The last two years has seen the world gripped by the tragic spread of COVID-19. In the face of such widespread devastation there have been remarkable moments of collaboration and hope but also fear, confusion and of course, death. One side effect of the pandemic it that is has enabled a sprawling, multi-faceted web of conspiracy ideologies to grow exponentially around the globe, opening new pathways towards antisemitism and
Early in 2020, the pandemic and ensuing government counter-measures around the world catalysed the spread of numerous conspiratorial notions, which broadly share an anti-lockdown, “anti-elite” and anti-vaccine agenda, disseminated by a combination of newly-formed and longstanding organisations, campaigns, outlets and online spaces. Such networks have spread falsities across social media platforms, leaflets and on city streets that variously link COVID-19 to the rollout of 5G technology, to a Chinese bioweapon attack, or allege it to be a smokescreen for the imposition of totalitarian controls. As scientists raced to develop a life-saving vaccine, claims spread that it was in fact a guise for Bill Gates and other alleged conspirators to microchip or poison those who received the injection. The pandemic has also revived interest in longstanding conspiracy traditions such as the New World Order, and increased the reach of QAnon, a movement which baselessly alleges that President Trump is engaged in a covert war against a global Satanic paedophile elite.
While conspiracy thinking fuels extremism of all kinds, in particular it can function as a slip road towards antisemitism and Holocaust denial, especially as far-right activists are actively attempting to exploit these networks. While conspiracy ideologies have always formed part of the social and political backdrop, the recent fever pitch has posed challenges to social cohesion and a heightened threat to Jewish people and other minoritised communities.
The COVID-19 crisis has engendered the ideal conditions for the spread of conspiracy ideologies: an unseen killer, massive economic instability, unprecedented new governmental powers, and, initially, rapidly changing official advice. Social distancing measures in many European countries
separated communities, leading to isolation and an increased dependence on social media. Conspiracy theories can provide a framework for understanding bewildering events, as well as providing scapegoats.
It is, however, important to highlight that trust in institutions had already begun to erode in a number of European and Anglophone countries. This unease has proved fertile ground for opportunistic populists who have relentlessly exploited fears about “traitors” and “globalists” within political, legal and media institutions. An instinctive hostility towards traditional gatekeepers is fundamental to conspiracy thinking, which, like populism, employs a binary worldview that divides societies between corrupt elites and the pure people. Unsurprisingly, polling has indicated that the most conspiratorially-minded individuals are those that distrust the state and political system the most.
This pre-pandemic landscape has enabled far right and conspiratorial networks to flourish and to become entrenched on all major social media platforms. These networks have, in turn, facilitated the spread of COVID-19 conspiracy ideologies at a remarkable speed.
Antisemitism as a conspiracy tradition
Belief in a sinister conspiracy necessitates a belief in sinister conspirators, and while the identity of these alleged conspirators varies according to the theorist and theory, for centuries Jewish people in particular have been blamed for an enormous variety of upheavals and calamities. As Danny Stone of the Antisemitism Policy Trust explains, “Anti-Jewish racism is not static. Over millennia, it has evolved and adapted to societal circumstances”, including numerous historical contagions; “It was therefore sadly inevitable that Jews would be blamed in some circles for COVID-19.”
Jew-hatred has such deep roots within conspiracy ideologies that antisemitic tropes are rarely far removed from a diverse array of conspiratorial notions, including many surrounding COVID-19. Indeed, such tropes pervade the genre to the extent that, for some, the role of the supposed Jewish conspirators is implicitly understood and does not need to be identified by name. Conspiracy ideologies are malleable, and adherents can choose to minimise certain aspects, such as antisemitism, in order to maximise its appeal to the uninitiated. Many individuals may ignorantly regurgitate antisemitic tropes unaware that they are racist, or turn a blind eye and deny such charges as a smear.
