On Nov. 20, a trivia team from Oxford appeared on the BBC’s University Challenge, one of the U.K.’s longest-running game shows. On it, Melika Gorgianeh, a team member and PhD candidate in astrophysics, wore a navy blue, pink, and green jacket and was seated behind the team mascot: a fluffy, smiley, stuffed blue octopus.
A few days later, screengrabs from University Challenge went viral on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, with conservative politicians and journalists accusing the BBC program of tacitly endorsing antisemitism. Their reasoning was twofold: Gorganieh was wearing colors that appeared to resemble the Palestinian flag, while the blue octopus was a “well-known antisemitic trope,” according to Ben Obese-Jecty, a conservative candidate for Parliament. Shortly thereafter, the BBC debunked such claims, clarifying that the episode was shot in March 2023, well before the start of the Israel-Hamas war; and that Gorgianeh was wearing not a Palestinian flag, but a Zara windbreaker. The octopus mascot was “one of many chosen by the team during the course of the series and is one of their favourite animals,” the BBC’s statement read.
The University Challenge incident echoed that of a similar one a month prior, involving climate activist Greta Thunberg. In October, Thunberg posted a message of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, along with a photo of herself with a plush octopus on her shoulder. The photo went viral among those who claimed the octopus toy was an antisemitic dog-whistle, prompting her to delete the photo and explain that the octopus toy is often used by autistic people as a way to communicate their feelings. (Thunberg is autistic.)
Both instances were examples of a handful of people imbuing an innocuous object with nefarious meaning, with intense social media amplification broadcasting the claim to a wider audience. Heightened geopolitical tensions also clearly played a role in its virality: since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, which left 1,200 Israelis dead; followed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 14,000 Palestinians, both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents have increased exponentially around the globe. Such factors contributed to the widespread perception that the octopus was inherently an antisemitic symbol — even though, prior to Thunberg’s Oct. 20 post, it was not, or at least not a widely recognizable one.
“I had seen it [on far-right platforms] before,” says Alon Milwicki, senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), who specializes in researching antisemitism. “But I wouldn’t say I’d seen it enough to be like, ‘Oh, my God, there it is again.’”
That seems to have changed, however, following the Thunberg incident, as well as the University Challenge misunderstanding. Searches for the term “blue octopus” have spiked, increasing 48 percent over the past week, with related searches such as “octopus symbol” increasing 1,200 percent, according to Google Trends data and the SEO insights tool Glimpse. In far-right spaces, the blue octopus has become an in-joke of sorts, a reference to clueless normies freaking out over potential dog-whistles; in so doing, it appears to have been adopted as an ironic antisemitic symbol in itself, with people on X posting photos of blue octopus toys in responses to posts from Jewish groups. Like much far-right hate iconography, the widespread freakout over the blue octopus as an antisemitic symbol seems to have, ironically, assuming that meaning.
It’s important to note that there is, indeed, some historical precedent for the use of the octopus in antisemitic propaganda. The most frequently cited example is a 1938 Nazi propaganda cartoon showing Winston Churchill as an octopus with a Star of David over its head, its tentacles snaking across the globe. (Churchill was not Jewish, but was sympathetic to Jews and Zionism; he, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was often depicted with Jewish iconography by propaganda cartoonists as a way of alluding to supposed Jewish global conspiracies to take over the world.) Some editions of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic text The International Jew also feature the trope on the cover, with a 2001 Egyptian reprint featuring an ink-black octopus with a Jewish star on its face.
The aim of such imagery, explains Milwicki, is to emphasize the conspiracy theory that Jewish people are omnipresent and are pulling the strings behind world events, their influence felt across the globe. “The idea is that Jews have their fingers in all these different pots, but it doesn’t work with a person because a person only has two hands,” he says. “It works much better with tentacles, because then the iconography shows Jews have control of media, of government, of society, over academia — all of these same things at the same time. It’s an easier image for people to digest.”
Over the course of the past few decades, the symbol of the Jew as an octopus has resurfaced on a handful of occasions. But it was relatively historically obscure, to the degree that in 2014, a German newspaper apologized after using an octopus in a cartoon to portray Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg, with the artist claiming it had not been aware of its antisemitic implications. Even right-wing Jewish pro-Israel real estate mogul Adam Milstein seemingly unwittingly used it in a 2017 tweet condemning the billionaire Democratic donor George Soros (a frequent subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories), deleting it after people pointed out its historical connotations.
Further, an octopus on its own (blue or otherwise) should not immediately be read as an antisemitic dog whistle, says David Feldman, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. “As is so often the case with antisemitism, context is important,” he tells Rolling Stone. Historically, with antisemitic propaganda, “there is other information provided to guide viewers to understand the antisemitic message being given: for example, the octopus might be depicted straddling the globe, or on top of an image of a country with a Star of David emblazoned on its body, or with the head of a known Jewish figure,” he said. Milwicki says such context is crucial to understanding virtually any hate symbol. “You have to consider the person using it, in what company they’re using it, how it’s being used,” he says. “That matters a lot.”
The panic that ensued following Thunberg’s photo with the octopus is somewhat understandable, in light of the fact that both Islamophobia and antisemitism are steadily increasing. Milwicki says he understands why some would be concerned by the presence of an octopus in the context of messaging related to the Israel-Hamas war. According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents have increased nearly 400 percent following the Oct. 7 massacre, while the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has similarly reported a 216-percent increase in anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hate incidents. “Tensions are high,” says Milwicki. “Even before the last few months, anti-semitism has been steadily increasing in this country for years. And I think sometimes that can lead to seeing things that may not be there, or making something that’s possible but not likely into something definite.”
Yet he harbors concern that, by amplifying the messaging that a certain symbol is inherently hateful and offensive, far-right groups could be encouraged to use it for precisely such purposes. Take for instance, the “OK” hand gesture, which in the late 2010s was subject to widespread reporting that it was being used as a dog-whistle by far-right groups. Though there was some skepticism about the initial reports, white supremacist groups were so amused by the mainstream coverage that they effectively hijacked the symbol for their own purposes, garnering more attention in the process — and ensuring that it would be forever be viewed upon with suspicion, if not through the prism of hate.
This is, effectively, what seems to have happened following the blow-up over Thunberg’s tweet, and enhanced by the subsequent University Challenge controversy. Though 4chan trolls were initially amused by the prospect of overly self-serious normies clutching their pearls over Thunberg’s octopus, they have since started adopting it as a snarky in-joke of sorts, with users mockingly posting photos of blue octopus plushies in reference to Jews. Milwicki also cites the example of the Goyim Defense League, a notorious antisemitic hate group, posting Free Palestine iconography as an example of a hate group hijacking an otherwise innocuous message. “They’re just using this as a way to stay current and relevant and push anti semitism,” he says. “It’s co-opting what the mood of the nation is to get more followers, to get more clicks, to get more attention.”
Ultimately, people who are understandably worried about rising rates of antisemitic messaging seem to have put the blue octopus in the crosshairs of those who would like to use it for exactly such purposes. “Extremists excel at co-opting ‘harmless’ icons and turning them into something harmful,” Milwicki says.