The calls came fast, all with the same question: Is it true you are funded by George Soros? I was dismayed. I run a national racial justice organization, and a story had just broken that named us in a controversy. The New York Times reported that Facebook had sought to deflect blame for its role in empowering far right hate speech by, in fact, employing a right-wing media company to spread a soft, sanitized version of that same hate speech. And instead of holding Facebook accountable for that, these reporters just wanted me to confirm whether Soros was a funder.
According to the Times report, Facebook had been trying to convince reporters that our campaign to push the social media giant into better behavior was secretly part of a coordinated effort undertaken by organizations funded by Soros. This is a thinly veiled version of a more sinister, increasingly pervasive theory: that organizations fighting for social change are secretly controlled by Soros and some master Jewish plot to take over America.
White nationalists have been targeting Soros, an investor and philanthropist, for some time. Knowing that their conspiracy theories are echoing around the right-wing blogosphere is one thing. But hearing that those theories are being advanced by a company with the eyes of over 2 billion users is quite another.
While Facebook has denied paying a media company to write news stories or spread information, if you trust The New York Times reporting, as I do, then Facebook allegedly used an outside company to point the finger at Soros. Why? Because the goal of these attacks is the revival of an age-old strategy of using anti-Jewish attacks to discredit all progressive social movements, including ours.
In some ways, the report of Facebook’s tactics is the most powerful proof yet that in the three years since Donald Trump announced his candidacy, white supremacy views and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories have moved into the mainstream. This fall, we saw the inevitable results of their success: violence. It started with a pipe bomb sent by a Trump fanatic to Soros himself and ended with the most deadly assault against Jewish people in American history in Pittsburgh.
Yet violence is only the most extreme and obvious effect. If we fail to understand how white nationalist and right-wing attacks on Soros fit together with their perennial attacks on communities of color, we are missing their full strategy. We are also missing the threat it poses.
The idea that my organization, for instance, is focused on what Soros is giving us, rather than on what conservatives are trying to take away – our vote, our health care, our liberty, our job protections – is a laughable distraction. But the idea that my organization is a pawn in someone else’s game, rather than the self-determined and black-led force that we are, is dangerously undermining.
That our concerns and strategies are really a front for Soros’ concerns and strategies diminishes not only our cause of challenging institutional racism, but also our standing and power in society. Soros is far from our only or largest funder. Undermining black people’s power in this way benefits white nationalists obviously, but it also helps all those organizations whose decisions adversely affect black people but who want to avoid the accountability that our work demands – organizations like Facebook.
It is just as true for all those whose activism and advocacy have been implicated in the attacks on Soros: immigrants, Muslims, feminists, LGBT people, Arabs and others. For instance, the same right-wing media claims about Soros pulling all the strings were made about women protesting then-nominee Kavanaugh, in order to dismiss their concerns without having to address them.
And if you think the fear of black people and the fear of Jewish people are not being used in tandem, just watch the ad that closed out the election for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaigning arm of the Republican Party. The ad starts with Colin Kaepernick and ends with George Soros standing over a pile of money.
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Quite simply, white nationalists and some on the right do not want anyone who is not like them to exist in their reality. They especially do not want progressive social movements to become more powerful.
The conservative political establishment amplifying anti-Jewish conspiracies to win elections is no surprise – they have caved in to every opportunistic obsession of the far right. But they still deserve shame for doing so, and social media companies, like Facebook, that shrilly insist on their own independence from that conservative agenda must fully renounce these conspiracies – not willfully promote them.
They need to acknowledge that these anti-Jewish attacks, in addition to their immediate threat to Jewish people, are an attempt to disempower a much wider set of people whom we all depend on to advance democracy, equity and justice in American society.