Populism, social media and the toxic traps that Corbynites just cannot avoid

Conspiracy theories are fuelling terror rampages and turning up on the Twitter threads of politicians and actors. Fighting them is one of democracy’s great challenges


The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter believed in conspiracy theories, and shared them on social media. The Christchurch mosque shooter believed in conspiracy theories, as we see from the manifesto that he published online.

The Hanau shisha bar shooter released a YouTube video announcing that the United States is “under control of invisible secret societies” and exhorting all Americans to “turn off the mainstream media” and “fight now.” The mail bomber who targeted prominent US Democrats and Democrat supporters in 2018 was obsessed with conspiracy theories, and retweeted a David Icke meme about George Soros the day his first bomb arrived at the latter’s address.

The Halle synagogue shooter introduced his live-streamed rampage with a conspiracy theory that ended with the words: “The root of all these problems is the Jew.”

Such extremists belong to the fringes of society but, thanks to social media and political populism, their way of understanding the world has become depressingly familiar.

Last Thursday, for example, Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow education secretary and runner-up in the Labour Party’s recent leadership contest, was sacked from the front bench for sharing an article that — in the words of her own party leader — “contained antisemitic conspiracy theories”.

The article in question was an interview with Maxine Peake, an actress and former Communist Party member who still believes in the need to abolish capitalism and bring down “the establishment”.

In the interview, Peake claimed “we’re being ruled by capitalist, fascist dictators”, and tried to blame the killing of George Floyd on “Israeli secret services” — a claim she has since withdrawn.

All the classic elements of conspiracism were there: electoral democracy is a sham, all bad things are — somehow — connected, and Jews are responsible for other people’s wrongdoing. As Israel Democracy Institute researcher Shany Mor observes, Peake’s claim about Floyd was not an isolated mistake but “part of a comprehensive world-view that puts the Jewish state at the centre of global evil”.

Yet in her tweet sharing the interview, Long-Bailey described Peake as an “absolute diamond”. And the morning after she was fired, members of the Socialist Campaign Group — which brings together Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, and many other left-wing Labour MPs — met Keir Starmer to call for her restoration to the shadow cabinet. According to the group’s official statement, they also made allegations of “electoral sabotage” and insisted on the need for Labour members and MPs to speak out against Israel.

In other words, they responded to a comrade’s censure for endorsing an antisemitic conspiracy theory by doubling down with more conspiracism and more obsessive focus on the world’s only majority-Jewish state.

That was the same week in which Black Lives Matter UK complained that “mainstream British politics is gagged of the right to critique Zionism”, and in which Conservative MP Chris Green recommended a poem about the “global New World Order” in which it was stated that “the Rothschilds … really do influence the dollar, pound, and yen”. Mr Green deleted the post when the contents of the video was flagged up to him.

It is time to get serious about conspiracy theories. I don’t mean we should take the theories seriously. But we should recognise that a lot of people believe in them, that they are creeping into the political mainstream, and that some of their believers are dangerously violent.

The social-media platforms that have done so much to popularise conspiracy theories in recent years have been slow to take action to limit their influence. Perhaps they have become accustomed to thinking of them as a harmless form of entertainment. That possibility struck me on my first trip to Google’s UK headquarters. I was with other representatives of Campaign Against Antisemitism — an organisation for which I have volunteered for several years — and we were meeting a representative of the YouTube policy team to talk about hate speech.

The YouTube representative explained the principles to be applied in deciding whether or not to apply sanctions in response to a given piece of content. Depending on the context, she said, the same apparently hateful statement might or might not be in violation of YouTube’s policy on hate speech. “For example,” she told us, “We might say, ‘That’s just a conspiracy theory.’”

The basic principle was undoubtedly sound: sensitivity to context is vitally important. For example, most people would probably want comedians to be able to satirise bad attitudes without being assumed to endorse them.

But exceptions — even unwritten exceptions like this one — for conspiracy theories? That was a new one on me. So, with the support of think tank Quilliam, I set out to understand the context of online conspiracy theories directly, by researching the ways in which YouTube users responded. Were the videos more innocent than they seemed?

In one study, still under peer review, I used automated text processing techniques to analyse comments on hundreds of conspiracy theory videos. Every scratch beneath the surface turned up examples of extremism and Jew-hate.

Commenters stated that the world was controlled by a “Babylonian-Talmud-following, paedophile, Satan-worshipping cabal of fake Jews”, or that “Zionist-Globalist[s], IMF, Trilateral commission, World Bank, Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Warburgs, J P Morgan, [and] Goldman Sachs” are “Jews by origin” who “are pure evil” and should be “removed”, or that “Zionism” is an evil which “must be erased from the page of time”’ (quoting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini). On and on it went.

I am pleased to say that many of those comments have now disappeared, thanks to YouTube’s eventual deletion of the channels that hosted the videos on which they were posted. But you don’t have to look far to find more of the same.

In a second study, now published in the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, Tanvi Joshi and I analysed over 1,000 comments on a single video in which David Icke purported to expose a “Rothschild Zionist” conspiracy. Although Icke began by claiming that he would not be pointing out “Jewish people here and…Jewish people there”, the high point of the video consisted of him reeling off Jewish names and appending the label of “Rothschild Zionist” to each: “David Axelrod, Rothschild Zionist… George Soros, Rothschild Zionist… Henry Kissinger, massive Rothschild Zionist”.

By the time we collected our data, that video had accumulated over 800,000 views and over 4,000 comments. We found that 38 per cent of comments supported Icke or his conspiracist message, while just 14 per cent were critical. Moreover, 21 per cent expressed antisemitic views. And it was the antisemitic and supportive comments that received the great majority of “likes” from other viewers. The most popular critical comment received just six “likes”, while all comments to receive more than 50 “likes” were either antisemitic, supportive of Icke, or both.

Indeed, the top comment described Judaism as “a racist, psychopathic supremacist ideology” and a “gushing geyser of wickedness and amorality”. Thanks to YouTube’s default ranking of comments by popularity, it was displayed directly beneath the video itself.

Overtly violent comments were less common and less popular, but they were still there to be found: for example, one YouTube user wrote that “Soros, Kissinger, Rothschild should be dragged through the streets and then hung [sic] by the neck till dead”, while another wrote ‘let’s kill all Zionists and there will be no problems on earth.’

As the great Norman S Cohn observed, conspiracy theories can readily serve as a “warrant for genocide”. They have no place in democratic politics.

Daniel Allington is Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King’s College London

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