Depending on who you talk to, the current coronavirus pandemic might be the natural product of evolution, the result of a lab accident or a biological weapon designed by the Chinese. Lockdown measures to impose social distancing restrictions are responsible measures designed to protect public safety or they’re part of a Democratic Party plot to destroy the economy in order to diminish President Trump’s chances of reelection in November. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, is either a respected medical professional or devious member of the “deep state” who is using the coronavirus (which he may or may not have helped create) to control the public through a mandatory vaccination.
And those are just some of the narratives that are spreading within the United States.
In countries around the world, equally implausible ideas are circulating, derived in part from their particular political and historical situations, but also cross-pollinating with a wide array of conspiracy theories, misinformation and state-sponsored content, ranging from blatant propaganda to more subtle disinformation campaigns. In some cases, the dearth of verifiable information has resulted in the spread of misinformation by fairly reputable and well-intentioned sources. The coronavirus “infodemic,” however, has allowed a host of malign actors — from the Russian government to domestic extremists to scam artists peddling bogus cures — to exploit existing societal fissures for their own political or personal gain.
“All of that just contributes to this massive, unstoppable flow of information that would be impossible to contend with even for the most resilient society,” said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
In fact, Jankowicz told Yahoo News that other than in countries such as Turkmenistan, where the government has imposed a complete clampdown on any and all information related to the coronavirus, “I can’t imagine a country that would have no proliferation of conspiracy theories or disinformation at this time.”
Disinformation feeds on anxiety and promotes emotional and irrational responses. “I think it’s a common misconception that disinformation creates some sort of new feeling in people,” Jankowicz says. “Often it's really weaponizing preexisting feelings, or certainly amplifying them.
“So the anti-vax groups, for instance, are going to be more likely to buy into this narrative about the vaccine being somehow an instrument for global control. The folks who are distrustful of the United States, whether that's in the Middle East, or in China, or Russia, are going to be pawns of their nation's propaganda machines.”
You can see that phenomenon at work in internet metadata. In an interview with Politico last month, Joel Meyer of Predata, a predictive analytics firm, said that since the beginning of the pandemic, his firm has observed an increase in traffic from Persian and Hindi-language internet users to websites that are critical of Western medicine and promote alternative healing methods, including unproven supplements. At the same time, Meyer said that “in European languages, including French, German and Italian, anti-vaxxer attention has really spiked recently.”
“We’re seeing interest rise to unprecedented levels in alternative medicines and treatments,” he told Politico, concluding that, based on the analytics, “that type of disinformation is sinking in, it’s having an effect.”
Here’s how the pandemic of conspiracy theories is playing out in different countries:
The German public’s general willingness to comply with strict national lockdown measures — along with a number of other initiatives including widespread testing and aggressive contact tracing — have been credited contributing to the country’s relatively low coronavirus death rate, despite reporting among the highest numbers of confirmed cases. According to the latest data from the Johns Hopkins University as of Tuesday afternoon, Germany had 176,551 confirmed coronavirus cases, falling just below France’s 180,051 with the eighth-largest number of cases worldwide. Germany’s death toll, however, was just over 8,000, compared to 28,025 in France.
In light of this apparent success, over the last several weeks, the German government has begun to slowly lift many of its coronavirus restrictions, allowing schools, shops and playgrounds to reopen, as well as churches and museums. Even the country’s national soccer league was permitted to resume its season over the weekend, albeit without fans in the stands and with elaborate social distancing rules both on (no elbowing allowed) and off the field (mandatory pre-season quarantine and regular testing).
And yet, despite all this, protests against the country’s lockdown measures have been on the rise — growing from just a few dozen marchers last month, to more than 10,000 participating in demonstrations across Germany this past weekend.
Germany’s recent protests against coronavirus restrictions have attracted a hodgepodge of supporters from across the political and ideological spectrums, from far-left anticapitalists to neo-Nazis, anti-vaccine advocates and regular citizens simply concerned about the economy. According to a recent New York Times report, members of Germany’s far right, including the nationalist and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, and other extreme groups appear to be leading the mobilization effort behind these demonstrations in an effort to capitalize on the shared discontent by these seemingly disparate factions. Yahoo News has reported similar concerns expressed by experts in the United States that anti-lockdown protests here are being co-opted by extreme anti-government and right-wing militia groups.
