In the weeks following coordinated investigative reporting efforts uncovering the hidden fortunes of global elites and the ultra-wealthy, media actors ranging from QAnon influencers to foreign state broadcasters have mobilized antisemitic conspiracy theories to dismiss the massive exposé.
On October 3, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and various global media outlets began publishing a series of financial investigations looking into a system of offshore tax havens utilized by international elites, politicians, and billionaires. The investigation was based on a massive leak of 11.9 million financial records, nicknamed the Pandora Papers, and it revealed a complex web of global companies — operating from South Dakota to the British Virgin Islands — that some of the wealthiest people in the world are seemingly using to dodge taxation and launder money.
Fringe media outlets and QAnon adherents have viewed prior financial investigations of the global elite, like the Panama Papers, as a tool to expose and validate their conspiracy theories about the way the powerful and wealthy operate. A similar pattern occurred with the release of the Pandora Papers, as right-wing forums hyped the new reports and even alleged there was a hidden meaning behind the date of the papers’ release (though many pivoted to try and discredit the coverage once a link to George Soros was suggested).
It did not take long for conspiracy theory communities to reverse their initially positive expectations of the Pandora Papers’ release and instead push antisemitic smears undermining the new reporting.
QAnon and far-right media latch onto antisemitic conspiracy theories
Within hours of the journalism consortium’s announcement of the publications, a cascade of QAnon influencers and conspiracy theorists reversed their stance or outright condemned the merits and authenticity of the leaks.
Noticing that the ICIJ’s supporters page mentioned the Open Society Foundations, a grantmaking organization founded by Jewish philanthropist and perpetual conspiracy theory target George Soros, QAnon influencers crafted a narrative that dismissed the group and its reporting on the basis of antisemitic conspiracy theories. This is a familiar pattern across similar financial investigations of global elites: Fringe communities latch onto hope that released documents will prove their theories, only to immediately discredit the reporting once Soros’ involvement is suggested.
While the invocation of “globalist elites” to justify conspiracy theories has become increasingly popular in recent years, these claims often rehash centuries-old antisemitic myths. (Even though QAnon conspiracy theorists and other elements of far-right fringe culture don’t always explicitly depict Jewish people as the enemy, they often invoke antisemitic tropes and stereotypes as a way to further radicalize their audience.)
In recent decades, Soros became the central figure in such antisemitic conspiracy theories. His reputation as an active contributor to civil society organizations around the world (including Media Matters) made him an attractive symbol for the American alt-right and far-right political parties in Poland and Hungary to falsely perpetuate conspiracy theories of Jewish control of various institutions, such as the media. The Anti-Defamation League notes:
A person who promotes a Soros conspiracy theory may not intend to promulgate antisemitism. But Soros’ Jewish identity is so well-known that in many cases it is hard not to infer that meaning. This is especially true when Soros-related conspiracy theories include other well-worn antisemitic tropes such as control of the media or banks; references to undermining societies or destabilizing countries; or language that hearkens back to the medieval blood libels and the characterization of Jews as evil, demonic, or agents of the antichrist.
Even if no antisemitic insinuation is intended, casting a Jewish individual as a puppet master who manipulates national events for malign purposes has the effect of mainstreaming antisemitic tropes and giving support, however unwitting, to bona fide antisemites and extremists who disseminate these ideas knowingly and with malice.
Skepticism and dismissal of the “Soros-funded” ICIJ quickly became the overwhelming consensus in QAnon social media channels in the days following publication of the Pandora Papers, as conspiracy theories proliferated regarding the documents’ origins and the true intentions behind their release. Most users called the entirety of the publications “a nothing burger” that was “funded by none other than the Open Society Foundation (Soros),” while others speculated that parts of the leaked data were true, but deployed as “a Soros smoke & mirrors play to distract” from other events.
QAnon forums seized on the leaks’ absence of American figures -- explained by the ICIJ as likely the result of wealthy Americans utilizing domestic tax loopholes rather than offshore tax havens -- which led to one of the more popular theories: the leaks were actually a “limited hangout” operation by the “deep state” and Soros to covertly undermine political rivals.
Some QAnon influencers retained their positive outlook on the Pandora Papers' contents while still questioning the nature of Soros’ involvement with the ICIJ. One influencer known as Qtah told followers that despite the potential for foul play in the Pandora Papers, “Digital soldiers” -- a term used by self-identified QAnon adherents -- “still need to highlight” the story as an example of elite corruption.
Conspiracy theories undermining the legitimacy of the Pandora Paper were not contained to the QAnon online fringes of the far-right.
