The coronavirus pandemic has led to a new wave of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia online, according to a research study by the Institute for Freedom of Faith and Security in Europe (IFFSE).

Social media companies, including Facebook and Instagram, must do more to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is the central demand of the authors of the study presented in Brussels on Monday.

Even a year and a half after the beginning of the pandemic in Europe, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic content is rampant online, criticizes the Institute for Freedom of Faith and Security in Europe (IFFSE), an initiative led by the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), in the study.

This has spread especially on social media platforms, repackaging existing anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim narratives and blaming minorities for the pandemic. The study identifies three typical anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim patterns. Among them, according to the study’s author, Hannah Rose, is the conspiratorial narrative that Jews benefited financially from the coronavirus crisis. Another myth is that Muslims use coronavirus as a weapon against those of other faiths – for example, they are encouraged by imams to spread the infection through doorknobs.

The IFFSE report states that, despite some efforts, social media platforms have demonstrably not acted sufficiently to effectively prevent the spread of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on their platforms. Rather, online conspiracy theory movements have been successful in attracting new audiences under COVID-19 circumstances. This online hatred has also shown itself offline, according to the IFFSE study – particularly at rallies against coronavirus-related lockdowns or vaccination campaigns. Resulting from this, faith communities such as Jews and Muslims have come increasingly under threat and are more afraid to live out their faith and way of life in public because of online hate.

Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), warns: “The path from word to deed is getting shorter and shorter and the danger of becoming a victim of a physical or even fatal attack through hate messages has increased due to the coronavirus pandemic. Operators of social networks and messenger services still do too little to sufficiently delete ‘fake news’ and hate messages and still offer too large of a platform for conspiracy theorists, Islam haters and anti-Semites. The transport of hate and crude conspiracy theories must no longer be a profitable business model.”

During the presentation of the report, Daniel Hoeltgen, Special Representative of the Council of Europe against anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes, said that the commitment of platform operators in this field has so far been half-hearted and that more needs to be done in the area of content moderation.

For Illka Salmi, European Union Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator, the contribution of social platform operators is fundamental to effectively address hate speech and hate content. But regulation is also crucial, he said. "The European Commission's Digital Service Act is a big step forward in curbing this problem.”

In terms of appropriate countermeasures, the IFFSE’s latest report lists recommendations for social networks, for governments, and for civil society. For example, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic content on Facebook should be flagged like COVID-19 fake news. In addition, the platforms should co-operate more closely. This is also against the background that extremists exploit mainstream services by publishing just acceptable content there in order to lure users to more radical websites. States are recommended to punish anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate speech online as severely as offline. Civic education should be promoted to make society less vulnerable to misinformation and racist conspiracies.