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Get the Trolls out! Antisemitism and anti-vax discourse in Europe

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Illustration from the report "Antisemitism and anti-vax discourse in Europe" from Get The Trolls Out! (Quelle: MDI / Get the trolls out)

Not many expected the impact that SARS-CoV-2 (more commonly known as the COVID-19 pandemic) would have globally. The pandemic took everyone by surprise and the scientific race that followed for the development of a safe vaccine was unprecedented. Usually, the development of a safe vaccine can take 10 years and cost billions of US dollars. However, vaccines for COVID-19 started appearing within a year.

At the time of writing this report there are 254,382,438 reported cases, while the virus has claimed 5,114,874 lives globally. So far over 7.5 billion doses have been given to people and 41.6 percent of the world’s population is fully vaccinated. However, despite this extraordinary scientific leap a large wave of antivaccination denialists have appeared globally.

Vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon. According to the World Health Organization, vaccine hesitancy is a complex and context-specific issue that varies across time, place, and type of vaccine. At the same time, it is influenced by different factors such as community trauma, scientific scepticism and political beliefs. What might differ this time compared to the past is the way information spreads and the role of social media companies in the spread of information and misinformation. In 2020 the Center for Countering Digital Hate looked closely at the way tech companies power and profit from vaccine misinformation and found that anti-vax social media accounts have 58 million followers.

Vaccine hesitancy is closely related to conspiracy theories that focus on science. Both can have lethal consequences. One of the most recent examples that follows a similar pattern to conspiracy theories that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic is the HIV/AIDS denialist movement. This movement does not accept the link between HIV and AIDS and claims that the drugs that are administered to HIV patients are more harmful than AIDS and that their aim is to cause genocide.

The rapid spread of misinformation online, as well as the narratives that are used in anti-vax circles, are the reasons behind these reports. By monitoring media across Europe, a pattern of misinformation was noticeable: anti-vaccination narratives throughout the continent seem to adopt antisemitic narratives which are common in other conspiracy theories. In previous reports published by Get The Trolls Out!specifically the two reports that focus on the QAnon conspiracy theory – the role of the internet, and specifically Big Tech, was clear. Continuing the research that was started a few years ago on conspiracy theories and narratives, this report sets a more focused aim and attempts to identify antisemitic tropes
within the online COVID-19 anti-vaccination conspiracy theories in Europe.

With this as our aim, we tried to identify the connection between anti-vax conspiracy theories and antisemitism, and the way they spread on social media. Eight media monitors from Get The Trolls Out! partner organisations in Belgium (Flanders), Belgium (Wallonia), France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and the United Kingdom (UK) monitored Facebook and Twitter in their countries and identified hashtags, private and public groups, and prominent figures who spread misinformation related to COVID-19 and the vaccines. Through these results, they identified antisemitic narratives. The period monitored is from March 2021-August 2021, however, in some cases the period was extended in order
to include recent developments.

The results of the monitoring exercise are not surprising. Antisemitic narratives are present within anti-vax conspiracies in the countries where monitoring took place. In some countries antisemitism is more subtle than in others, however, it is still part of conspiracist efforts to spread misinformation and fear.

One narrative that all countries have in common is an old antisemitic narrative: a group of powerful Jewish people that want to take over the world. In most countries such as Belgium (Flanders and Wallonia), France, Hungary, Germany, and Poland this powerful figure takes the form of philanthropist George Soros or of the Rothschild family, who are generally central figures in antisemitic conspiracy theories. In other cases, those powerful secret figures are not named but implied. In Greece – which does not always present the same narratives as the other countries – these forces are represented as part of a satanic cult that targets Orthodox Christianity. This is not surprising, as vaccine hesitancy is prominent within religious circles in the country. Another narrative that all countries have in common is that of victimhood. Our media monitoring showed that the comparisons to the Holocaust and the representation of citizens as the ‘new Jews’ is widespread. In demonstrations in the UK, Belgium, France, and Germany there were people wearing the Star of David in order to emphasise their similarities to the Jewish population that was persecuted in Nazi Germany and throughout Europe. Dog-whistling is also another common trait in anti-vax narratives, which is also represented
by implying that there is something unknown seeking world domination.

Despite efforts to tackle COVID-19 misinformation by Big Tech, the role of social media in the spread of such narratives is clear and rather concerning. Anti-vax conspiracists use an abundance of online methods in order to spread misinformation and hate.

However, despite efforts for moderation it is clear that such moderation is not equal throughout Europe. Some of the groups that were monitored for this report no longer exist – for example in Belgium or Germany. But in countries such as Poland and Greece moderation has failed. In addition, even when groups are taken down for violating community standards, they tend to reappear on a different platform, usually a messaging app such as Telegram (Germany, France, UK) or Viber (Greece). Our research identified six key points that we will explore in detail throughout this report:
  • It is rather common for anti-vaxxers to use Holocaust comparisons and consider themselves as the ’new Jews’.
  • Variation of established antisemitic conspiracy ideologies, such as ‘The Great Reset’ and the ‘New World Order’, play a significant role and are seen in several countries.
  • Antisemitic dog whistle, or coded language, such as using the word ‘globalists’ instead of ‘Jews’, is present throughout Europe.
  • Feeling or causing fear is one of the main methods of uniting conspiracists. 
  • Victim mentality is common among anti-vaxxers.
  • Connections to the far right are present in several countries

Key Points

1. Holocaust Comparisons and ‘the new Jews

Anti-vax conspiracists often compare the current pandemic restrictions to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, considering themselves as persecuted minorities within their own countries. These parallels are seen in all of the researched countries. In several anti-vaccine demonstrations, protesters were seen wearing a reproduction of the yellow Star of David, which was used in Nazi Germany and its occupied territories to identify Jewish people, with the word ‘unvaccinated’ instead of ‘Jew’. In the UK the prospect of a vaccine passport was enough to label it ‘a new Nazi tool’, while in Flanders those who advocate for vaccinations get called ‘vacci-nazis’.

