| Eye on Europe |

Weaponizing Coronavirus

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about coronavirus are now circulating online from the far right in Britain and the United States




During the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells to spread the Black Death. A new report by Dr Rakib Ehsan of the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism shows how similar anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, are now circulating online from far-right actors such as the UK’s British National Socialist Movement (BNSM) and the US’s National Socialist Movement (NSM).

Accusing Jews of using national lockdowns to “steal everything”; pictures of religious Jews dancing wearing masks with the caption “Satan celebrating the coronavirus”; and suggesting that COVID-19 is part of a Jewish plot to replace the ‘white’ population of Europe, are just some of the tropes being produced and shared in the far-right anti-Semitic online space.

Many of our readers will remember Jewish organizations donating ventilators to New York hospitals at the height of the coronavirus wave, and will be shocked to hear that this has somehow been twisted by anti-Semites.

The claim that the ventilators were given by a Jewish health agency, on the grounds that they would only be used for Jewish patients, just shows the kind of anti-Semitic poison which contaminates the online space. That particular claim was made by an American website which had previously expressed solidarity with former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. There is a very thin line between far-left and far-right antisemitic ideology.  Indeed, the COVID-19 global pandemic has its very own “One Ring of Racism” - where far-right, far-left and Islamist conspiracists are finding common ground over their belief in the Jewish exploitation of the coronavirus outbreak.

How big are the groups sharing this information, and what effect do they have in the offline world?

Research in Britain by the Community Security Trust (CST), the country’s leading antisemitism monitoring agency, and in the US by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, shows that anti-Semitic hate crime is on a steadily upward trajectory on both sides of the Atlantic.

My report attempted to shed light on how the COVID-19 pandemic is being weaponized by far-right organizations to spread their anti-Semitic hatred. While it is too early to measure the ‘effectiveness’ of such content in terms of recruitment efforts, it should be noted that the number of subscribers for the BNSM’s Telegram account steadily rose over the course of my research project.

And the reach of the NSM in the United States should not be taken lightly. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it is the largest neo-Nazi organization in the US.

But why did you focus on these two particular groups out of an extensive far-right movement?

I selected these two organizations because I took an interest in the methods used to disseminate their anti-Semitic conspiracy theories associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

The NSM have an official radio channel (hosted by BlogTalkRadio), and produces easy-to-access podcasts which are in the region of two hours in terms of duration. While recent focus has been on mainstream social media platforms, I felt it was important to highlight the fact that the BNSM enjoy considerable freedom on Telegram – being able to post anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish imagery in a carefree manner.

What needs to happen to deal with far-right anti-Semitism?

In the US, there has a prevailing focus on the ‘external’, with the far-right antisemitic organization Russian Imperial Movement being designated as a terrorist group. While this is to be welcomed, there has to be a broader institutional acknowledgement that far-right antisemitism is a serious problem within the US – as demonstrated by the lethal Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue attacks. In my view, political leadership has been somewhat missing on this front.

In the UK, we have been fortunate in that we have not experienced deadly acts of far-right antisemitism on such a scale. But there is no room for complacency. The need for a robust approach was demonstrated by the recent terrorism-related conviction of a teenager in the North East of England. Having drafted a “manual for practical sensible guerrilla warfare against the Jewish system in the Durham City area”, the individual convicted sought to target local banks for “obvious reasons”.

In both the US and UK, counter-extremism agencies must devote more time and resources into enhancing our collective understanding of which social groups are most susceptible to being radicalized by far-right antisemitic conspiracy theories. Antisemitism educational initiatives need to be better integrated in law enforcement training. Online censorship is not sufficient on its own. Counter-disinformation cyber-units, exposing the baselessness of unfounded conspiracy theories, could play an integral part in the online battle against far-right anti-Semites.

We need a more co-ordinated, strategic approach, involving national public authorities, elected representatives, police forces, and local communities, in order to effectively tackle the scourge of far-right antisemitism in our societies.

More must be done.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 814)

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