It is quite obvious that the Internet, and in particular social networks, reflect the societies’ questions, knowledge, their existing fears as well as their attempts to explain. Because of lockdown, people are more likely to search, discuss and interact online through social media. The negative impacts of stereotypes are reinforced during an epidemic, stereotypes which are based on the scapegoat mechanism and the rumors dissemination.
This well-known social and psychological phenomenon has already been sadly observed during previous dangerous global pandemics.
In the Middle Ages, various groups such as Protestants, Romani, beggars and especially Jews were accused of well poisoning. These medieval accusations were linked to waves of epidemic crises such as the “Black Death”. The interrelationship between the rise of antisemitism and the Black plague epidemic in Europe is a very clear example of the terrible impact of the scapegoat mechanism, and the dissemination of rumours. Many believed the epidemic was a punishment by God for their sins. The Christian majority was already familiar with anti-Jewish rhetoric disseminated mainly through priests. Jewish populations were accused of ritual murders and of host desecration against Christians. They were depicted with horns and tails and associated with the Devil. They were also accused of the “blood libel”, which was the sacrifice of Christian children at Passover to obtain blood for unleavened bread. As a consequence, the Jewish population started to become the ideal scapegoat to blame and to slaughter, to escape from the fear of death.
In the early 20th century, doctors and institutions developed a keen interest in “hygienic medicine” as a new field to explore. Some specialists drew comparisons between health risks and the economic benefit migration could lead to. They also regarded strangers both as disease carriers and transmitters of their own hereditary characteristics. Migrants in French hospitals were counted, the danger “they brought” to France was assessed, and risks for the French population and its “race” were seriously taken into account. Medical policies implemented before WWII strived to combat migration. Medicine was used as a scientific tool.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic, a lot of conspiracy theories, fake news and hateful theories have been disseminated through social networks and the web. These hateful theories present similarities with traditional stereotypes, rhetoric and the mechanisms explained above.
Traditional conspiracy theories targeting the Jews have been disseminated from alternative social media to the mainstream. In the beginning of March, candidate to French local elections Alain Mondino liked and shared a video called “Coronavirus for goyim” from Vkontakte, a Russian social network to Twitter. According to this video, the covid-19 epidemic was created by the Jews. “They” would have plotted to spread the disease so they could ensure their hegemonic power. The idea of the “plot” is also shared by right-wing extremist Johan Livernette on his blog: President Macron would be global banks’ and CRIF organisation – Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions -’s puppet.
Other websites such as “Démocratie Participative” have disseminated several conspiracy antisemitic theories. These theories are using the same rhetoric and mechanisms as those traditional medieval anti-Jews used during the Black Death. Several articles published on this hateful website in January show this: “Poisoning: the Jewish hyena Buzin [the name of ex-Minister of Health] with her declaration that we “can’t close our borders” for stopping the coronavirus business”; “Crash oil, stock exchange in free fall, mass-quarantine: the divine punishment against the Jewish Occident is occuring”.
Covid 19 is also used by individuals or influential stakeholders against rival states or ideology. Many theories argue that this is a way for Israel to spread its hegemonic power over the planet. The epidemic is seen as a weapon being used to ensure global domination.
This epidemic shines a light on Afrophobia and anti-Arab racism connected to anti-Muslim hatred as well. The articles published in the right-wing newspaper Valeurs Actuelles, contribute to spread racist contents by targeting popular areas. For instance, the newspaper ran as a headline: “Barbès, Château Rouge, La Chapelle: areas where people laugh at shelter in place measures”. This headline aims at targeting a group of people on the basis of their origins, supposed religion and social class. Indeed, according to several rumours, the shelter in place measures implemented in France are not respected in some working-class areas of Paris because of the concentration of “migrants”. A right-wing internet user tweeted: “Will you understand that the country has to be cleaned up? ”. The tweet subtitled a short video showing a crowded Paris area. Stigmatization also appeared on TV channels: ‘Muslims say to policemen ‘this is a disease for White people, we are protected by Allah’ ’ political specialist Eric Zemmour declared on CNews. Sometimes, the news is manipulated by far-right influencers. On Twitter, the extremist account “Napoléon” has shared an anti-Muslim analysis of the ban of alcohol by the Prefect of Aisne. He stated that the Prefect was Muslim due to his Arabic name and that the decision was taken because of the application of Shariah. In reality, The Prefect is from Lebanese Maronite origins and has decided to forbid alcohol selling because of intra-family violence. In addition, the decision was cancelled a day later.
But sometimes religious leaders don’t help to counter anti-religious contents. Generally speaking, there is a tendency to consider diseases as issues that don’t affect ourselves or the group we think we belong to. This kind of denial could be analysed as a reflex of self-protection. Yet, it could also be the premise of a hierarchy between individuals. Core values help group cohesion. Some religious groups also perceive covid19 as a punishment: a divine retribution for Humanity’s’ sins offornication, abortion, de facto union, same-sex relationships.