Regardless of the motivation, COVID-19 conspiracists with huge followings have frequently moved into strongly antisemitic territory. The world-famous British theorist David Icke, for example, has drawn from the notorious anti-Jewish forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and Kate Shemirani, among the most prominent UK anti-vaccine figures, has supported the Committee of 300 theory, which has historically been used to spread the idea of Jewish world control.7 Piers Corbyn, another British anti-vaccine figurehead, has rubbed shoulders with Holocaust deniers at conspiracist events. Such figures were well-known within the pre-pandemic British conspiracy scene, but have used COVID-19 as a springboard to achieve a new prominence, thus also extending the reach of the antisemitism that they trade in.
Trivialisation of the Holocaust
Ironically, the open or latent antisemitism of many conspiracy ideologists often exists alongside their self-identification as anti-racists and anti-fascists. This is brought into focus by the use of Holocaust imagery by COVID-deniers to liken their own perceived plight to that of Jews in Nazi-occupied territories; for example, both Shemirani and Piers Corbyn have likened the NHS vaccination efforts to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Especially offensive is the adoption of yellow Star of David badges by anti-vaccine activists in France, Germany, the UK, the US and elsewhere, which, as the Anti-Defamation League has argued, “minimizes and trivializes the experience of survivors and victims of the Holocaust”.
As pointed out by Dan Stone, Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway University, despite the commonplace antisemitism within conspiracy milieus, “the simplistic notion of Jews as a kind of ‘ultimate victim’ leads to the easy appropriation of Jewish suffering as a powerful metaphor by anyone who wants to advertise their victim status”.
In Germany, these motifs are particularly popular in the very country of the perpetrators of National Socialism, whose pandemic-denying descendants frame themselves as the “Jews of today” in an attempt to distance themselves from the events of the Holocaust. As early as March 2020, the Halle-based neo-Nazi activist and online agitator Sven Liebich was selling yellow Stars of David reading “unvaccinated” via his online store, “Politaufkleber”, to wear at COVID-denial demonstrations. The motif has also been spread on social media, including on profile pictures. In Germany, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust and, in severe cases, trivialising the Holocaust can also be prosecuted. In July 2021, Bavaria was the first state in Germany which made ‘unvaccinated’ stars punishable as Holocaust trivialization.
Another example of inaccurate historical cooption is the equation of COVID-deniers with resistance fighters under National Socialism. One example of questionable prominence is a young demonstrator in November 2020 in Hanover, who introduced herself on stage: Yes, hello, I’m Jana from Kassel, and I feel like Sophie Scholl. I’ve been active in the resistance here for months, going to demonstrations, writing leaflets. I’m 22 years old, just like Sophie Scholl before she fell victim to the Nazis.
The Scholl siblings and other members of the White Rose resistance group distributed leaflets against the Nazi regime, were arrested in 1943,
sentenced to death by the Nazi People’s Court and murdered by guillotine. ‘Jana from Kassel’, as she has become known, has become an Internet
meme.15 In the UK, the ‘White Rose’ moniker has also been adopted by a large anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine propaganda campaign, somewhat
ironic as the group appears to have adopted its modus operandi from a virulently antisemitic
Nazi propaganda engine known as the Hundred Handers.
The role of the internet
The internet and especially social media play an immense and radicalising role as a popular distribution media of antisemitism in the pandemic. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy ideologists of various beliefs had their place of exchange in the online world. Forums, websites, social media channels and video platforms not only allowed them to network within their own scene, but also to disseminate propaganda materials and antisemitic narratives. Never before were the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion so easily accessible as on the internet – a 20th century forgery that was supposed to prove a Jewish World Conspiracy, already notorious before the Nazi regime and still shared widely by antisemites today.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the whole world was shaken by the sense of uncertainty and lack of planning. Nobody had experienced a global, life-threatening pandemic before. Neither politics nor science had an ad hoc answer to this crisis. From the outset people around the world sought additional information online, and quite a few left the world of journalistic and scientific facts and turned to conspiracy-spreading ‘alternative media’, social media channels or listened to ‘alternative doctors’ on YouTube, who had a much clearer and simplistic message to proclaim. They offered supposed causes, supposed culprits and supposed solutions. The supposed solutions often turned out to be dangerous misinformation and the ‘culprits’, in barely veiled language and in modernised but ultimately age-old prejudices, often ended up being the Jews.
