Information in connection with the coronavirus sells well. The internet is full of different versions of the story about how the virus spreads. Quite often, they’re not based on facts and scientific works. Media outlets and politicians are also among those who share these stories, but researchers believe that social networks are still the most fertile soil for the rise of conspiracy theories.
In addition to the coronavirus, the world now has to deal with a new wave of fake news. Experts agree - we still know very little about the virus as well as its origins. Now the spreaders of disinformation are trying to use this lack of knowledge to their advantage. This event has even been given the unofficial name of “infodemic”. This is why Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have introduced new regulations to fight against fake information.
We learn from a report published by Facebook on May 5 that fake accounts of healthcare system representatives were being created on the platform to attract people in various countries. The end goal of these accounts was to collect audiences and transfer them to various suspicious platforms.
There’s nothing new about disinformation as such. They’re often based on conspiracy theories and promoting them. For many years now some people have believed that we haven’t really landed on the moon, that the Earth is flat or that the universe is ruled by reptilians... Why? Scientists explain this by the specificities of our psyche - humans tend to try to find an explanation to various events. The more important or traumatic an event, the bigger the desire to understand it. But humans also often tend to settle for a simple, primitive explanation and adapt facts to their theories.
In an interview with Sky News, a professor Karen Douglass of the University of Kent highlights three factors:
"The first of these needs can be classified as epistemic - related to the need people have to be knowledgeable and accurate”, says the professor. “The second is existential - related to the need to feel safe and secure in the world.”
The third type of needs is social. People need to keep a positive outlook, about themselves as well as about the group they belong to.
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The pandemic has an impact on different aspects of our lives, it sets limits and new rules for us. Fake news and conspiracy theories gain popularity much easier in this stressful environment. Some disinformation is spread in a chaotic way, because of a simple mistake. However, others appear in a much more organized way and manipulate the superstitions and stereotypes existing in people’s minds.
“Coronavirus and 5G”
In an interview with Financial Times, Swedish researcher Hanna Linderstal says that the idea of 5G internet transmitters spreading the coronavirus first appeared in the beginning of January. Only in the first month of 2020, she had already seen 35 videos exploring that theory. In only a couple of weeks, these videos were viewed by 12.8 million people. The conspiracy theory spread in the world so fast that it brought thousands of people into the streets. In the Netherlands, UK, Cyprus, Australia, and many other countries, people were protesting the need to stay at home and burning internet transmitters. According to the conspiracy theory, the quarantine measures were imposed in order to enable the installation of these transmitters without any obstacles.
Researchers think that the cultivation of this kind of theory could be encouraged by the so-called “anti-vaxxer” movement. But the talk of 5G internet is harmful to human health began last year. In an interview with Voice of America fact-checker Ryan Fox says that Russian state media was especially active around this topic at the beginning of 2019. Before then, some people were suspicious about 4G and 3G.
“The Bill Gates Plan”
According to another conspiracy theory, the actual figure behind the pandemic is the billionaire owner of Microsoft - Bill Gates. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been spending millions on healthcare and helping third world countries for years now. The businessman declared in his Ted Talk in the beginning of 2015 that humanity would be facing a new pandemic unprepared. He turned out to be right. And now he’s spending 250 million USD on creating a vaccine.
Based on all this some claim that the Microsoft owner is aiming to install microchips in our organisms through mass vaccination. This will give Bill Gates the ability to control the movements of each person and make collecting personal data even easier.
“We’re living in a crazy situation, so the spread of crazy rumors is inevitable” - this is how Bill Gates himself reacted to the conspiracy theory.
On April 15 he took to Twitter to denounce the U.S. decision to cease funding for the World Health Organization and called Trump’s decision dangerous. As a result, a new wave of criticism addressed at Bill Gates has emerged.
One group is especially active in this regard. Its members call themselves “QAnon”. They’ve been claiming for a long time that there is a big conspiracy against Donald Trump in works in the U.S.
With general confusion as a backdrop, major political players are also using the pandemic for a mutual blame game. Even the president of the United States is promoting some of the conspiracy theories. Donald Trump refers to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and claims that Chinese scientists grew it in a lab. According to a report published in the beginning of April, 3 out of 10 Americans share this version of the story.
An incident occurred during one of the president’s press conferences a couple of days ago. An American journalist of Chinese origins, Weijia Jiang, asked the president why he has been selling mass testing as a huge success when so many Americans are still dying every day. Trump got irritated and replied that they should “ask China” about it… Some time ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also joined in on those claims.
Another circumstance feeding into all the conspiracy theories is the fact that China is a closed republic and it doesn’t give out exhaustive information about the pandemic. The Chinese propaganda is now accusing Americans of seeding panic and is, in turn, blaming the U.S. for creating the coronavirus. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already voiced a suspicion that the coronavirus has been brought into China by American soldiers.
Read also: COVID 19 - The race for the cure
In conversation with Deutsche Welle German sinologist Flix Wemheuer says that both China and the U.S. are using questions about the origins of the coronavirus and strategies against the pandemic for their own propaganda wars.
Specialists say that now is not the time to search for who’s right and who’s wrong and that united efforts should be directed at vanquishing the pandemic. They note that the current situation is harming scientists in the first place… Klaus Mulhan, professor at the Free University of Berlin calls this alarming state a “failure of diplomacy”. According to him the things never have been worse: “Even during the Cold War, the East and the West were fighting together against serious illnesses and conducted joint research”.