At a recent Saturday protest outside London’s Stratford train station — comprised of bindi-wearing hippies, conspiracy theorists in balaclavas, and middle-aged men in waterproof jackets — a protester with the grassroots, anti-lockdown group StandUpX yelled into a megaphone.
“The vaccine is there to make you infertile… that vaccine is just going to make them able to control you,” they shouted.
Listening to the dangerously false spiel was 24-year-old Rebekah, who we are only identifying by her first name. A survivor of domestic abuse, Rebekah said she was living in a Manchester safe house when the first UK-wide lockdown began in March. “If I was still living at home [with her abuser] in lockdown, I probably would have died,” she told CNN.
But Rebekah’s concerns about the crushing social and economic effects of pandemic restrictions took a conspiratorial turn after she read an Instagram post that she said made her question “information shared by the media.” She researched the matter online, churning up information that, while not supported by facts, nonetheless backed up her growing suspicions.
Many conspiracy theories have found legs during the pandemic, and one of the first ones that Rebekah found was the widely debunked claim that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was profiting from coronavirus vaccines.
There’s no evidence Gates or his foundation will profit from the Covid-19 vaccines, according to PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking operation.
In recent weeks, Rebekah says she has attended numerous anti-lockdown protests with her two children, while sharing conspiracy-laden posts about the pandemic to her 11,000 followers on Instagram. “We have to trust it [the vaccine] … knowing that they [Gates and the pharmaceutical companies] won’t get in trouble if any of us die,” she said as she handed her daughter a lollipop.
While it might seem easy to pass off the 80-strong rally as a fringe event, Rebekah’s journey to the protest frontlines is a microcosm of how online misinformation has allowed fantastical conspiracies to find a bigger audience.
The World Health Organization (WHO) “realized if people think Covid-19 is a hoax they will not only go outside and flout rules,” said Anna-Sophie Harling, the Europe managing director of internet trust tool NewsGuard, which flags anti-vaccination misinformation for the UN agency, among other projects. “But it’s hard to convince people to take a vaccine for something they don’t think exists or don’t think is a problem,” she told CNN.
In 2021, experts fear this alternative, fact-free universe will fuel hesitancy in taking the vaccine, a vital weapon in the fight against the virus. “To beat Covid-19, we also need to defeat the parallel pandemic of mistrust that has consistently hindered our collective response to this disease,” Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, warned in a virtual briefing to the UN Correspondents Association on November 30.
The first sign of a problem began as lockdowns shuttered large swathes of the planet in the spring.
A study by the University of Oxford found that thousands of coronavirus misinformation videos, including the “Plandemic” clip that falsely claimed Covid-19 was created in a lab for profit, were shared 20 million times on social media between October 2019 and June 2020.
Around the same time, QAnon, a dangerous online cult that believes US President Donald Trump is secretly fighting to bring down a cabal of pedophiles, also found a wider audience in Europe. A CNN investigation reviewed Facebook pages and groups related to the QAnon conspiracy based outside the US and found at least 12.8 million interactions between the beginning of the year and the last week of September.
As the months wore on, libertarian debates against mask-wearing and lockdowns began to intersect more strongly with conspiracy theories. An August march against Covid-19 restrictions in Germany’s capital Berlin ended with protestors storming the steps of the Reichstag. Among the crowd were QAnon supporters toting the conspiracy group’s insignia, as well as demonstrators waving imperial banners, a flag now deployed by the far right as the swastika is banned in Germany.Anetta Kahane, founder of the anti-racism group the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, watched the march from her Berlin apartment’s window in horror. She told CNN it looked like disparate groups of conspiracists, neo-nazis, anti-vaxxers and esoterics appeared to have overcome their political differences. “It is against liberalism, against globalised society, against science, against intellectuals, against multiculturalism and all the [trappings of] modern society,” she said at the time.
Louise Creffield and Vince Dunmall, the founders of one anti-lockdown group, Save Our Rights UK, told CNN their focus was legislation, not conspiracies — insisting that lockdowns and mask mandates are illegal and undemocratic.