Nevertheless, for many people, the belief in conspiracy narratives was a way to overcome the feeling of helplessness. For some, it was a chance
to rise above the mass of “sleeping sheep” as the supposed “persons with special knowledge”, to feel like chosen ones in a moment of social
isolation and stagnation.17 Telegram in particular apidly developed into a hub for social media content of this kind – a messenger network
with limited moderation, without social taboos and without counter-speech. Content posted on YouTube, Facebook, blogs and websites was
shared and discussed in groups and channels.
At the same time, other groups and channels emerged that organised protest movements against protection measures, or hatestorms against political opponents, media or democratic politicians. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube or search engines like Google succeeded relatively quickly in at least labelling potentially life-threatening medical misinformation and offering reliable sources on COVID-19 instead, but their dealing with the potentially democracy-destabilising hate disinformation during the pandemic was not so effective. Many antisemitic narratives, hashtags, memes, videos, and groups that emerged during the pandemic remain on some platforms. Here they are not only easily accessible to broad segments of the population, but are often also algorithmically amplified and so are aggressively made available to others through the logic of social networks.
Social networks have therefore taken on the function of conveying antisemitic stereotypes to younger user groups. Social media users can come across huge quantities of posts on all platforms implying, or directly stating, that Jews use the virus as a weapon as part of plans for world domination. They might read that Jews use or invented the virus to enrich themselves because they could sell an antidote or carry out forced vaccinations with harmful
substances or to inject microchips for mind control and to establish a fascist ‘New World Order’ or ‘One World Government’ through anti-COVID-19 measures. The role of YouTube’s ‘Recommended’ feed in the radicalisation of far-right extremists has already been highlighted by other researchers, and the same mechanisms apply to COVID-19 disinformation with antisemitic connotations. Those who followed a YouTube channel of the pandemic denier movement ‘Querdenken’ in Germany, for example, were delivered content from the wider anti-democratic movement directly into their recommended feeds including: thought leaders of the movement; political parties that also deny COVID-19; demo reports on ‘alternative media’ disinformation channels; musicians who contributed songs to pandemic denial; the extreme far right; Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis who use the scene to spread their ideology. Antisemitic theories about the New World Order or the Great Reset bring together and unite a variety of pandemic denying groups. They often first met online and got to know each other before they descended on inner cities together, some of them attacking journalists, police officers – or Jews.
Spread of antisemitic conspiracy ideologies during the Pandemic in Europe
In France, there were street protests with around 100,000 participants in July 2021 against the “pass sanitaire”, using slogans such as “dictatorship”or “orchestrated pandemic so that laboratories can make money”. Comparisons with the resistance against National Socialism are popular in the French conspiracy ideology milieu: for example, an attendee of the demonstration in Paris told a France 24 reporter: “We’re members of the Resistance; you’ve only just got to look at what happened under Vichy – one minute different people have different rights, the next…”
COVID-19 disinformation also finds a large online audience in France, with the spurious documentary “Hold Up” receiving 2.5 million views in just 3 days on YouTube.21 The “documentary” claims that COVID-19 was invented by political elites as part of a conspiracy to bring about a “New World Order”, a classical antisemitic narrative.22 According to a France 24-report, QAnon-affiliated disinformation sites such as DéQodeurs and FranceSoir are also very popular.
Particularly popular conspiracy narratives with antisemitic content in online anti-mask groups were that 5G waves are responsible for the Pandemic or that a microchip would be inserted via the vaccine programme. Vaccine scepticism is widespread in Poland, where polling conducted in March 2021 found that just 56% considered it likely or very likely that they would accept the vaccine, significantly below the EU average.25 Some claim to feel insecure about vaccination due to the government’s non-transparent COVID-19 policies, while associations such as STOP NOP (Stop Adverse Vaccination Reactions) question the very existence of the pandemic. The founder of the television station “Independent Television (NTV)” from Wroclaw, which has 300,000 subscribers and a larger following online, spreads conspiracy narratives such as: “The pandemic is an instrument with
which the powerful elites of this world seek to control our brains”, suggesting that vaccination would involve implanting microchips under the skin. Zagorski also dreams of a “tribunal of the people” that will denounce today’s decision-makers, saying “we are now making a tribunal like the one in Nuremberg!” – so here again is a Nazi analogy equating democratic governments with Nazi criminals. The German lawyer and announced “Chancellor candidate” for the pandemic-denying Die Basis party, Rainer Fuellmich is seen by some as a star of the “resistance movement” in Poland, along with the German pandemic-denying medical doctor Bodo Schiffmann.
