The coronavirus crisis has disrupted the world, leaving streets deserted, shutting down businesses and restricting movement on an unprecedented scale. One group, however, seems to see the pandemic as an opportunity.
Far-right groups and militants are weaponizing the coronavirus pandemic to spread racist tropes and advance their agendas. Online and offline, we have seen disinformation about coronavirus thrive and conspiracy theories, including anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, run wild.
Conspiracy theories linking Jews to disease have a long and ugly history. In medieval times, Jews were portrayed as carriers of plagues and accused of deliberately "poisoning the wells" during the Black Death epidemic that swept through Europe in the 14th century.
Throughout history, blood libel conspiracy theories have taken on different forms. As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, we are seeing a revival of old anti-Semitic tropes, repackaged and amplified by white supremacists, far-right "influencers," and sometimes mainstream political figures.
In closed far-right channels and groups online, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are thriving, from claims that Jewish people (or Israel’s Mossad) "invented" coronavirus, to allegations that the virus is a bioweapon funded by Holocaust survivor and philanthropist George Soros, who has become the target of choice for right-wing conspiracy theories in the U.S. and Europe.
While anti-Semitic conspiracies are spreading on the likes of 4chan, Reddit and Gab - alternative platforms which have become a haven for far-right, white nativist and supremacist militants kicked off mainstream social media - they are not confined merely to the fringes or the darkest corners of the Internet.
We are also seeing them develop on mainstream social media platforms, in different forms, despite tech companies’ efforts to curtail hate speech and the flurry of disinformation spurred by coronavirus. The idea of coronavirus as an ill-defined globalist plot, fomented by the Deep State and Zionists, and involving anyone from Soros to Bill Clinton, has made its way into the mainstream far-right and beyond.
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Proponents of the globalist conspiracy theory include InfoWars founder Alex Jones, whose website has been publishing stories condemning the "globalist takeover" at play in the coronavirus pandemic. Anti-Soros conspiracy theories in particular have developed, tapping into the well-worn anti-Semitic trope that Jews are fomenting dissent and profiting from crises, and have been shared by political candidates in the U.S. and Europe.
In the U.S., Congressional candidates have shared anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In a now-deleted tweet from late February, GOP congressional candidate Joanne Wright wrote: "Doesn’t @BillGates finance research at the Wuhan lab where the Corona virus was being created? Isn’t @georgesoros a good friend of Gates?" She finished her tweet off with the hashtag #DeepStateCabal. Paul Nehlen, another recent Reoublican congressional candidate, recently claimed that Israel had "unleashed a bio weapon" against China.
In France, a candidate for Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party shared an anti-Semitic video entitled "Coronavirus for goy," originating on the Russian social media site VKontakte. The video then made its way to Twitter.
Hateful conspiracy theories can encourage violence and inspire attacks. Last year, the Australian white supremacist who killed dozens at a mosque and Islamic centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, became radicalised on the image board 8chan, where anti-Semitic imagery mixed with memes and gaming in-jokes.
Tarrant found inspiration in accelerationism, the belief that Western liberal democracy is in a state of collapse, and that its demise should be accelerated through chaos and violence. Accelerationism has made its way into the so-called "manifestos" of recent right-wing terrorists and frequently appears in white supremacist chats and forums.
Now, many accelerationist groups see coronavirus as an opportunity to bring about civilizational collapse, with many sending violent calls to action on their channels and discussion groups. While these calls to violence may never materialize, the recent string of far-right terror attacks has increased the risk of copy-cat attacks.
Only a few days ago, a man was arrested on suspicions of planning an attack on a Missouri hospital. He also had plans to attack a mosque and a synagogue. Meanwhile, the FBI reported that neo-Nazi groups have encouraged their members to physically spread the coronavirus to Jews and police staff.
Coupled with the rise in far-right violence, the proliferation of conspiracy theories online and offline leaves religious and minority communities vulnerable. Conspiracy theories flourish in times of fear and crisis, allowing previously fringe beliefs to be widely shared and reach new audiences. The social disruption, fear and uncertainty created by the novel coronavirus – which scientists continue to learn about every day – have created fertile ground for a decline of trust in established institutions and a mainstreaming of fringe ideas.
A study by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. showed that 23 percent of Americans believe that coronavirus was intentionally created in a lab, while a poll by the Jean-Jaurès think tank and the anti-conspiracy NGO Conspiracy Watch showed these figures to stand at 17 percent in France. Far-right and other extremists are stepping into this atmosphere of conspiracy to encourage scapegoating, prejudice and division. While often confined to alternative platforms, conspiracy theories are often being shared on mainstream platforms, even when some of their proponents have been banned from them.
In response to coronavirus, many tech companies have stepped up their efforts to address harmful disinformation and conspiracy theories. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all announced new measures to direct users to reliable medical sources (such as WHO and CDC), and Facebook and Twitter recently deleted posts by world leaders which contradicted official medical advice. However, these measures primarily address disinformation posing a public health hazard - and do little to tackle the intersection of disinformation and hate.
Gaps in enforcement also remain across mainstream social media platforms, where disinformation and conspiracy theories continue to be shared, especially in spaces which are less easily to monitor, such as Facebook groups or apps like WhatsApp. These spaces continue to contain hateful disinformation and conspiracies about vulnerable communities.
Reliance on artificial intelligence to moderate the majority of content and the lack of transparency in how AI is used to filter out coronavirus-related disinformation and hate speech, allows this type of content to slip through the net. While coronavirus has forced companies to step up their actions, a lot more remains to be done.
Cécile Guerin is a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Twitter: @CecileNGuerin