In the hundreds-strong WhatsApp group chats used by many members of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, fake news has become a contagion unto itself.
“MUST WATCH DR USES VAPE TO SHOW MASKS DON’T WORK,” blared one video recently forwarded in the discussion thread of a prominent Hasidic family based in the neighborhood of Borough Park, where coronavirus rates have spiked in recent weeks.
“BREAKING Jewish journalist Jacob Kornbluh was just found dead by the NYPD in his apartment in Brooklyn. Sources say it might be suicide," read a false update another community insider relayed from a popular chat group on Monday, referring to the Jewish Insider reporter assaulted during a demonstration against new restrictions aimed at the outbreak there.
Kornbluh is very much alive, and declined to comment on the message besides calling it “stupid” and “unfortunate.” The source of the message, like several The Daily Beast consulted for this article, requested anonymity out of fear of getting targeted themselves.
Another image asserted in a mix of English, Hebrew, and Yiddish that unnamed religious authorities had issued a prohibition against testing for COVID-19.
In a community where the most devout may spurn television and avoid the internet, WhatsApp has long supplanted some local politicians and newspapers as the chief source of information. But experts and insiders say the platform is especially popular among the younger Hasidic men who have erupted in angry and even violent protests in recent days against new restrictions geared at spiking infection rates in their New York neighborhoods.
“It is the dominant way that the community is now getting its news,” said Orthodox Jewish political consultant Menashe Shapiro. “It has also become a primary way for disseminating misinformation about the pandemic.”
No one The Daily Beast consulted could say precisely why WhatsApp has assumed this role, though the Facebook-owned, smartphone-based messaging service is popular among many communities lacking access to regular internet connections and with family abroad. It has also hosted politically potent disinformation campaigns in locales ranging from Florida to Brazil.
What is clear is that in the COVID-19-wracked precincts home to New York’s most conservative and cloistered Jewish residents—and some of the city’s very poorest— it has become an incessant torrent of falsehoods, calls to flout rules and baffle official testing efforts, and even inflammatory exhortations to action in the streets. The New York Daily News reported last week on a pre-recorded message circulating in ultra-Orthodox chats that claimed the campaign of President Donald Trump, who is broadly popular in these areas, wanted them to march in the streets carrying signs attacking Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The paper noted that Harold “Heshy” Tischler, a local social media personality arrested on Sunday for allegedly goading on Kornbluh’s attackers and inciting a riot, subsequently echoed this message on his Twitter feed.
But repeatedly forwarded WhatsApp messages that a source with access to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups shared with The Daily Beast suggest an even more extensive effort to organize and coordinate the anti-shutdown rallies via the messaging service.
“IF WE ALL RESIST THEY CANT [sic] DO ANYTHING,” reads one message spread on WhatsApp last Wednesday, the night Kornbluh was attacked by a mob. “IF YOU’RE IN, FORWARD TO YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY. LEARN FROM THE POWER OF NONVIOLENT PROTESTS. WE CAN WIN!”
“It’s Ok, we can do a Boro Park Lives Matter,” another forwarded message said.
Other appeals were more practical and specific.
“Tonight [sic] protest...Please don’t come with your cars...Come by foot only!!!” a directive circulated in Borough Park Wednesday evening said. “If its [sic] not arranged by anyone there will be absolutely nothing there except a few guys looking for the protest to watch.”
The same source shared messages they reported seeing in September that encouraged users to thwart and distort New York City’s attempts to accurately gauge the rate of COVID-19 infection in the community, in hope of allowing in-person attendance at religious schools. Many of those yeshivas have been forced shut again, fueling anger in a community that has long bristled at what some sees as undue scrutiny from on high.
Yosef Rapaport, a Borough Park-based podcaster and activist, argued that the prevalence of COVID-19-related provocations on WhatsApp owes mostly to the local popularity of the current commander-in-chief.
“There are so many people who are Trump supporters, they amplify anything that supports Trump,” he said. “It’s like fire to dry tinder.”
Facebook announced in April that it would put limits on message forwarding to contain proliferating misinformation about the pandemic, and that it would partner with health authorities to promote public awareness of the disease’s dangers. And in a statement after this story was published, a WhatsApp spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “For messages that have been forwarded many times, we surface a magnifying glass so people can search the internet and receive authoritative information in one tap. We strongly encourage people to listen to local health officials and take all precautions to protect themselves and our communities from COVID-19.”
COVID-19 hardly marks the first bout of virulent propaganda to course through Brooklyn. The same zip codes have witnessed repeated and deadly flare-ups of measles in recent years, thanks in part to an outbreak of anti-vaccination invective.
Another source tied to the community dismissed the notion that WhatsApp bore any responsibility for the problem at all. The platform has simply become the new home of rumor networks that previously thrived in the community’s houses of worship.
The only difference is a global pandemic—and a city bracing for a second wave.
“It’s the same whispers, just a different hallway,” the insider said.