The group’s founders have, however, expressed anti-vaccination sentiments and knowingly co-organized marches with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists like Piers Corbyn — brother of former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Piers Corbyn is a climate change denier who proselytizes online about Covid-19 being a “fake virus,” despite all the evidence to the contrary.
CNN has reached out to Corbyn for comment.
The group’s Facebook page has posted videos featuring anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, who popularized the false idea that a shape-shifting lizard-like species exerts control over human society by garnering political power to manipulate the world. Considered one of the most notorious conspiracists in the UK, Icke now claims the pandemic was entirely planned. “We really do stand at the cusp between any kind type of freedom and a fascism that would make even the Nazis wince because of its technological nature,” he said in Save Our Rights UK’s video interview with him, which clocked nearly a quarter of a million
Nearly two months later, they posted an interview with Desmond Swayne, a ruling Conservative Party lawmaker, who is opposed to lockdowns. Save Our Rights UK’s co-founder, Dunmall said: “Look, David Icke may be someone who is talking out of turn in respect to a lot of what a lot of people think. But we’ve had a combination of Mr. Desmond Swayne coming on and saying what he’s got to say.” “You know, it’s freedom of speech, and it’s a human right to have your opinions. Just because you don’t agree with it doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to it,” he told CNN.
“The interview with SOR [Save Our Rights UK] was exclusively about lockdown and coercion,” Swayne told CNN in an email. “Whilst I would never countenance compulsory or coerced vaccination, I am an enthusiast for vaccination,” he added.
The issue is not freedom of speech; the real problem is that professional conspiracy theorists like Icke have exploited world events to make a living, says Daniel Allington, a senior lecturer at King’s College London and an expert on conspiracy beliefs.
When asked to comment on whether he exploited world events for financial gain, Icke declined to comment.
The government’s Covid-19 restrictions contained aspects of scenarios that conspiracy theorists had been predicting for years, Allington said.
“That life is going to be like George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and every aspect of your life will be controlled by the government and everything will be tracked and you’ll be under constant surveillance and there’ll be terrible punishments for it,” he explained.
It does not help when these false ideologies are backed by celebrities and television pundits. At the start of December, “Black Panther” star Letitia Wright shared concerns and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines.
The actress shared a video on Twitter from a YouTube personality who made baseless claims about the vaccines’ safety, but eventually deleted the tweet after dozens of back-and-forth exchanges with people criticizing her for spreading potentially dangerous misinformation.
In November, British television presenter Emma Kenny suggested Covid-19 vaccinations would injure children in a since-deleted tweet. She also shared a video in which she said, “everything as far as I am concerned that I have considered conspiracy is looking more and more like reality.”
In a statement to CNN, Kenny said she is not a Covid-19 denier or anti-vaccination. “In fact, for those wanting the vaccine then if that makes them feel secure, then that will be a good thing. I at this point just want to be allowed an informed choice and I would think in the US and the UK this would not be a contentious point. I will always stand for people to have autonomy over their bodies,” she added.
Western populist movements, like the Brexit vote, also laid the groundwork for people to ignore warnings from experts around the middle of this decade, says Joe Ondrak, a senior researcher at fact-checking organization Logically.
“You had [Conservative lawmaker] Michael Gove’s famous soundbite that people had enough of experts,” Ondrak said of the politician’s statement in the run-up to UK’s Brexit vote in 2016. He explained that the period set a precedent for civil discourse no longer being about a person’s qualifications to speak on a matter, but “far more about feelings and emotion,” and the idea of “truthiness” — the latter meaning that “it feels like the truth and therefore I’m going to believe it.”
‘Much of the damage has already been done’
The main culprit in the spread of these fictional worldviews has been social media.
While surveys by Allington have found a majority of people in the UK reject conspiracies, he said “it’s quite clear that the events of the past year have thrown these theories into overdrive.”
By May, a King’s College London and Ipsos MORI study based on three surveys on Covid-19 conspiracies by Allington and his colleagues surveyed UK residents and found three in ten believed the virus was probably created in a lab. People who got their information from social media were more likely to believe in conspiracies than those who got it on television or radio the study also found.
