., & Samari, G. (2017). Social determinants of health, violent radicalization, and terrorism: a public health perspective. Health equity, 1(1), 87-95.

Atlani-Duault, L., Mercier, A., Rousseau, C., Guyot, P., & Moatti, J.-P. (2015). Blood libel rebooted: traditional scapegoats, online media, and the H1N1 epidemic. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 39(1), 43-61.

Atlani-Duault, L., Ward, J. K., Roy, M., Morin, C., & Wilson, A. (2020). Tracking online heroisation and blame in epidemics. The Lancet Public Health, 5(3), e137-e138.

Balmas, M., Harel, T. O., & Halperin, E. (2022). I hate you when I am anxious: Anxiety during the COVID-19 epidemic and ideological hostility. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 52(11), 1081-1093.

Bartlett, J., & Miller, C. (2012). The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization. Terrorism and Political Violence, 24(1), 1-21.

Bartusevičius, H., Bor, A., Jørgensen, F., & Petersen, M. B. (2021). The Psychological Burden of the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Associated With Antisystemic Attitudes and Political Violence. Psychological Science, 32(9), 1391-1403.

Bhui, K., Warfa, N., & Jones, E. (2014). Is violent radicalisation associated with poverty, migration, poor self-reported health and common mental disorders? PloS one, 9(3), e90718.

Bloom, M., & Lokmanoglu, A. (2020). From Pawn to Knights: The Changing Role of Women’s Agency in Terrorism? Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-16.

Braddock, K. (2022). Vaccinating Against Hate: Using Attitudinal Inoculation to Confer Resistance to Persuasion by Extremist Propaganda. Terrorism and Political Violence, 34(2), 240-262.

Browning, M. H. E. M., Larson, L. R., Sharaievska, I., Rigolon, A., McAnirlin, O., Mullenbach, L., Cloutier, S., Vu, T. M., Thomsen, J., Reigner, N., Metcalf, E. C., D'Antonio, A., Helbich, M., Bratman, G. N., & Alvarez, H. O. (2021). Psychological impacts from COVID-19 among university students: Risk factors across seven states in the United States. PloS one, 16(1), e0245327.

Cassese, E. C., Farhart, C. E., & Miller, J. M. (2020). Gender Differences in COVID-19 Conspiracy Theory Beliefs. Politics & Gender, 1-10.

Chowdury Fink, N., Barakat, R., Shetret, L. (2013). The Roles of Women in Terrorism, Conflict and Violent Extremism: Lessons for the United Nations and international actors. In: Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation.

Corner, E., & Gill, P. (2021). Psychological distress and terrorist engagement: Measuring, correlating, and sequencing its onset with negative life events, social factors, and protective factors. Transcult Psychiatry, 58(5), 697-711.

Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate. (2021). Update on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism.

Douglas, K. M. (2021). COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 270-275.

Earnshaw, V. A., Eaton, L. A., Kalichman, S. C., Brousseau, N. M., Hill, E. C., & Fox, A. B. (2020). COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, health behaviors, and policy support. Translational behavioral medicine, 10(4), 850-856.

Fisher, A. N., & Ryan, M. K. (2021). Gender inequalities during COVID-19. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 237-245.

Forbes, G. B., Collinsworth, L. L., Zhao, P., Kohlman, S., & LeClaire, J. (2011). Relationships among individualism--collectivism, gender, and ingroup/outgroup status, and responses to conflict: a study in China and the United States. Aggress Behav, 37(4), 302-314.

Freeman, D., Waite, F., Rosebrock, L., Petit, A., Causier, C., East, A., Jenner, L., Teale, A.-L., Carr, L., Mulhall, S., Bold, E., & Lambe, S. (2020). Coronavirus conspiracy beliefs, mistrust, and compliance with government guidelines in England. Psychological Medicine, 1-13.

Friedman, S. R., Mateu-Gelabert, P., Nikolopoulos, G. K., Cerdá, M., Rossi, D., Jordan, A. E., Townsend, T., Khan, M. R., & Perlman, D. C. (2021). Big Events theory and measures may help explain emerging long-term effects of current crises. Glob Public Health, 16(8-9), 1167-1186.

Frounfelker, R. L., Frissen, T., Miconi, D., Lawson, J., Brennan, R. T., d’Haenens, L., & Rousseau, C. (2021). Transnational evaluation of the Sympathy for Violent Radicalization Scale: Measuring population attitudes toward violent radicalization in two countries. Transcultural Psychiatry, 13634615211000550.

Fruehwirth, J. C., Biswas, S., & Perreira, K. M. (2021). The Covid-19 pandemic and mental health of first-year college students: Examining the effect of Covid-19 stressors using longitudinal data. PloS one, 16(3), e0247999.

Galasso, V., Pons, V., Profeta, P., Becher, M., Brouard, S., & Foucault, M. (2020). Gender differences in COVID-19 attitudes and behavior: Panel evidence from eight countries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(44), 27285.

Gloster, A. T., Lamnisos, D., Lubenko, J., Presti, G., Squatrito, V., Constantinou, M., Nicolaou, C., Papacostas, S., Aydın, G., Chong, Y. Y., Chien, W. T., Cheng, H. Y., Ruiz, F. J., Garcia-Martin, M. B., Obando-Posada, D. P., Segura-Vargas, M. A., Vasiliou, V. S., McHugh, L., Höfer, S., Baban, A., Dias Neto, D., Nunes da Silva, A., Monestès, J.-L., Alvarez-Galvez, J., Paez-Blarrina, M., Montesinos, F., Valdivia-Salas, S., Ori, D., Kleszcz, B., Lappalainen, R., Ivanović, I., Gosar, D., Dionne, F., Merwin, R. M., Kassianos, A. P., & Karekla, M. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health: An international study. PloS one, 15(12), e0244809.

Gøtzsche-Astrup, O., van den Bos, K., & Hogg, M. A. (2020). Radicalization and violent extremism: Perspectives from research on group processes and intergroup relations. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 23(8), 1127-1136.

Gough, B., Robertson, S., & Luck, H. (2021). Engendered Expressions of Anxiety: Men’s Emotional Communications With Women and Other Men [Original Research]. Frontiers in Sociology, 6(138).

Grossman, M. (2021). How has COVID-19 changed the violent extremist landscape? Security Review. Retrieved Feb 14, 2022, from

Grzesiak-Feldman, M. (2013). The effect of high-anxiety situations on conspiracy thinking. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 32, 100-118.

Hart, P. S., Chinn, S., & Soroka, S. (2020). Politicization and Polarization in COVID-19 News Coverage. Science Communication, 42(5), 679-697.

He, J., He, L., Zhou, W., Nie, X., & He, M. (2020). Discrimination and Social Exclusion in the Outbreak of COVID-19. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(8), 2933.

Hennekam, S., & Shymko, Y. (2020). Coping with the COVID-19 crisis: force majeure and gender performativity. Gender, Work & Organization, 27(5), 788-803.

Jolley, D., & Paterson, J. L. (2020). Pylons ablaze: Examining the role of 5G COVID‐19 conspiracy beliefs and support for violence. British journal of social psychology, 59(3), 628-640.

Krieger, N. (2003). Genders, sexes, and health: what are the connections—and why does it matter? International Journal of Epidemiology, 32(4), 652-657.

Kruglanski, A. W., Molinario, E., & Lemay, E. P. (2021). Coping with COVID-19-induced threats to self. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 284-289.

Levinsson, A., Miconi, D., Li, Z.-Y., Frounfelker, R.L., Rousseau, C. (2021). Conspiracy theories, psychological distress, and sympathy for violent radicalization in young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Submitted.

Lewandowsky, S., & van der Linden, S. (2021). Countering Misinformation and Fake News Through Inoculation and Prebunking. European Review of Social Psychology, 32(2), 348-384.

Lewandowsky, S., & Yesilada, M. (2021). Inoculating against the spread of Islamophobic and radical-Islamist disinformation. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 6(1), 57.

Liu, T., Guan, T., & Yuan, R. (2022). Can Debunked Conspiracy Theories Change Radicalized Views? Evidence from Racial Prejudice and Anti-China Sentiment Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. J Chin Polit Sci, 1-33.

Marone, F. (2021). Hate in the time of coronavirus: exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent extremism and terrorism in the West. Security Journal.

McKay, D., Heisler, M., Mishori, R., Catton, H., & Kloiber, O. (2020). Attacks against health-care personnel must stop, especially as the world fights COVID-19. The Lancet, 395(10239), 1743-1745.

Miconi, D., Li, Z. Y., Frounfelker, R. L., Venkatesh, V., & Rousseau, C. (2021). Socio-cultural correlates of self-reported experiences of discrimination related to COVID-19 in a culturally diverse sample of Canadian adults. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 81, 176-192.

Miconi, D., Oulhote, Y., Hassan, G., & Rousseau, C. (2020). Sympathy for violent radicalization among college students in Quebec (Canada): The protective role of a positive future orientation. Psychology of Violence.

Moccia, L., Janiri, D., Pepe, M., Dattoli, L., Molinaro, M., De Martin, V., Chieffo, D., Janiri, L., Fiorillo, A., & Sani, G. (2020). Affective temperament, attachment style, and the psychological impact of the COVID-19 outbreak: an early report on the Italian general population. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 87, 75-79.

Mollica, R. F., Caspi-Yavin, Y., Bollini, P., Truong, T., Tor, S., & Lavelle, J. (1992). The Harvard trauma questionnaire: Validating a cross-cultural instrument for measuring torture, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder in Indochinese refugees. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 180(2), 111-116.

Morgades-Bamba, C. I., Raynal, P., & Chabrol, H. (2020). Exploring the Radicalization Process in Young Women. Terrorism and Political Violence, 32(7), 1439-1457.

Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2009). Measuring political mobilization: The distinction between activism and radicalism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 21(2), 239-260.

Moum, T. (1998). Mode of administration and interviewer effects in self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. Social Indicators Research, 45, 279-318.

Nabavi, N. (2021). Covid-19: Pandemic will cast “a long shadow” on mental health, warns England’s CMO. BMJ, 373, n1655.

Oreffice, S., & Quintana-Domeque, C. (2021). Gender inequality in COVID-19 times: evidence from UK prolific participants. Journal of Demographic Economics, 87(2), 261-287.

Pfefferbaum, B., & North, C. S. (2020). Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic. New England Journal of Medicine, 383(6), 510-512.

Pilditch, T. D., Roozenbeek, J., Madsen, J. K., & van der Linden, S. (2022). Psychological inoculation can reduce susceptibility to misinformation in large rational agent networks. Royal Society Open Science, 9(8), 211953.

Prooijen, J. V. (2022). Psychological benefits of believing conspiracy theories. Curr Opin Psychol, 47, 101352.

Reidy, K. (2018). Radicalization as a Vector: Exploring Non-Violent and Benevolent Processes of Radicalization. Journal for Deradicalization, 249-294.

Roozenbeek, J., van der Linden, S., Goldberg, B., Rathje, S., & Lewandowsky, S. (2022). Psychological inoculation improves resilience against misinformation on social media. Sci Adv, 8(34), eabo6254.

Rothermel, A.-K. (2021). Gender at the crossroads: the role of gender in the UN’s global counterterrorism reform at the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1-26.

Rouhani, S. (2014). Intersectionality-informed quantitative research: A primer.

Saleh, N. F., Roozenbeek, J. O. N., Makki, F. A., McClanahan, W. P., & Van Der Linden, S. (2021). Active inoculation boosts attitudinal resistance against extremist persuasion techniques: a novel approach towards the prevention of violent extremism. Behavioural Public Policy, 1-24.

Schmid, A. P. (2013). Radicalisation, De-radicalisation, Counter-radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review. ICCT Research Paper, 97, 22.

Semelin, J. (2009). Purify and Destroy (C. Schoch, Trans.). Columbia University Press.

Serafini, G., Parmigiani, B., Amerio, A., Aguglia, A., Sher, L., & Amore, M. (2020). The psychological impact of COVID-19 on the mental health in the general population. QJM : monthly journal of the Association of Physicians, 113(8), 531-537.

Šrol, J., Ballová Mikušková, E., & Čavojová, V. (2021). When we are worried, what are we thinking? Anxiety, lack of control, and conspiracy beliefs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Applied cognitive psychology, 10.1002/acp.3798.

Stephens, W., & Sieckelinck, S. (2021). Resiliences to radicalization: Four key perspectives. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 66, 100486.

Stoica, C. A., & Umbreș, R. (2021). Suspicious minds in times of crisis: determinants of Romanians’ beliefs in COVID-19 conspiracy theories. European Societies, 23(sup1), S246-S261.

Tessler, H., Choi, M., & Kao, G. (2020). The Anxiety of Being Asian American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic. American journal of criminal justice : AJCJ, 1-11.

Tull, M. T., Edmonds, K. A., Scamaldo, K. M., Richmond, J. R., Rose, J. P., & Gratz, K. L. (2020). Psychological Outcomes Associated with Stay-at-Home Orders and the Perceived Impact of COVID-19 on Daily Life. Psychiatry research, 289, 113098-113098.

UN Women. (2021). Civil society voices on the gendered dimensions of violent extremism and counter-terrorism responses.

United Nations Institute for Training and Research. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism and Terrorism.

Usher, K., Bhullar, N., Durkin, J., Gyamfi, N., & Jackson, D. (2020). Family violence and COVID-19: Increased vulnerability and reduced options for support. International journal of mental health nursing, 29(4), 549-552.

van Buuren, S., Groothuis-Oudshoorn, K. (2011). mice: Multivariate Imputation by Chained Equations in R. Journal of Statistical Software, 45(3).

van Gelder, M. M., Bretveld, R. W., & Roeleveld, N. (2010). Web-based questionnaires: the future in epidemiology? American journal of epidemiology, 172(11), 1292-1298.

van Mulukom, V., Pummerer, L.J., Alper, S., Bai, H.M., Cavojova, V., Farias, J., Kay, C.S., Lazaervic, L.B., Lobato, E.J.C., Marinthe, G., Banai, I.P., Srol, J., Zezelj, I. (2020). Antecedents and consequeneces of COVID-19 conspiracy theories: a rapid review of the evidence. Pre-print.

Vigo, D., Patten, S., Pajer, K., Krausz, M., Taylor, S., Rush, B., Raviola, G., Saxena, S., Thornicroft, G., & Yatham, L. N. (2020). Mental Health of Communities during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 65(10), 681-687.

Weine, S., Eisenman, D. P., Kinsler, J., Glik, D. C., & Polutnik, C. (2017). Addressing violent extremism as public health policy and practice. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 9(3), 208-221.

Wright, K. B. (2005). Researching Internet-based populations: Advantages and disadvantages of online survey research, online questionnaire authoring software packages, and web survey services. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 10(3), 00-00.