This comparison is contradictory to another dominant narrative in anti-vaccine networks: the conspiracy theory alleging that Jews seek world domination.
Hashtags: #NoVaccineCoercion
#StopDictatureSanitaire
(#StopHealthDictatorship)
#VaccinGaskamerAarzeling
(#VaccineGasschamberDoubt)
#Vacci-nazis

2. The Great Reset and the New World Order

One of the main antisemitic tropes pervading conspiracy theories such as the ‘New World Order’ is one of Jewish dominance and control. The ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theory, and ‘the Great Reset’ as one of its most recent variations, alleges that a secret global elite (often a dog whistle for Jews) is controlling world events and plotting to establish a global totalitarian regime where humans are enslaved. In the Flemish region of Belgium this theory is present but peripheral, whereas it seems to play a more central role in francophone Belgium (Wallonia) as it is additionally influenced by French narratives. The Great Reset and/or the New World Order are also present in Germany and Greece. In some countries such as Hungary or Poland these terms may not be used as much, but figures that are central in world domination conspiracies such as George Soros and the Rothschild family are present.
Hashtags:
#NewWorldOrder

3. Antisemitic Dog Whistle

Antisemitic dog whistles and coded language are evident throughout the researched countries. In France for example the use of the hashtag #qui (who) in combination with suggestive phrases such as ‘Who is the enemy?’ and assumptions that vaccines are produced or funded by Jewish figures reveals the presence of antisemitism. A similar pattern can be seen in francophone Belgium, as it is highly influenced by French-based conspiracy theorists. Similar cases can be seen in Germany (where coded words are used to avoid moderation on social media platforms), Greece (where religion plays a
dominant role), and Hungary (where George Soros is at the heart of antisemitic narratives). The production of vaccines by people who are Jewish or perceived as such is strategically used to further these hateful narratives.
Hashtags:
#NousSavons (#WeKnow)
#Qui (#Who)

4. Fear

Fear is common in conspiracies. Either fear of losing something or creating fear among the population in order to gain support.In Greece, for example, fear is connected to concepts of religion and nation. Fear of losing the nation, presented through phrases such as ‘protect the children’, are common in nationalist narratives. In addition, fear of being replaced by migrants, of becoming a minority, of subversion of traditional gender roles, or of the general dissolution of the Western society, which are present in many conspiracy ideologies are used to inflict fear upon the wider population. Fear is also connected to the possible side effects of the vaccines themselves, as those who refuse to receive the vaccine are afraid of their health, even though their claims are not based on scientific facts. Fear specifically of the COVID-19 vaccine is also connected to the wider restrictive measures, such as lockdowns, that have been implemented by governments to prevent the spread of the virus. These are often described as the deterioration of democracy.
Hashtags:
#VaccinGeïnduceerdeDoodTwijfel
(#VaccineInducedDeathDoubt)
#VaccineSideEffects

5. Victim Mentality

Victimhood is another narrative common in conspiracy theories and connects with the comparison of conspiracy theorists as paranoids. The connection between conspiracy theorists to paranoia is widely met in psychological research. More specifically, some psychology researchers claim that conspiracy theorists share similar traits to those who suffer from paranoia. However, in conspiracy theory research paranoia is defined very broadly and, in some cases, its clinical definition is avoided. Anti-vaxxers see themselves as the ‘new Jews’, a new minority within Europe that is being constantly targeted and persecuted by the COVID-19 measures, and whose elimination will lead to a world domination and the ‘New World Order’. Victim mentality is closely connected to fear, and both can be located in all countries that are under discussion.
Hashtags:
#depopulation
#CrimesAgainstHumanity

6. Connection to Far-Right Ideologies

While the anti-vaccine movement includes a wide variety of people, including individuals with more spiritual world views and left-wing positions, those who are exploiting these circumstances and the power of social media to fuel anti-Jewish hatred usually belong to the extreme right wing of the political spectrum. This is particularly evident in Poland, where the main anti-vaccine actors are well-known far-right politicians, including MPs. Those who believe in far-right ideologies seek an enemy and usually that enemy is the one who is different from them. Since, in their view, the COVID-19 vaccine is part of a wider plan that is connected to world domination, and this world domination if orchestrated by a Jewish elite, the enemy are Jewish people and those perceived to be Jewish. For them, the vaccine represents a future global domination and the attempts by governments to vaccinate their populations promote a ‘health dictatorship’. On the one hand, there are those who have been vaccinated, while on the other there are those who resist to conform to any sort of control. Thus, by using antisemitic narratives, COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies try to radicalise those who share similar concerns.
Hashtags:
#HealthDictatorship
#StopHealthDictatorship

This text is an exerpt from:

Get the Trolls Out!:
Antisemitism and anti-vax discourse in Europe.
A report on conspiracy ideologies and anti-Jewish hatred on Facebook and Twitter.
London 2021

Download the report as a PDF here:

Contents:

  • Introduction and Key Points
  • Academic Literature Review
  • Conspiracy Theory and Conspiracy Theorists
  • The Spread of Conspiracy Theories
  • Antisemitism in Conspiracy Theories
  • Country Reports
  • Belgium Flanders
  • Belgium Wallonia
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • United Kingdom
  • Reflections
  • Recommendations

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