A Royal Society Open Science poll released in October 202028 showed that 18% of the population in Ireland and Spain believe the pandemic is part of a conspiracy to enforce global vaccination, compared to 13% in the UK. The 5G conspiracy, which blames the COVID-19 pandemic on radiation from 5G masts, was adhered to by 16% of the population in Spain, compared to 12% in Ireland and 8% in the UK 29- this narrative does not always have antisemitic components, but can often act as a gateway to more explicit antisemitism when placed into a broader superconspiracy narrative.
A survey from Austria on the veracity of COVID-19 conspiracy theories in the summer of 2020 showed that 51% of the population believed there was at least some truth in the statement: “Secret societies and elites are taking advantage of the crisis and want to establish an authoritarian world order”, and 38.1% said the same for “Bill Gates wants to implant microchips in people with vaccinations and thus control them.”
In Switzerland, the cardiologist and conspiracy theorist Thomas Binder has insisted that “world coup terrorists” seek to control governments and force vaccination on people. Prior to the pandemic and his eventual suspension from Twitter in March 2021, Binder had made a number of strongly antisemitic statements, such as suggesting that the USA and Saudia Arabia were controlled by “Zionist terrorists”.
In the Netherlands, 5G conspiracy narratives in particular initially spread and led to attacks on mobile phone masts and antenna cables – violence that is now considered as terrorist attacks. There has also been violence at street protests, an escalation that was attributed by Dr Friso Wielenga to disinformation and the prevalence of anti-elite rhetoric from the country’s right-wing populist movements.
In Italy, the arch-Catholic radio station “Radio Maria”, among others, spreads conspiracy myths to an audience of millions. The station’s director, Father Livio Fanzaga, has described the pandemic on air as “a criminal project driven by the world’s elites…to create a world without God” to its 1.5 million daily listeners.
In the Balkans, surveys show that around three quarters of the population believe in conspiracy narratives related to the COVID-19 pandemic. One reason for this, they say, is low trust in the government, mistrust of the vaccine – and the widespread dissemination of conspiracy myths, ranging from a virus bred to wipe out humanity to the creation of the world through implanted microchips. In countries such as Serbia, some doctors have spoken out publicly against vaccination and the number of people fully vaccinated in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria is less than 50%.
In Albania, COVID-19 and anti-vaccine conspiracy ideologies are spread by prominent actors such as Alfred Cako, former publisher and MP candidate, through the country’s major TV station ABC News. Cako promulgates lies that COVID-19 is an invention to reduce the world’s population, masterminded by Bill Gates, or that the company that produces the vaccine Moderna would be owned by US financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This video has been viewed 800,000 times on YouTube in the last 6 months, including over 1,500 comments containing conspiracy ideology. Besides this prominent video, however, Cako has appeared dozens of times on the main broadcaster since the start of the pandemic, and also hosts a weekly talk show on the TV channel ‘Top Channel’. Analysis by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) showed that Albanian media outlets posted over 700 videos containing Cako’s anti-vaccine views to Facebook by Albanian media outlets between March 2020 and August 2021, gaining a combined 2.9 million views. Cako claims that the COVID-19 vaccines are a project of the Illuminati (an often used cipher for Jews) and contain microchips for mind control. The reason for his airtime is commercial interest, which the Albanian TV stations prefer to social responsibility. The broadcasters insist that they only want to show all sides of the debate, including “alternative voices”. Albania has among the lowest vaccination rates in the Balkans.
In Romania, protests against COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines have also seen Nazi comparisons, with some protestors appropriating the yellow Star of David badges and warning of a “vaccine genocide”. Surveys show that older Romanians are particularly prone to conspiracy theories, a phenomenon that sociologist Cătălin Stoica sees as a legacy of the communist dictatorship: back then, more than 30 years ago, all media were censored and “rumours and conspiracy theories became important sources of information.” A central player in the social networks is the young right-wing populist party AUR, whose conspiracy ideological videos often go viral.
