Toxic alliance: How anti-vaxxers and antisemites fuel each other's conspiracies

Science-denial and identity-based hate first converge in digital spaces and then, inevitably, in the real world.

Imran Ahmed
Opinion contributor

First, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., compared mask requirements to “gold stars” from the Holocaust. Then Gigi Gaskins, a store owner in Nashville, Tennessee, advertised anti-vaccination patches modeled on the yellow Stars of David that Nazis forced Jews to wear. And then Washington State Rep. Jim Walsh wore a yellow star as an anti-vaxxer stunt just before Independence Day. 

Now, just weeks after she visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Greene, a QAnon conspiracy theorist, has doubled down on the antisemitism by calling those leading the federal effort for COVID vaccinations “medical brown shirts,” a reference to the paramilitary operation that helped Adolf Hitler take power.

The cross-fertilization of conspiracy theories is fueling dangerous distrust and misinformation. Science-denial and identity-based hate first converge in digital spaces and then, inevitably, in the real world.

It means three things to evoke Nazi symbolism like brown shirts and yellow stars for political performance in 2021. First and foremost, it means you are deeply and offensively ignorant of the events and mechanisms surrounding the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

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Hatred in that era led from compulsory badges to ghettos to murder. The modern German state systematically murdered, among others, half a million Roma and 6 million Jews.

To compare that to a global health initiative is profoundly offensive.

Second, it means you are deliberately leading people into danger. By willfully misunderstanding the science of SARS-CoV-2 and the massive national and international mobilization of resources to defeat it through vaccination, you are putting people at risk of illness and death.

Governments and Big Pharma may have acted badly in the past, but in the face of this global crisis their united actions have been to safeguard the lives of billions.

In this photo taken on Jan. 6, supporters of former President Donald Trump, including Jake Angeli, a QAnon supporter, enter the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

COVID-19 vaccines are a scientific breakthrough akin to Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Scientists, funders, policymakers and brave test patients from all around the world contributed to this amazing accomplishment.

Third, anti-vaxxers wearing a yellow star is an example of social media convergence. It’s not an accident that Greene from Georgia, Gaskins from Tennessee and Walsh in Washington state all appear at the intersection of two separate conspiracy theories: antisemitism and anti-vax.

Social media promotes misinformation

At the Center for Countering Digital Hate, we showed in our “Malgorithm” report how Instagram's algorithm promoted misinformation and hate to millions during a pandemic.

The same is true for Facebook’s other platforms and other algorithm-driven social media such as Twitter and YouTube. They push social fault lines together to form bizarre hybrid alliances that can undermine America: If you liked that conspiracy theory, you’ll like this one. 

We saw this on Jan. 6 when anti-vaxxersQAnon supportersanti-government militiasanti-semites, talk show blowhards and others gathered to protest the election results before some of them stormed the Capitol. These groups are stoked by bad-faith actors of many types – charismatic ideologues, foreign governments and unscrupulous politicians. United by suspicion they were believers in the Big Lie that the election had been stolen.

These actions must have consequences. Antisemitism must be called out by voters and political leaders. Anti-vaxxers must be removed from social media before their misinformation kills people. Platforms that profit from both of those groups must face public scrutiny and punitive costs. 

Better education can help protect society. If you understand that vaccines will save tens of millions of lives, if you know how they work and are tested, you will be less likely to object to their use.

If you know how a democratically elected government of a modern Western state turned the powers of the state toward dehumanizing and then murdering part of its population, you will be less prone to use the symbols of that dehumanization.

But in both cases, you would be swimming against the tide of social media-driven misinformation. 

Online lies motivate real-world actions

And there is power in that tide. Greene continues to peddle unhinged, often racist theories about doctors, Jewish people and guns because there is passion and social commitment at the intersection of conspiracy groups. When you believe online threads about aliens invading, politicians drinking children’s blood or Big Pharma using us as guinea pigs for vaccines, you are motivated to help the resistance that’s fighting these evil wrongs. 

Why am I lumping these ugly lies together? Because that’s exactly what social media does – it promotes the convergence of conspiracy.

United by little except their leaders and a distrust of other authority stoked by online lies, these groups unite to form powerful hybrid coalitions. But as we tragically have learned over the past year, most notably on Jan. 6, what happens online doesn’t stay online. Lies cost lives.

Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.