Children outside 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, on Jan. 9, 2023. (Photo/Forward-Mira Fox)
Children outside 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, on Jan. 9, 2023. (Photo/Forward-Mira Fox)

How Twitter activists turned a viral story about Orthodox Jews into a modern blood libel

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A new Jewish story has gone viral: A tunnel has been discovered under the legendary Chabad headquarters on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, popularly referred to as 770.

This is a story that is at turns baffling, amusing and heartbreaking. The fact that it is also utterly bizarre, especially to outsiders, has caused it to go viral. And almost as soon as it did, so too did the antisemitic conspiracies.

The actual story of this incident concerns the ideological future of a Hasidic movement and a feud over who controls its building. But to bad actors online, this community drama has become evidence of something more sinister.

First circulating in unregulated forums like 4chan and QAnon Telegram channels, stills of a mattress and a high chair seen in videos and photos of the tunnels was used as “evidence” that Jews were engaging in ritual child rape.

Stories of actual abuse in the Chabad community were dug up as further “proof” for these completely fabricated claims. Some tweets falsely claimed that the tunnels were connected to “secret Satanic groups and 4,000 ritual human sacrifices are performed in New York City every year,” a modern-day blood libel.

Since Oct. 7, many white nationalist accounts have exploited the lack of moderation on X — and the tacit approval of Elon Musk — to grow their audiences with effective and deceptive marketing techniques. In particular, many have rebranded themselves as pro-Palestinian advocates, and have grown their followings exponentially as a result.

“What these grifters do is seek out trending news and any culture war news and then twist it to support their own narrative,” Taylor Lorenz, a columnist for The Washington Post who specializes in internet culture, told me today. “They’ll ride a news story into the ground. They’ll pump out relentless coverage of it to all channels and dominate the airways. Since it’s trending on search and social, they can use that for audience capture. They can then pivot to use that to promote their actual ideological and extreme content.”

Some white nationalists and extremists — like Jackson Hinkle, a self-described MAGA communist who was previously known for his deeply transphobic views, and Censored Men, an incel-style misogynistic account — started producing anti-Israel content when the war began. The goal was never to actually advocate for Palestinians, but to use a news moment to increase their engagement. Many have succeeded, adding millions of followers in only a few months.

RELATED: So why were those yeshiva students digging an unauthorized tunnel at Chabad headquarters?

Researchers have dubbed them the “new elites” on Twitter: Their posts reach billions of views (exponentially more than mainstream outlets on the site), and have swayed conversations around Israel. Often using unsourced information, they spread unverified claims. Censored Men, for example, claimed that “71 Palestinian families have been completely erased from all public records.” Others falsely claimed that a cease-fire was imminent without any actual proof.

These accounts have always been antisemitic. But the 770 news cycle has been a gold mine for them. Like many conspiracy theorists, they have latched onto innocuous “evidence” to spread well-trodden tropes about Jews.

As a recent article in Vice pointed out, tunnel conspiracy theories about secret child abuse rings have abounded for decades. Combine that with an ancient blood libel and fabricated claims of ritual abuse, and you have a toxic combination.

But it didn’t stop there: In a matter of hours, these conspiracy theories were spread to tens of millions of people. White nationalist and neo-Nazi accounts like “Gentile News Network” and the Groyper movement — newly fashioned “pro-Palestinian activists” — spread the images, abuse articles and other conspiracies to their networks.

It felt eerily similar to Pizzagate, the 2016 conspiracy theory which claimed that a child abuse sex ring was operating under a D.C. pizza shop. That particular rumor began on 4chan before migrating to Twitter, fanned by white nationalist figures like Mike Cernovich. It didn’t take long for Trump associates and others to then take the conspiracy theory from the fringes to the mainstream.

Today, there are tweets about shadow governments and human sacrifices reaching millions, with the very clear implication being that the Jews are behind all of this. Underneath these tweets are hundreds of replies, boosted due to Musk’s new paid model, making the coded conspiracy theories explicit: “They’re all pedophiles. Once they’re caught they go to Israel,” read one reply. 

“They already control everyone,” read a tweet accompanied by a picture of Hasidic Jews. “There was a person who tried to warn us,” someone posted, along with a video of Kanye West.

Most of these posts spreading conspiracy theories are not being taken down by the platforms on which they are actively spreading. And none of these accounts mentioned in this piece had been suspended as of publication time.

Worse, Elon Musk has in the past interacted with many of the accounts now spreading these conspiracy theories, contributing to their amplification. Keith Woods, the neo-Nazi whose attack on the ADL Musk once elevated, has shared a false and unsubstantiated meme claiming that “Jewish rabbis are over 18x more likely to molest a child than a Catholic priest,” along with his own commentary: “Chabad headquarters are in Brooklyn.” 

Until Elon Musk owned Twitter, Woods was suspended. Since he was reinstated and then promoted, he has gone from 24,000 followers to 162,000 in just nine months.

Since then, the stories have spread further on other networks vulnerable to antisemitism, like TikTok, where videos using AI-generated images were used to illustrate the story, followed by the same “disturbing” focus on the mattress and high chair.

All of this contributes to the increase and mainstreaming of antisemitic hate that has already exponentially risen since the war in Gaza. And as we saw with Pizzagate, the potential for violence is very real.

These modern-day blood libels, once confined to the worst corners of the internet, now spread to millions overnight. And today, there is a social media platform that both refuses to moderate this disinformation and outright promotes the accounts who spread it.

I fear it’s only a matter of time until this online bigotry, in the absence of the few guardrails that once existed, will lead to violence.

Elad Nehorai
Elad Nehorai

Elad Nehorai is the co-founder of Hevria and one of the leaders of Torah Trumps Hate. His writing can be found in the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, the Guardian, and other outlets. A formerly Orthodox Jew, he is an outspoken activist on extremism both within and outside of the Jewish community.