Extremists Use Coronavirus to Advance Racist, Conspiratorial Agendas

  • February 6, 2020
coronavirus

Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

“Finally! Science has discovered a cure for the most insidious disease of our time…Jewishness.”

Shortly after posting this to Telegram, referring to a news report that three Israelis had been quarantined as possible carriers of the coronavirus, the same poster wrote, “3 down, 5,999,997 to go!”

Following a well-worn pattern of capitalizing on major news stories to advance their bigotry and anti-Semitism, extremists have latched onto fears surrounding the coronavirus story to promote conspiracy theories and even boogaloo. As per usual, extremists are relying heavily on social media platforms to share their hateful views. 

Fringe platforms

On notoriously extremist-friendly platforms like Telegram, 4chan and Gab,  it’s easy to find posts linking the coronavirus to racist and anti-Semitic slurs and memes.

For example, users across these channels regularly share racist messages or caricatures of Chinese people, mocking their eating habits, accents and hygiene. Posters on Telegram and 4chan appear to be cheering on the virus, hoping it will spread to predominately non-white countries, such as those in Africa.

Others eagerly imagine the coronavirus as a bioweapon. As one Telegram user wrote, “If any of you get this, I expect you to spend as much time in public as possible with our enemies.” And a 4chan commenter wrote, “Send the sick to Israel – if you already die at least take out as many Jews as you can.” 

Extremists hope the virus kills Jews, but they are also using its emergence to advance their anti-Semitic theories that Jews are responsible for creating the virus, are spreading it to increase their control over a decimated population, or they are profiting off it. Some extremists have tied reports documenting Chinese efforts to safely dispose of victims’ bodies to cast doubt on the number of Jews who died during the Holocaust.

Extremists on these platforms are not merely commenting on the coronavirus story, they are also actively manipulating it. For example, extremists on Telegram are sharing image templates for a hazmat suit and encouraging others to add their own logos or insert extremist memes.  

Mainstream platforms

While these themes are prevalent on social media platforms frequented by extremists, concerning messages are also spreading on more mainstream platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit.

Echoing extremists on fringe platforms, users on these mainstream platforms are sharing a range of conspiracy theories. On Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, posters are calling coverage of the coronavirus a hoax and a distraction designed to frighten the public, while others are arguing that the virus’s impact is far worse than authorities want people to think.

Meanwhile, conspiracies about the origins of the coronavirus are proliferating on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, where some assert that the virus was created as a profit driver by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or by Bill Gates. Other users posit that the coronavirus is a Chinese biological weapon, though they differ on whether it was intentionally or accidently released. 

Some people are using the coronavirus to further their political agendas: users on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are claiming the virus is a tool for authorities and pharmaceutical companies to get people to accept vaccinations, while rumors on Facebook and Twitter suggest that Wuhan residents’ immune systems were weakened by 5G wireless networks, leaving them susceptible to the virus. Meanwhile, posters on Facebook and Twitter worry that the U.S. government will use the virus to impose martial law.

These conspiracies pollute information systems with lies, making it more difficult for people to understand what is actually happening and elevating people’s fear and anxiety levels.

Users on these mainstream platforms are also spreading racist messages that denigrate Chinese habits and customs or blame the Chinese people for spreading the disease. Some on Facebook and Twitter are using the virus to advance anti-immigration rhetoric, arguing that until the virus is contained, the U.S. should end immigration and expand the travel ban to keep Americans safe. This online sentiment has made its way into the physical world, with a rise in racist, anti-Chinese incidents and a protest outside Sacramento International Airport.

The online response to the emergence of the coronavirus is just the latest example of how extremists and conspiracy theorists manipulate social media platforms to advance their agendas and spread hateful rhetoric and fear.

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