Coronavirus provokes online hatred

A meme the ADL collected portrays Jews spreading COVID-19. (Courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League.)

PHILADELPHIA — As the coronavirus spread across the globe, so, took did the search for scapegoats.

“We’re definitely seeing a rehashing of old stereotypes and tropes,” said Shira Goodman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia.

Racist and anti-Semitic coronavirus content has proliferated on social media and online messaging platforms. Many of the posts suggest Jews created or spread the coronavirus on purpose and are profiting from it.

“Not ONE media outlet has asked about George Soros’s involvement in this FLU pandemic. He is SOMEWHERE involved in this,” former Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. tweet on March 15.

“Does President Donald Trump have coronavirus? Are Israel and the Global Zionist elite up to their old tricks?” former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke tweeted three days earlier.

Others have posted memes encouraging people with COVID-19 to cough in kosher supermarkets or on minorities. Some white supremacists advocate for stealing African Americans’ supplies in preparation for a race war.

Goodman said Zoombombing — infiltrating a Zoom meeting with offensive and hateful material — has become a big issue for Jewish organizations moving their events online. “People are putting up images of Nazis and swastikas and the Ku Klux Klan,” Goodman said. “We saw some instances of people in online groups looking for passwords to events to disrupt.”

While it may sound like a prank, Zoombombing has dark implications for communities trying to connect during difficult times. Goodman said it may make elderly people trying to participate in a virtual minyan scared to join or traumatize students learning online.

“The goal of somebody who is going to do Zoombombing to attack a class or service is to have a big impact with low risk. When this happens, the bomber has created division and stoked fear,” she explained.

She said the ADL has worked with Zoom to create more safety features for users. The company has responded by creating a waiting room feature and adjusted settings so that only speakers can share their screens.

Ruth Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, has experienced Zoombombing.

“I was participating in a legal services housing information session that was quickly overtaken by a Zoombomber who put up homophobic and transphobic, racist and anti-Semitic visuals and language in the chat that was hateful,” she said.

The hateful content played on a loop.

“I’ve seen a lot. This one was traumatizing. The visuals and the language, including the N-word in capital letters, it just kept happening, and they had to shut off the meeting.”

In addition to Zoombombing, Landau said PCHR, a city agency that enforces civil rights anti-discrimination laws, has seen a significant rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and bias incidents since the pandemic reached the United States.

From Jan. 1 to April 15, the PCHR recorded 32 incidents of hate, including hate speech, property offenses and assault and robbery.

Twenty-one of these incidents have been confirmed as hate-related, and 17 were motivated by anti-Asian and COVID-19 biases.

Of the 11 cases not yet confirmed as hate-related, six were alleged anti-Asian and COVID-19 incidents.

One recently reported offenses involved a group of perpetrators who yelled COVID-19 related slurs at an Asian man before assaulting him and stealing his car.

“They’ve been blamed for starting the pandemic. People have been physically pushed or assaulted, especially if they were wearing masks. Basically, the Asian communities do not feel safe because they say that they are receiving threats,” Landau said.

“What we’ve heard from friends in the Asian American community is someone will hear someone was attacked or yelled at outside and that makes them afraid to go out for necessary things,” Goodman said.

Goodman and Landau noted the African American community has experienced racism for wearing masks. Black men are likely to be viewed with suspicion and fear if they cover their faces, even if they are doing so in compliance with safety regulations.

The ADL and PCHR have distributed materials with instructions on reporting hate crimes and bias incidents. Blogs and fliers have been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer to make them more accessible to immigrants.

Both Goodman and Landau said it is crucial that minorities feel safe reporting incidents because it helps law enforcement and civil rights organizations track perpetrators.

Landau said many perpetrators feel the federal government supports their hateful rhetoric.

“The president of the United States is calling this the China virus. Of course, there’s going to be a tax on our communities at a local level, on our friends and relatives and neighbors,” she explained.

Goodman said Trump’s insistence on calling the virus China Flu further divides the country and obscures the fact that the disease doesn’t discriminate based on origin or race.

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