On October 5, the popular far-right blog Gateway Pundit published an article accusing the Pandora Papers of being the latest in a “series of illegal hacks released to damage certain companies and high-profile figures” that have “so far produced little evidence of any real crimes,” such as revealing Soros’ supposed offshore activities. Gateway Pundit’s article was amplified by the conspiracy theory website Natural News, as well as Spanish-language QAnon accounts on Telegram. Others on the far right, ranging from conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec to Spanish-language outlets Trikooba and NosMintieron.tv, further perpetuated conspiracy tales of “elite squabbles” and depicted the Pandora Papers as Soros-funded, CIA-hacked non-stories.
Russian state broadcasters amplify Soros framing
Beyond far-right media and QAnon conspiracy theorists, Russian state broadcasters RT and Sputnik were among the most influential entities that pushed Soros conspiracy theory regarding the ICIJ into the mainstream. English-language Russian media websites followed their pattern of deploying Soros conspiracy theories to dismiss allegations contained in the Pandora Papers, publishing articles titled “Soros-Funded Group Releases 'Pandora Papers' Allegedly Exposing 'Offshore Secrets' of World Leaders” and “ICIJ & Liberal Donors: Why Pandora Papers Look Like a Distraction From the West's Acute Problems.”
One of the more prominent RT articles to challenge the Pandora Papers, titled “Could the CIA be behind the leak of the Pandora Papers, given their curious lack of focus on US nationals?” highlighted Soros’ roles in funding ICIJ. White nationalists and QAnon influencers then amplified many of these RT and Sputnik articles -- not unusual given Russian state broadcasters’ attempts to appeal to fringe political viewers.
Russian state media has more of a discernible incentive to promote the Soros conspiracy theories than most other right-wing actors because the Pandora Papers name several key figures with links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including some who seemingly attempted to avoid U.S. sanctions using the offshore system. Putin himself was not named in the Pandora Papers, and his government dismissed the leaks’ revelations about Russian individuals. Russian state media nevertheless utilized the Pandora Papers findings to attack geopolitical rivals, such as Ukraine.
Panama Papers misinformation set the foundation for the Pandora Papers response
The deployment of antisemitic tropes to discredit the ICIJ’s reporting on the offshore banking and finance industry is not unique to the Pandora Papers.
The widely acclaimed 2016 Panama Papers investigation was also initially hyped by fringe communities before revelations about Soros’ affiliation with the outlets ended support. Over the years, and notably in the aftermath of the assassination of Maltese Panama Papers journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Panama Papers gained greater legitimacy in many conspiracy theory circles, despite early dismissals. But as coverage lapsed over time, there was not much reinforcement of theories dismissing the leak as disinformation. Yet those wanting to selectively incorporate the leaks into their own conspiracy theories continued to do so.
Almost five years later, identical Soros conspiracy theories deployed to discredit the Panama Papers are now repurposed wholesale to discredit the ICIJ’s work, often by the same bad actors, ranging from RT to Alex Jones.” Users on Reddit’s r/Conspiracy forum in 2016, like QAnon users discussing the Pandora Papers in recent weeks, claimed that the Panama Papers were part of a disinformation campaign to attack enemies of the U.S. establishment.
Pandora Papers misinformation bears wider implications
Far-left conspiracy theory outlets The Grayzone and MintPress News also adapted the global nature of Soros conspiracy theories to sow doubt about whistleblowers and leaks. Similar framing was used by several international media entities, including pro-Trump outlet The Epoch Times, Spanish conspiracy theorist Rafael Rafapal, Russian state media, pro-Iranian news channel Al Mayadeen, and even Chinese state outlet Global Times’ editor-in-chief.
Within the same week of the Pandora Papers release, conspiracy theorists and many of these media outlets also attacked Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen utilizing similar conspiracy theory talking points, attempting to link both disclosure leaks to a deep state plot.
Investigative reporting is often the only method to uncover unaccountable systems utilized by the ultra-wealthy and prompt public demands for reforms. The aftermath of the Panama Papers had substantial impacts on corruption investigations and legislation of offshore financing globally. Now, members of Congress have introduced the Establishing New Authorities for Business Laundering and Enabling Risks to Security (ENABLERS) Act, which seeks to close loopholes used for laundering money in the United States in response to the ICIJ’s Pandora Papers release.
Conspiracy theories regarding such reporting undermine public trust in whistleblowers and journalists exposing these systems and aid in the perpetuation of broken financial systems -- to the benefit of authoritarians abroad and the detriment of U.S. citizens at home.