Covid-19 also spreads hoaxes: How the pandemic became the stage for a war on (dis)information

By Richard Blais

In a time of global pandemic where a global war is fought against the newest form of coronavirus, another battle regarding information and its usage is at stake. Conspiracy theories and controversial figures flourish throughout the internet and other media, contributing to the overall chaotic situation and possibly serving the interests of some people. This interest of mine for disinformation in time of a pandemic started about a month ago when a classmate sent on a WhatsApp group a message the following information: “According to a friend, a leak from the official Czech government has revealed that when 1,000 cases of coronavirus will be reported in the country, tighter restrictions will be imposed. If you are a smart person you should rush to supermarkets to gather food.” This rumour was proven false in the days that followed, yet this message managed to trigger some fear and added to the overall uncomfortable situation of being a stranger in a country whose culture you’re not completely familiar with.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic situation offers room for the spread of misinformation. Conspiracy theories adapted their lingo and found a fertile-ground to adapt in that global crisis. The World Health organization (WHO) warned about a possible “infodemic” given the high level of some of these theories. The multiple failures of nation-states to deal with the crisis when it peaked in Europe, the reactions to an imposed quarantine or the fear of what the world will turn into after this unusual situation is over are all reasons among a multitude of others which are driving the current rhetoric of misinformation.

A multitude of reasons can explain the appeal of “alternative narratives”. Philosopher Alain Cambier refers to the German concept of the Schadenfreude (harm-joy), the feeling of self-satisfaction one has when when learning about the failures and troubles of others. For some, there seems to be a certain joy in hearing about the failures of the so-called establishment which struggled to correctly  address the pandemic when it spread throughout their countries or to provide reliable information and figures. Such a situation leaves room for the imagination, and in this context, the media of “alternative information” thrive.

Cambier also explains that most of these conspiracy theories are linked to what Primo Levi calls the “unformulated dogmas,” the hidden thoughts which taint the reception of information with hidden layers of xenophobia, intolerance or anti-semitism found in the individual. Conspiracy theories are often tied to the most extreme ideas and contain a degree of defiance against certain groups of individuals. It is by no surprise that in some of the conspiracies surrounding the epidemic, the “classic” figures of the secret government organisation, names with a Jewish connotations, the Freemasons and many of the other figures that haunts the universe of alternative information appear.

But what do the theories surrounding the Covid-19 highlight? Generally speaking, there  is a certain narrative of defiance towards liberal ideas in Europe overlapping with xenophobic ideas. And it starts to become concerning when it is integrated by officials or states in a war of communication in which using dubious information or reinventing narratives is common play. 

In the conspiracy universe, many theories thrive, reach different conclusions, yet still accuse the same thing in their core. According to a survey conducted by the British office of Communication in March 2020, the theory linking the 5G and the Coronavirus was the most widespread conspiracy theory in the UK at that moment. Supposedly, the waves emitted from these towers would weaken the body, or simply create the virus depending on the person you heard the information from. Consequently, during the weekend of Easter, more than 20 cases of attacks against the mast installed for this new network were reported throughout the UK. However, this “popular” theory has been followed by another trending theory which links Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft, and the vaccine for the Covid-19. Allegedly, the virus was created by Mr. Gate who already has the vaccine ready, and intends to mass-monitor the population by injecting those getting the cure a surveillance device in their body.

In a way, Bill Gates plays he role of the  “the evil rich man who pulls the strings”,a classic figure found in many conspiracy theories. A role usually given by conspiracists to the founder of the Open Society George Soros, in particular by a branch of the far-right discourse, mainly located in central Europe. This raises the question of who are the followers of the so-called “alternative discourse”.

A recent survey conducted on 1,008 French people by the IFOP at the demand of the website Conspiracy Watch and the Jean-Jaures foundation gives us the following figures: if 57% of the population believed the virus is due to natural circumstances, 17% of them assumed the virus was man-made, created on purpose in a laboratory in Wuhan. According to this survey, the part of the population most likely to adhere to this last theory is found among the lower social class, the youngest part of the population and those close to extreme-right. And it is about this last category that the survey finds interesting data: 40% of the respondents inclined to vote for the Rassemblement National (RN) ( the former Front National) believe that the virus was purposely made in a laboratory. In the same survey, another 15% of extreme-right sympathisers believe the virus was manufactured in a laboratory, but by accident. Overall, slightly more than half of the far-right sympathisers explain the current pandemic using a conspiracy narrative, which has already been debunked by specialists.

This survey confirms the sympathy that certain far-right movements, embodied in US president Donald Trump, or newspapers like the Daily Mail, have for this theory which directly targets and blames China for the pandemic. Between Beijing and Washington, a communication war overlaps with the trade battles the two superpowers have engaged on. The Chinese government has initiated the fight, with a desire to appear as the main figure which leads the global fight against the virus, resulting in what has been defined as the “Mask Diplomacy.”

Moreover, the Chinese government wishes to impose its narrative by publicly mocking the way the US handles the crisis, or criticising the authorities of Western countries. The Chinese ambassador in France has been summoned by the French Foreign Office after a series of slurs published online in which he accused the French government of letting its older citizens die. Meanwhile, Beijing is highly suspected of having concealed a large part of the information surrounding the virus, including the total number of deaths highly-suspected to be grossly underestimated.

The EU has often been a target for foreign disinformation campaigns led from the outside, and it seems the pandemic has been perceived as a period of opportunity for its detractors. A report published in March  accused Russia of having deployed a “significant disinformation campaign.” Such offensives add to the difficulty of states to deal with the pandemic, or simply are inserted in the larger trend of disinformation meant to undermine the Union’s harmony

Such hoaxes had the effect  of spreading misinformation about ways to treat the virus, such as the supposed curative effect of drinking bleach, made famous by Donald Trump. To fight these rumours, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, released a statement in a video  stating that “disinformation kills.” Furthermore,  the EU has launched a new platform (https://euvsdisinfo.eu/) to debunk campaigns of misinformation. If the initiative can be welcomed it is painful to see that such measures do not suffice to prevent disinformation from spreading.

The pandemic put us in a great state of confusion, fear and anxiety. Most of us are experiencing a lockdown where we are left alone with our thoughts and doubts. The people we love are separated by borders we had forgotten the existence of, and we yearn for overdue reunions who never seem to arrive. As Europe slowly comes out of quarantine, we are all entering a great unknown called “the world of tomorrow”. In such a period, it is easy to be captivated by storytellers who would make reality seemingly comprehensible. We are all under the influence of narratives, but it is our duty as citizens to make the effort to verify information, to place our trust in those who work for the truth with method and seriousness, and not to fall under the influence of those who sow the seeds of disunion or want to benefit from our fears.

Picture: Becker1999, Flickr

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