“Facebook groups containing Covid-19 and vaccine misinformation have been growing virtually unchecked,” NewsGuard’s Harling said. “Each group has a backup group, and when that fails [after being de-platformed by Facebook] they tend to move off Facebook,” to the controversial conservative social media platform Parler, or Gab or Telegram, she added.
Facebook has historically struggled to handle anti-vaccine misinformation on its platform and only started to ban QAnon sites in October, three years after the conspiracy formed.
The company said this month it would remove debunked coronavirus claims. But NewsGuard’s report on Covid-19 vaccine misinformation ‘superspreaders’ on the platform, released prior to Facebook’s announcement, shows that many of the flagged pages remain on the site.
A Facebook company spokesperson told CNN that it takes “aggressive steps to limit the spread of misinformation about Covid-19,” that it has “connected over two billion people with accurate information from public health authorities” and it removes content that could lead to “imminent physical harm,” such as false posts about virus cures or vaccines.
The spokesperson added that Facebook took down more than 12 million examples of such content between March and October and worked with third-party fact checkers to attach warnings to 167 million Covid-19 posts.
On Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, four of the top 10 search results for the word “vaccine” are anti-vaccination accounts. “In many ways, I think much of the damage has already been done. The anti-vax movement: people believe Covid-19 is a hoax — those people have been sowing their seeds since March,” Harling said.
Ondrak said another problem for Facebook is what he calls “micro-influencers” — individual profiles promoting Covid-19 conspiracies through public posts that are getting hundreds of shares. “They are tricky as it is an underground network that is not viewable off analytics software,” he added.
There is no one single solution to the problem. Ondrak worries that takedowns of posts and pages could risk re-enforcing people’s views on conspiracies.
“Before 2020, fringe conspiracy narratives were just fringe, but it is not like that now and the idea of takedowns needs to be rethought, purely because it’s wider discourse now,” he said, adding that removal could in itself be seen as a vindication of someone’s warped beliefs.
For Allington, social media giants like Facebook “need to own this problem and recognize they have contributed to it through their policies.”
One possible fix could be opening itself up to external researchers “who will be able to audit the success of their policies and controlling the spread of this content,” Allington said.
When asked if Facebook would be open to Allington’s suggestion, the company spokesperson said it worked with third-party fact checkers and has “displayed warnings on around 167 million COVID-19 posts – leading to 95% of people not clicking through to read the original post.”
Another focus, said Harling, is upping media literacy skills and complete transparency from tech companies.
“So transparency towards the user on what’s behind the content in their newsfeed, but also on the part of the tech platforms as to why they’re making certain decisions, how much content they’re removing, what steps are being taken and why,” she said.
Back at the London protest, Rebekah told CNN after the demonstration that she didn’t leave her flat for three months during the UK’s first national lockdown, fearful for her and her children’s lives due to Covid-19.
But she said she felt conned after reading a misleading Instagram post in the summer, which pointed to the UK government downgrading Covid-19 from its high consequence infectious disease (HCID) list as proof that authorities were overhyping the virus.
It is true that England’s public health agency no longer considers Covid-19 a HCID, but that does not mean the country does not consider it as highly dangerous. The HCID designation is for pathogens like Ebola, which has an average death rate of 50%. While Covid-19 has a fatality rate of around 1% in high-income countries, according to Imperial College London, it has a higher rate of transmission, and has killed far more people in Africa than the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.
“To find out that during all that time, my mind could have been at peace, I could have focused on other things. The children could have gone out and played, I felt so gullible,” Rebekah said. Now, she says, there is very little that will change her mind about her belief in the conspiracy about Bill Gates and the Covid-19 vaccine. Nor will she be taking the Covid-19 vaccine. “I always question everything… I know Google isn’t everything, but I’ll have a look on there and see what I can find.”
By Tara John, CNN
IMAGE: Protesters demonstrate against the lockdown and use of face masks in Trafalgar Square, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (REUTERS)