“Conspiracy theories have always had the potential to bring different people together because they are united in a common enemy,” said Pia Lamberty, a doctoral student at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, in Germany, who studies the psychology of conspiracy beliefs. As an example, she said, the anti-vaccination movement brings together “alternative eco-parents, people from the middle of society and right-wing extremists.”
But there are aspects of the recent anti-lockdown demonstrations that appear to be directly influenced by German history and culture, starting with comparisons she says many conspiracy theorists have made between coronavirus restrictions and the policies of the Nazi era, as well as claims that coronavirus vaccinations will soon become mandatory. Lamberty said that some protesters have even gone so far as to wear yellow Star of David patches or arm bands like the ones European Jews were forced to wear under the Nazi regime, evoking Holocaust imagery to suggest that those who oppose vaccines or believe in conspiracy theories are somehow facing similar oppression under the current government’s coronavirus restrictions.
Lamberty said that in the former East Germany, a Soviet satellite during the Cold War, protesters are more likely to compare lockdown measures with Communism than in the West.
Lamberty and other German researchers have tracked the recent rise in conspiracy theories that echo those that have flourished in the United States, many of which center around distrust of a small group of elites, including medical experts and public health officials, believed to be conspiring against the public good for their own gain. Such conspiracy theories have recently gotten a boost on social media from German celebrities like singer Xavier Naidoo and Atilla Hildmann, a popular vegan chef and cookbook author.
Lamberty also noted that, in recent weeks, “the QAnon conspiracy theories, which had not played a major role in Germany before, had started spreading more and more in the country.” The QAnon movement is built around a series of cryptic messages that purport to describe a struggle by Donald Trump to defeat an international conspiracy of elites and “deep state” bureaucrats engaged in kidnapping, abusing, torturing and killing children.
Citizens of the U.K. were among the first to demonstrate the potential real-world effects of the coronavirus “disinfodemic,” as rumors spread linking the virus to the spread of 5G cellular technology, apparently leading to an outbreak of arson against the new infrastructure. As of April 21, AP reported that “Some 50 fires targeting cell towers and other equipment have been reported in Britain this [last] month, leading to three arrests. Telecom engineers have been abused on the job 80 times, according to trade group Mobile UK, making the U.K. the nucleus of the attacks.”
Though scientists have repeatedly debunked claims that COVID-19 is somehow caused by 5G technology, the conspiracy theory has continued to resonate with the British public and merge with anti-lockdown protests.
So far, the British versions of these demonstrations have remained relatively small compared to their counterparts in Germany and the United States. Over the weekend, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s brother, Piers, was among 19 protesters arrested at a gathering of about 50 in London in defiance of social distancing measures. According to the Guardian, prior to his arrest, Corbyn had used a megaphone to promote the discredited 5G conspiracy theories, claim that “vaccination is not necessary” and declare that the coronavirus pandemic is a “pack of lies to brainwash you and keep you in order.”
After initially resisting the implementation of nationwide lockdown measures, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently issued a new set of rules designed to continue facilitating as much social distancing as possible, while allowing those who can’t work from home to go back to work, with the exception of hospitality and nonessential retail workers.
The Middle East
Jankowicz pointed to the Middle East as an example of a region where cultural and religious beliefs and political convictions including distrust of powerful outside forces, especially the United States, have allowed a mix of conspiracy theories, misinformation and state-sponsored propoganda to flourish.
During a panel discussion on this topic last week, Merissa Khurma, project manager for Middle East special initiatives at the Wilson Center, outlined the most prevalent examples of coronavirus-related misinformation that have been circulating across the Middle East. Among them are a number of bogus claims about the coronavirus that have proliferated primarily through social media, including baseless warnings that the virus can cause infertility in men, and unproven methods for preventing infection, such as eating garlic, drinking warm water every 15 minutes, and praying five times a day.
Khurma noted that conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, including deliberately false claims that it was created by the U.S. as part of an economic war on China, have been propagated through more “official networks” such as the Iranian government as well as Arabic-language TV stations owned by China and Russia. Other conspiracy theories have also been spread by journalists repeating unfounded claims.
