Old Tropes, New Outlets: Antisemitism During Lockdown

We might have new platforms--but we are fighting the same old hate.

By Giulia Dessì

Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, antisemitic conspiracy theories have proliferated online, using age-old tropes to frame the disease as a Jewish plot while making use of the new communication platforms that grew in popularity during the lockdown.

“There is a whole new content that was not there before, that is blaming the Jews for Covid-19”, said Ernest Herzog, Head of World Jewish Congress Representative Office in Croatia.

Some of the conspiracy theories accuse Jewish people of everything from creating the virus in a lab to inventing a virus as a hoax. Others spread rumours that Jews have the cure but not sharing it out of a desire to profit—or simply to relish the suffering of non-Jews. One particularly egregious example came from Italy, where the daily capacity of one of the crematoriums could not keep up with the number of bodies arriving—something that certain commentators twisted into evidence to support the theory that Jews were not actually killed in Auschwitz, as it only took a few Coronavirus deaths to exceed the daily capacity of the city crematorium.

“All of a sudden this conspiracy, which was actually Holocaust denial theory, that was connected somehow to Covid-19 theory came to life,” Herzog continued.

It fits into a broader theme of antisemitism increasing online, something that the Communities Security Trust (CST) documented in a recent report, pointing out that in the first six months of this year, online antisemitic incidents proportionally increased—which they attribute to a reduction in offline incidents during lockdown. At Media Diversity Institute, we documented how this happened through Zoombombing, a practice of bad actors infiltrating online meetings, often with antisemitic or otherwise hateful content, deliberately disrupting events. It comes on top of many toxic narratives floating around on social media pushing the theory that Jews are responsible for the pandemic, justifying it with age-old tropes and conspiracy theories.

While antisemitism is often associated with the far right, Emeritus Professor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Kingston University Philip Spencer points out that many of the more recent conspiracy theories are politically permeable and depend more on a conspiratorial world view than a political affiliation.

“It is not the same conspiracy on the left and the right,” he says, explaining that the more difficult it is to trace the origins of a piece of content, the more traction it can gain across the political spectrum.

One example of this is the QAnon conspiracy, a growing online movement that is actively exploiting the confusion and frustration over the COVID-19 pandemic by pushing a theory that Donald Trump is waging a secret patriot war against the “deep state,” a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles in the government, business and media elite. Many of its followers troublingly use antisemitic tropes and language as a  “dog whistle” for other followers, referencing certain people, terms, and narratives that may appear vague and harmless without context, but which actually signal a more insidious form of hate speech against all Jewish people.

Many experts have pointed out that COVID-19—and the widespread lockdowns that are a part of it—have created the ideal conditions for these conspiracies, which depend on people rationalizing their fear of the unknown with conspiratorial explanations.

“History shows that people very often try to come up with an easy explanation during a pandemic,” points out European Union of Jewish Students President Bini Guttmann.

“There have always been people believing in crazy theories or stuff that were untrue,” he continues, pointing out that before the Internet became as ubiquitous as it is today, most of these theories could easily be dispelled.

“If someone believed that the moon was made of cheese, the person might tell their friends and colleagues and family about it and all would tell him that ‘no, it’s not, what are you on about?” he continues, providing an example of how something might have played out.

“The person would either shut up about it or change his or her mind, but in today’s world, this person can go online and find a community of other people who believe that the moon is made of cheese.”

While some of these beliefs are false but harmless, others can become much more dangerous, much more quickly.

“If that person does not believe that the moon is made of cheese but rather that the global elite is controlling us, that Bill Ackman and Bill Gates, want to put microchips into all of us, it gets dangerous really fast and that is the issue we are seeing.”

Many advocates are afraid that as more and more aspects of our daily life resume, some of this hate that gathered online will manifest offline. Already, the CST has documented a rise in hate incidents since the UK lockdown eased in May—and while not every hateful post leads to an act of physical violence, there is some evidence of a connection between hate speech and hate crime.

“Often crimes that we have seen, once they have been prosecuted, they found the person had started to express themselves online,” a CST spokesperson told Media Diversity Institute.

“That’s where these ideas have become to fester and then they became more physical.”

Increasingly there is no clear-cut demarcation between online and offline abuse. Radicalisation happens on online platforms that are often difficult to monitor, where users connect over their shared beliefs, and sometimes motivate one another to put their beliefs into action—we have seen it happen several times, with everything from the Christchurch attack on a mosque in New Zealand to the synagogue attack in Halle, Germany that same year. In both examples, the gunmen were radicalized online, posted manifestos to fringe message boards and broadcast their offline attacks online, for millions of viewers to see.

What does this mean for antisemitism in the future? Herzog points out that historically antisemitism has intensified in times of financial crisis—which will undoubtedly come with the economic impact of the pandemic.

“We are afraid that, as the economies around the world decline, and is inevitable because of what’s happening, we may see more of this antisemitism,” he says.

Antisemitism might have adapted to lockdown, spreading onto new platforms of communication, but in many respects, we are still battling the same toxic narratives of hate. As people turn to conspiracy theories for simple explanations, we must ensure that the anti-Jewish sentiment that underpins them is challenged and exposed.