In Greece, denying the pandemic and spreading conspiracy narratives has been a punishable offence since August 2020. A cyber crime unit of the Greek police also monitors the internet for this purpose. Among the cases prosecuted is a parents’ initiative protesting against the compulsory masks for school children. Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis argues: “We will take all legal measures to ensure that public health is not threatened by misinformation or conspiracy theories circulating on the internet.” The state, he adds, will not allow the creation of “breeding grounds for public health through socially irresponsible behaviour.” Demonstrations therefore take place on specific issues, such as protests against the closure of bars and nightclubs – and protesters wear face masks.
In Hungary, antisemitic conspiracy ideologies are a matter of state policy. For Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the embodiment of the antisemitic bogeyman of global Jewish power is the Hungarian-born US philanthropist and billionaire George Soros. The government puts antisemitic agitation against Soros on billboards or broadcasts it on television, and government figures spread the word that Soros is orchestrating mass Muslim immigration into the EU in order to destabilise it. This allegation appears to have taken root; a survey in 2018 showed that more than half of the Hungarian population agreed with the statement: “George Soros wants to bring refugees to Europe.” During the pandemic, Orbán explained on the radio that George Soros was behind the international criticism of Hungary’s authoritarian pandemic measures, describing him as the “grand master” of “Brussels bureaucrats.”
Sweden, like other countries, saw heightened levels of conspiracy theory and antisemitic content on social media during the pandemic. This pandemic-related antisemitic rhetoric became a standing element in the activism of the Swedish “anti-lockdown” or “Freedom” network, which strongly objected to public health policies and proposals aimed at curtailing the spread of COVID-19. The Freedom network, which emerged and coalesced on social media and continues primarily to operate there, but which began organising public protests in the autumn of 2020 (mobilising some 600 participants at their biggest rally to date), has a rhetoric dominated by conspiracy theories which in turn exhibit some antisemitic features. In addition to alleging a nebulous “globalist”, “elite” conspiracy said to be orchestrating a “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” by means of vaccines and other public health policies, the organisers have put out official statements likening their network and its sympathisers to the victims of the Holocaust, using “Yellow Star” imagery to equate so-called “vaccine passports” to anti-Jewish persecution in the Third Reich. Yellow Stars have also been publicly worn by anti-lockdown activists in the street.44 In the network generally, comparisons between the current historical moment and the German Nazi regime and World War II are common, as is rhetoric calling for “new Nuremberg Trials” to punish the alleged architects of the conspiracy. One of the network’s key organisers has railed against “the Rothschilds”, a typical antisemitic fixation, on her YouTube channel. The network has attracted the attention and support of a variety of right-wing extremists, including Nazi activists, who have interacted with the network’s activists on social media and attended its street protests. The network’s leaders, when faced with extremist participation and blatantly anti-Jewish rhetoric, have failed to denounce it.
Far-right recruitment from the conspiracy scene
The risk of radicalisation into Jew-hatred and Holocaust denial is particularly acute as conscious antisemites are actively making inroads into conspiratorial networks. For example, over the past year we have witnessed individuals encountering Holocaust denial, often via (ostensibly) unrelated conspiracy ideology Facebook groups, and appearing to accept it with little pushback. It is often unclear whether those promoting this denial are recent converts or dedicated far-right activists, but the swell of support for conspiracy ideologies has clearly opened potential avenues for far-right recruitment, and many far-right actors have adopted a more explicitly conspiratorial rhetoric in order to exploit this.
For example, in the UK, Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party (BNP), claimed the virus was a hoax concocted by an “Anglo-Zionist financial elite” in order to crash the economy and install authoritarian measures. Patriotic Alternative, the largest fascist group in the UK, has also sought to steer anti-vaccine fears and anti-lockdown sentiment towards antisemitism. Others on the far-right have pointed blame towards the Chinese, or Muslim and immigrant communities. For example, former English Defence League leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) has made anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine and anti-chinese politics a central plank of his rhetoric.
