WASHINGTON (AFP) — Billionaire philanthropist George Soros has long been a bogeyman for the far-right, but Donald Trump’s indictment has unleashed a fresh torrent of hate that has also entangled US fact-checkers debunking conspiracies about him.
The Jewish financier is accused by Trump and his backers of influencing Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who led the historic grand jury indictment of the former president over a hush money payment to a porn star.
The backlash against Soros, a lightning rod for conservative groups opposed to his funding of liberal causes, stems from donations he made to the criminal justice group Color of Change, which endorsed Bragg for DA in 2021.
Despite no evidence of a direct connection, Trump has gone so far as to claim that Bragg was “hand-picked and funded by George Soros.”
“Soros-backed,” “Soros-financed” and “Soros DA” have become much-peddled phrases in Republican circles, perpetuating the conspiracy theory that Bragg operated at the direction of the billionaire.
Standing outside the Manhattan court where Trump was arraigned, a protester held up a sign that read: “Google it! George Soros funds US DAs.”
Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros, said the billionaire “has never met, spoken with, or otherwise communicated with Alvin Bragg.”
“Many on the right are attempting to shift the focus from the accused to the accuser, Bragg,” Vachon told AFP.
“Because of George’s well-publicized support for reform prosecutors, Republicans are alleging that George is behind it all. Several stories in the mainstream media have debunked this, but they persist.”
‘Evil global elite’
The conspiracy theorists vilifying Soros, a man who survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary, have sought to push the idea of a wealthy Jew working as a puppet master behind the scenes to promote a liberal agenda.
“Conspiracy theories are often built around the idea that there are powerful forces outside of our control acting on behalf of the global elite to keep the truth from ordinary people,” Joshua Tucker, co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, told AFP.
“In this case, Soros personifies the evil global elite.”
The attacks, observers say, also smack of antisemitism.
The “Republican Party… is once again falling back on their anti-Semitic George Soros conspiracy theories,” J Street, a Washington-based Jewish advocacy group, wrote on Twitter.
“It’s as tired as it is dangerous.”
This was hardly the first time that Soros — who made his wealth in the high-stakes world of finance and is famous as “the man who broke the Bank of England” in 1992, when he made a fortune by betting against the British pound — has been a target of outsized conspiracy theories.
Far-right influencers claim he has funded the “great replacement” of white Americans with immigrants and people of color.
Around the world, from Central Europe to East Asia, Soros has been accused of stoking immigration, backing coups, sponsoring protests and seeking to push a multicultural agenda.
In recent years, Hungary’s fiercely anti-immigration prime minister Viktor Orban has accused Soros of orchestrating Europe’s migration crisis. Russia has accused Soros, who has poured billions into ex-Soviet satellite states to promote human rights, of fomenting violent uprisings in the region.
In the latest backlash, Tucker said, it appeared that presenting logical facts made no difference to the “conspiratorial thinking.”
A slew of American fact-checkers, who say the focus on Soros in the lead-up and following Trump’s indictment is misplaced, have themselves faced online harassment and trolling.
“Conspiracy theorists not only push a particular narrative, but they also attack the credibility of fact-checkers that cast doubt on their claims,” Tucker said.
Fact-checkers employed by mainstream American media debunked Trump’s claim that Bragg received “in excess of $1 million” from Soros.
While federal records show that Soros sent $1 million to Color of Change, official records show that the group –- which insists its decisions are independent of its donors — spent less than half that amount on supporting Bragg.
“It is a common tactic by hate groups to discredit, harass and silence fact-checkers,” said Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology at New York University, who has faced similar trolling in the past for his debunking work.
Such “harassment is designed to discredit them and to help reinforce misinformation and conspiracy theories,” he told AFP.