Pandemic led to new wave of antisemitism online, study says

As pandemic restrictions intensified in Western Europe, so too did a wave of COVID-related antisemitism and Islamophobia, proliferating on social media.

Considering antisemitism and Islamophobia as joint and intersecting phenomena, this report (by the Institute for Freedom of Faith and Security in Europe (IFFSE)) investigates the ways in which, eighteen months after the start of the pandemic, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim narratives continue to be created, spread and accessed on social media.

Through interviews with thirteen Jewish and Muslim community leaders, subject-area experts and representatives of inter-governmental organisations, this report presents not only the key trends both on and offline, but they ways in which they have impacted the targeted communities, and the ability of Jews and Muslims in Western Europe to live and practice their religion threat-free.

This research makes ten key recommendations for social media companies, governments and civil societies, in order to urgently address the spiralling radicalisation which is evidenced throughout this report.

Key Findings

— With the COVID pandemic, a new wave of antisemitism and Islamophobia proliferated on social media, repackaging existing anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim narratives to target minority communities across Europe and blame them for the pandemic.

— Eighteen months since widespread COVID containment restrictions came into effect in Western Europe, COVID related antisemitic and Islamophobic online content has not dissipated, and remains highly accessible to the wider public.

— Social media companies appeared initially overwhelmed by a new wave of online racism, and despite some efforts to reduce online harms, have demonstrably not acted with enough will or efficacy to prevent the spread of antisemitism and Islamophobia on their platforms.

— COVID conspiracist online movements have successfully engaged new audiences, exposing increasing numbers of people to antisemitic and Islamophobic worldviews.

— Online antisemitism and Islamophobia have translated to the offline targeting of Jewish and Muslim individuals and communities, particularly at anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests and rallies, where huge numbers of online users were mobilised.

— Some COVID conspiracists have expressed willingness to use violence in pursuit of antisemitic and Islamophobic goals linked to the COVID pandemic, demonstrating an evolved threat landscape.

— Some European faith communities, particularly in Germany, have identified an increased perceived threat among Jews and Muslims, where communities feel more scared to express Judaism or Islam publicly due to the proliferation of online hate they have seen or experienced.

Key Recommendations

1. Flag antisemitic and Islamophobic content on social media in the same manner as COVID misinformation.

2. Promote increased collaboration and information sharing between social media platforms to ensure the wider public is sufficiently shielded from malicious actors.

3. Increase provisions for identifying anonymous social media users to aid hate speech prosecutions.

4. Governments should urgently introduce legislation regulating social media platforms, accompanied with sufficient funding and provisions to see its success.

5. Adequate punishments for noncompliance should be established, encompassing both illegal and legal but harmful content.

6. Ensure that antisemitic and Islamophobic hate speech online is punished with equal severity as offline.

7. Resource systematic monitoring and analysis of incidents of Islamophobia both on and offline.

8. Muslim and Jewish communities should engage in meaningful and productive interfaith work on the joint threats faced by both communities.

9. Civil society should aim to build resilience to disinformation and racist conspiracy theories on social media by promoting civic education for young people.

10. Reduce cross-platform posting from alternative to mainstream platforms.