“According to a columnist in a Saudi newspaper, the virus is an effort by Western pharmaceuticals to profit by selling the cure and a vaccine,” said Khurma.
Another conspiracy theory, which was tweeted by Noura Al-Mutairi, an Emirati writer for the popular Arabic language newspaper, Al Bayan, suggests that the coronavirus was actually created as part of a plot by the Qatari government to sabotage the 2020 World Expo in Dubai, which has been postponed due to the pandemic, as well as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan to restructure the country’s economy.
Finally, Khurma pointed to another apparent piece of propaganda recently highlighted by the Washington Post, which purports that the Egyptian government has developed a cure for the coronavirus and is already “saving the world” from the pandemic “conspiracy” propagated by the West.
Russian propaganda has been capitalizing on the pandemic to advance Moscow’s long-standing goal of embarrassing Western governments and disrupting American and European societies.
According to a report in Foreign Policy by Amy MacKinnon from mid-February, claims suggesting the virus originated in the U.S. have been circulating in Russian media since at least late January.
“The overarching theme of the stories that appear across the Russian media, from fringe websites to prime-time television, is that the virus is the product of U.S. labs, intended to kneecap China’s economic development,” wrote MacKinnon. Foreshadowing some of the narratives that would continue to spread around the world, including within the U.S., she wrote that “some articles have flirted with the idea that Bill Gates or Kremlin nemesis George Soros might have had a hand in the outbreak,” while other theories proposed that the virus might be a biological weapon, or part of a money-making plot by pharmaceutical companies.
Though MacKinnon noted that, as of mid-February, the primary audience for this propaganda was “largely domestic,” the Kremlin soon expanded its coronavirus disinformation campaign beyond Russian borders. Audiences in Eastern Europe, and specifically Lithuania, have reportedly been hit with an onslaught of false or misleading messages designed to stoke fears about the virus and promote negative sentiments toward the U.S. and NATO. Meanwhile, the European Union has accused Russia of spreading fake, contradictory and confusing reports about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, German, Italian and French as part of a “significant disinformation campaign” to create panic and sow distrust, a charge supported by U.S. intelligence and the State Department. The Kremlin has denied the allegations.
According to U.S. officials, Russian propaganda about the coronavirus has been echoed by China, as well as Iran, which have waged similar disinformation campaigns while deflecting criticism of their handling of the pandemic.
In March, the Washington Post listed Brazil among several countries where citizens and government health officials had begun sounding the alarm about the use of WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging service, to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation about the coronavirus, including inaccurate claims about how the virus is spread and ways to treat it.
More than two months later, as Brazil’s count of coronavirus cases continues to climb, the country’s health officials, along with many state governors, have found themselves fighting another, arguably more powerful source of misinformation about the virus: President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro is among few remaining world leaders who still refuses to take the coronavirus seriously, even as his country is quickly becoming one of the epicenters of the global pandemic.
Wednesday evening, the Brazilian Health Ministry announced that the country had recorded 19,951 new coronavirus cases within the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 291,579. The health ministry also reported an additional 888 coronavirus deaths, bringing the nationwide death toll to 18,859 as of Wednesday evening. Earlier this week, Brazil surpassed Spain, Italy and the U.K. as the site of the world’s third-largest coronavirus outbreak.
Despite this, Bolsonaro has continued to dismiss the severity of the virus, which he has referred to as “a little flu,” and repeatedly flouted the social distancing recommendations of both Brazilian and international health experts. Disagreements over Bolsonaro’s approach to the crisis have resulted in the departure of two health ministers within the last month.
While recent polling shows that two-thirds of Brazilians support social distancing measures that have been implemented by many state governors per the recommendations of health experts, Bolsonaro has been among the loudest voices calling for businesses to reopen. He publicly defies his own health ministry’s social distancing guidelines with regular, in-person gatherings with large numbers of supporters, and has become a vocal advocate for the widespread use of chloroquine — a variant of the unproven anti-malaria drug also touted by President Trump — despite the lack of evidence of its effectiveness as a treatment for the coronavirus.
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