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Covid conspiracy theories are driving people to anti-Semitism online

Old and overtly anti-Semitic fantasies are gaining new adherents, and far-right activists have been working to convert anti-lockdown beliefs to anti-Semitism too.

October 13, 2021
photograph of someones badge saying "hands off my dna!"
photograph of someones badge saying "hands off my dna!"
Associated Press

A warning: Conspiracy theories about covid are helping disseminate anti-Semitic beliefs to a wider audience, warns a new report by the antiracist advocacy group Hope not Hate. The report says that not only has the pandemic revived interest in the “New World Order” conspiracy theory of a secret Jewish-run elite that aims to run the world, but far-right activists have also worked to convert people’s anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine beliefs into active anti-Semitism. 

Worst offenders: The authors easily managed to find anti-Semitism on all nine platforms they investigated, including TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Some of it uses coded language to avoid detection and moderation by algorithms, but much of it is overt and easily discoverable. Unsurprisingly, the authors found a close link between the amount of anti-Semitism on a platform and how lightly or loosely it is moderated: the laxer the moderation, the bigger the problem. 

Some specifics: The report warns that the messaging app Telegram has rapidly become one of the worst offenders, playing host to many channels that disseminate anti-Semitic content, some of them boasting tens of thousands of members. One channel that promotes the New World Order conspiracy theory has gained 90,000 followers since its inception in February 2021. However it’s a problem on every platform. Jewish creators on TikTok have complained that they face a deluge of anti-Semitism on the platform, and they are often targeted by groups who mass-report their accounts in order to get them temporarily banned. 

A case study: The authors point to one man who was radicalized during the pandemic as a typical example of how people can end up pushed into adopting more and more extreme views. At the start of 2020 Attila Hildmann was a successful vegan chef in Germany, but in the space of just a year he went from being ostensibly apolitical to “just asking some questions” as a social media influencer to spewing hate and inciting violence on his own Telegram channel. 

What can be done: Many of the platforms investigated have had well over a decade to get a handle on regulating and moderating hate speech, and some progress has been made. However, while major platforms have become better at removing anti-Semitic organizations, they’re still struggling to remove anti-Semitic content produced by individuals, the report warns.

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