Anti-Vaxxers and Anti-Semitism: Interview with Lord John Mann

October 29, 2020

A new report, “From anti-vaxxers to Antisemitism: Conspiracy theory in the COVID-19 pandemic,” was released last week by Lord John Mann, the British government’s independent advisor on anti-Semitism. The findings reveal pervasive anti-Semitism present in online conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Lord Mann, a CAM board member, worked with researcher Dr Lewis Arthurton, an expert in molecular biology, to produce the report.

Over 79% of the anti-vaxxer social media forums or channels examined by Lord Mann and Dr Arthurton were found to have anti-Semitic content. The popularity of anti-Semitism in anti-vaxxer forums has largely been concealed from the mainstream public, given that it lives on fringe online pages. How did Lord Mann come across the problem?

“I was spotting things at the anti-lockdown demonstrations, and it struck me that there was a similarity between what was happening in the United States and the United Kingdom,” Lord Mann explains. “I anticipated there would be this level of anti-Semitism, because the anti-vaxxers nearly always fall into conspiracies, and in a conspiracy theory, you will almost always find anti-Semitism.” He selected his research partner, Dr Athurton, for his medical science background. “He has a PhD from Oxford and he worked in Sierra Leone on the Ebola outbreak, so he is familiar with pandemics. He was able to find all the anti-vaxxers and I quantified everything that could be anti-Semitism.”

Those who are taken in by conspiracy theories are often naturally susceptible to anti-Semitism, Mann explains. “In the modern era the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are the origins of this. The way it was manipulated by the Nazis and their propaganda machine has continued to resonate with people. The idea is that there are “Rich Jews” running the banks through a secret cabal and manipulating politics and the world. The theory is that coronavirus is just fake news that is being used to manipulate us by these same powerful people.”

Fear, Lord Mann explains, is a key motivator for adherents to anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories. “Those who are fearful of the situation, and don’t understand the science, are drawn to these things on Facebook. The people who have jumped straight into commenting a lot on coronavirus have a track record of extremism and the use of conspiracy theories—this has just given them a new audience.”

Though fear is a motivator, Lord Mann’s report uncovered the presence of anti-Semitic tropes that are evidently driven by hatred. He explains that the theme that came up most frequently was money and greed. “One of the most absurd ones was that Israel created the virus so that they could make the vaccine and profit off it. Another [trope] was the very insidious lie that there was a secret world order at play, wanting to remove people’s freedoms, motivated by money.”

The platforms Lord Mann analyzed were in English, but he worries that anti-vaxxer anti-Semitism extends far and wide. “We are seeing an anglicized version of the problem, but I confidently predict that we would find the same in every language. There is more research to be done in other languages—in French, in Arabic, in Russian.”

While anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories are less well-known, they seem to be connected to a more popular conspiracy theory named QAnon, originating in the United States but quickly growing roots in Europe. For Lord Mann, anti-Semitism is “the thing that holds them together.”

“It is ideologically connected to QAnon—most of it isn’t the same, but they overlap. These groups have got such wild and extremist ideas but they are going to veer into wildly different directions. What holds them together? Anti-Semitism.”

What are social media companies doing to tackle anti-vaxxer anti-Semitism, given that it is hosted on their platforms? “Not a great deal. They would say “yes, they are a problem,” but they don’t do anything about it,” Lord Mann explains. “And it’s incredibly dangerous. Facebook needs to own the problem because it’s a problem of their creation.”

Lord Mann explains that there is a two-fold risk to the inaction of social media companies. “We’ve got a risk of anti-Semitism to the wellbeing of the Jewish community and we’ve got a risk if the vaccine isn’t used by a proportion of the population. And that then itself will have further health implications—if you’re not taking a vaccine for this why would you take a vaccine for anything else? One of the consequences of this movement is that polio and measles could start to become a danger again. I think by exposing the anti-Semitism we are really helping to expose what’s going on.”

Currently there is no publicly available vaccine for COVID-19. When it is available, anti-Semitism in anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories could be much worse. Lord Mann warns that we need to be prepared. “It’s going to be vital that politicians but also community leaders and opinion formers are seen to be leading on this. The medieval anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, combined with a modern pandemic, mean that governments need to be on the front foot.”