In the German-speaking world, the parts of the far-right scene who present themselves as intellectual (e.g. the ‘Identitarian Movement’) have for years spread the conspiracy narrative of a ‘Great Replacement’ (‘Der große Austausch’). According to this narrative, “secretive, scheming elites” – a dog whistle for Jewish people – are pulling the strings to exchange “resistant people” with citizens who are easier to govern. Some believe this happens through planned migration and/or birth control, in some versions driven by feminism – but many imagine “the Jews” behind it. The Great Replacement ideology played a central role in the manifestos of the 2019 Christchurch and Halle shooters. This narrative has been successfully transposed to the broad spectrum of COVID-deniers, where ostensible population exchange is seen as yet more proof of the sinister machinations of the Deep State. The radical-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for example, has adopted this position to appeal to pandemic deniers.
This risk of radicalisation has heightened after sweeping bans on mainstream platforms have encouraged many conspiratorial networks to migrate to alternatives, such as the video hosting site Bitchute, the Twitter clone Gab and the messaging app Telegram. While these bans will inhibit the spread of toxic ideas to new audiences, such platforms have entrenched far-right extremist subcultures. Trapped in bubbles practically free from moderation and in close proximity to extremists, the risk of conspiracy movements cross-pollinating with explicitly racist politics has increased. A clear example of far-right infiltration occurred in January in the UK, when – inspired by Italian anti-lockdown activists – a ‘Great Reopening’ campaign emerged in the UK, encouraging businesses to open their businesses in breach of lockdown regulations. The campaign was organised via dozens of coordinated Telegram channels and groups, boasting many thousands of members. However, it was also supported by the fascist Patriotic Alternative (PA), which observed “a perfect opportunity for PA supporters and activists throughout the country to demonstrate some leadership and help coordinate the local
groups in their own area.” PA activists and other fascists duly spammed Telegram groups associated with the venture with antisemitic
content. The Great Reopening campaign in the UK was, predictably, a flop, but was noteworthy for the speed of its growth and the ease with which
far-right activists penetrated its networks.
For now, the temperature remains high but even as lockdown measures ease across Europe, many conspiracy theorists and networks that have thrived during the pandemic are unlikely to simply relinquish causes to which they have given considerable emotional, and sometimes material, investment. The economic and social fallout of the pandemic remains are still not completely clear but anxieties induced by economic hardship can be exploited by extremist actors.
This is concerning. During the pandemic it became clear that old antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories are still alive in Europe. Even when social taboos might cause some to hold back, the dog whistles of conspiracy ideologies can be readily used to convey them anyway. This can have severe consequences for Jews in Europe. For example, in Germany in 2020, the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) documented a total of 1,909 antisemitic incidents, including 1 case of extreme violence, 39 assaults, 167 cases of damage or desecration of property, 96 threats, 1,449 cases of abusive behavior (including 340 assemblies), and 157 antisemitic mass mailings.50 By comparison, in 2019, it had been 881 antisemitic incidents,51 representing a significant and worrying increase.
While it is difficult to know exactly what circumstances cause conspiracy theorists to act on their beliefs, in extreme cases it has become clear that such false notions can motivate disruption and violence. The EU’s counter-terrorism chief has expressed concern about the potential of “new forms” of conspiracy theory-driven terrorism in the wake of the pandemic. COVID-19 has enabled a rebranding and a resurgence of an ancient prejudice, with a very real offline impact.
This text ist an excerpt and can be read with illustrations and footnotes in:
Antisemitism in the Digital Age
Online Antisemitic Hate, Holocaust Denial, Conspiracy Ideologies and Terrorism in Europe
A Collaborative Research Report by Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Expo Foundation and HOPE not hate
- Executive Summary
- The Report in Numbers
- Conspiracy Ideologies, COVID-19 and Antisemitism
- Superconspiracies: QAnon and the New World Order
- Case study: Path of radicalisation into antisemitism
- The Changing Nature of Holocaust Denial in the Digital Age
- Case Studies of Antisemitism on Social Media:
- “4chan /pol/”
- Glossary of Antisemitic Terms
- Learnings from Project
Download the report as a PDF here: