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Online Antisemitism in Times of COVID-19

Online Antisemitism in Times of COVID-19
21st April 2020 Julien Bellaiche
In Coronavirus, Insights

On 7 April, Germany’s Commissioner on antisemitism Felix Klein warned of a surge in antisemitism with the spread of the COVID-19, echoing a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) alert sent two weeks earlier to US local police agencies identifying racist extremist groups encouraging members who contract the disease to spread it to police personnel and Jewish people. Several organisations, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Britain’s Community Security Trust (CST) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), also noted the proliferation of online antisemitic messages and conspiracy theories since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Although the rise of antisemitic narratives in times of major crisis is not something new, the character of the international response to the pandemic – and consequentially the millions of people confined at home – has generated a unique ground for these ideas to blossom. This article will briefly look at the history of virus-related antisemitic tropes and examine the main antisemitic COVID-19 -related trends online. It will then explore some of the elements making the crisis fertile ground for online antisemitism.

Antisemitic tropes associating Jewish people to disease and contagion have a long and tragic history. In 1347-1351, when the Black Death – or bubonic plague – ravaged Europe, Jews were, in many places, accused of poisoning food, streams and wells, before being tortured and expelled – or executed. When the disease reappeared in Paris in 1920, it was accompanied by a surge of antisemitism in the French capital: Jews were blamed for the plague’s return. This event coincided with the first French translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Later, in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler furthered this analogy, comparing the Jews to “harmful bacillus” and “parasites” that endangered Germany’s existence.

Despite presenting some new elements, current online trends linking COVID-19 to Jewish people appear to predominantly form a continuum with this deep-rooted tradition, refurbishing ancient tropes to make them suitable to present times. Among them, the most prominent tendency expresses the idea that the virus has been created and is currently spread as a result of a “Jewish plot”. A high number of messages across different platforms accused Jewish people, among other things, of using the pandemic to manipulate the stock market; to design a bioweapon to assert control over China; or to manufacture a hoax to force people to get vaccinated, which would allegedly be profitable for Jewish people. George Soros and the Rothschild family, recurrent targets of antisemitic conspiracy theories, are also accused of benefiting from the crisis and playing a role in its inception. In France, several Jewish – or perceived as such – public personalities were accused of conspiracies on Twitter or Facebook. For example, French far-right conspiracy theorist Alain Soral listed on YouTube the names of state workers he classifies as Jewish who are involved in the management of the COVID-19 crisis – calling them the “Schindler’s List” – and accused them of using the pandemic to generate profit. This surge of antisemitism online led the French National Office for Vigilance against Antisemitism to file a dozen complaints in March.

Another trend is reminiscent of Hitler’s analogy, assimilating Jews to the virus itself and accusing them of being primary vectors of COVID-19. Several memes posted on Telegram show coronavirus being depicted as a Jewish man and the CST provided further posts in which the disease is rebranded as the “Jew-flu.” In a different current, messages called for spreading the contagion to Jewish people, cynically calling for a “holocough”.

Additionally, it is worth noting that several of these online posts associate alleged Jewish plots with other coronavirus-related conspiracies. For instance, when the idea that 5G networks were responsible for the spread of the pandemic burgeoned, online messages quickly suggested that 5G cell towers were only built in “non-Jewish areas”, implying this was done intentionally to protect Jewish people from contagion. In another example, the French Twitter account ‘Debunker des Etoiles’ revealed a scheme that circulated online aiming to prove that Jewish personalities play a central role in many coronavirus-related conspiracies that did not involve Jewish people at first.

The coronavirus crisis also enabled the emergence of new antisemitic online practices. As a growing number of people use the video chat app Zoom to communicate, Zoom calls made by Jewish users and institutions were targeted and hijacked by malevolent accounts, a practice known as “Zoombombing”. Earlier this month, a London synagogue service being livestreamed on Zoom was hacked by individuals who posted antisemitic content. Additionally, the online magazine VICE reported that racist users of the website formerly known as 8chan coordinated an online harassment campaign against a Jewish day school in Philadelphia. A post on the platform gave links to the Zoom calls of teachers at the school with clear instructions to “freak them out”, referring to “Boogaloo”, a far-right reference to a future “race war”.

It seems that the extraordinary character of the COVID-19 crisis provides a unique ground for antisemitism to spread. According to Greg Gwiasda, Vice President at Ipsos’ Behavioural Science Center, one of the major psychological effects people are dealing with as a consequence of the virus’ propagation is the development of a feeling of loss of control. Our limited understanding of the disease, its extreme contagiousness, and restrictions of freedom implemented in several countries as a consequence, created a situation where things we usually control unconsciously appear to be constrained. However, in a recent study, Mirosław Kofta, Wiktor Soral, and Michał Bilewicz showed that control deprivation, when applied to the political world, plays an important role in breeding conspiracy antisemitism. They contend that experiencing an enduring loss of personal influence over politics may activate a compensatory search for powerful social forces to blame, with Jewish people being a recurrent target. Thus, it could be argued that extended restrictions to personal freedoms, such as quarantines and other interdictions, may foster this sentiment among certain people, resulting in increased vulnerability to antisemitic messages.

Moreover, as the Henry Jackson Society’s Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism (CRT) Nikita Malik suggests, millions of people in self-isolation will turn to social media where disinformation is abundant, favouring the spread of extremism. The Global Web Index confirms this assessment, pointing at tremendous augmentations in internet consumption over the last month. Therefore, vulnerable people are more likely to be exposed to online antisemitic messages and conspiracy theories during the crisis and may propagate these narratives.

It is however important to note that this surge of online antisemitism falls in line with much broader xenophobic and hateful messaging and conspiracy trends related to the COVID-19 crisis. Online racism targeting Asian people is increasing significantly, and many theories resonate with audiences. Recent polls show that approximately a quarter of the French population and a third of Americans believe that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory. Additionally, China’s restrictions on the publication of academic research on the origins of the virus will likely leave the door open for more conspiracy theories to emerge.

It seems that the coronavirus outbreak and the millions of individuals spending increasing time online in self-isolation provides a fertile ground for traditional antisemitic tropes to thrive in renewed forms. In these extraordinary times, it is essential to remain vigilant and keep searching for solutions to prevent online hate from turning into acts of violence.