Social Media Platforms Struggle to Control Spread of COVID-Related Antisemitic, Islamophobic Conspiracy Theories, Report Says
The continued spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories on social media is opening new pathways for both antisemitic and Islamophobic narratives, a new report by the Institute for Freedom of Faith and Security in Europe (IFFSE) warned.
The report, which analyzed antisemitism and Islamophobia as “intersecting” phenomena, found that 18 months after the outbreak of the pandemic, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim narratives related to COVID continue to be created, spread and easily accessed by the public on social media via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“Many of the community leaders, experts and inter-governmental officials involved in this research expressed the view that social media companies are profiting from the hate speech spread on their platforms, to the detriment of Jewish and Muslim communities experiencing ever-increasing prejudices and threats to religious freedoms,” the report said.
Based in Munich and Brussels, the Institute for Freedom of Faith and Security in Europe describes itself as a “multidisciplinary think tank,” and is an initiative of the Conference of European Rabbis.
The group found that among some European faith communities, particularly in Germany, there is an increased perceived threat felt among Jews and Muslims —with online hate translating to a real-world fear of publicly expressing their faith.
Echoing other studies undertaken during the pandemic, the report cited online narratives including the notion that Jews are orchestrating COVID-19 in order to grab power, or are financially profiting from the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. On Instagram alone, the hashtag #jewworldorder had 13,900 related posts, 16 months after the outbreak of the global pandemic. Posts with hashtags which included the phrase “New World Order” in English, French, Spanish and German totaled over 45,000 by July 2021.
Meanwhile, the report unearthed Islamophobic content on social media accusing Muslims of being unclean or deliberately spreading the coronavirus. Numerous media users were seen falsely alleging that Muslims are deliberately spreading COVID-19 as a form of “biological jihad,” or claiming that Muslim communities have been allowed to skirt COVID-19 restrictions because authorities are fear being seen as criticizing Islam.
The report said that social media companies appeared overwhelmed by the “new wave of online racism,” and that despite some efforts to act, they have demonstrated insufficient “will or efficacy.”
“While few explicitly violent or terrorist actions have been linked to the COVID conspiracy movement, violence has played a role in the language used on social media. This is a far-reaching problem that rightly is receiving significant attention at the moment. Evidence has been clearly presented, now social media companies must act,” urged Hannah Rose, author of the report.
A number of key policy recommendations for social media companies, governments and civil society were offered, including the need to flag antisemitic and Islamophobic content in same way as COVID-related misinformation.
“We know the technology is available and that platforms recognize the potentiality for offline harms of COVID misinformation, this must now be applied to online racism,” Rose demanded.
Furthermore, governments should introduce further legislation to regulate social media platforms and include sufficient funding to encourage its success, as well as create punishments for noncompliance, it was urged.
“Muslim and Jewish communities should engage in meaningful and productive interfaith work on the joint threats faced by both communities,” the report suggested.