Conspiracy theories might seem funny in ordinary times. But against the backdrop of escalating far-right attacks worldwide in recent years and now the pandemic, these myths have spiraled into a dangerous pattern of radicalization.
It is a sunny day in the pandemic summer of 2020 and I am sitting on the U-Bahn in Berlin with my facemask on and music playing through my headphones. At one stop, a group of young people gets on, sits diagonally across from me and starts a lively discussion. I pay no attention at first, but then, suddenly, snippets of their conversation start to reach me: “Bill Gates… vaccines… master plan!”
I stop what I’m doing and take my headphones off: “Excuse me, but I happen to know quite a bit about the subject.” I draw on my own research into disinformation to briefly summarize why I believe it is absurd to suspect that the Microsoft founder is behind the pandemic. We discuss vaccination programmes and the Gates Foundation’s relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is not the first time I have had a conversation of this kind. Like many other people, I have heard a lot of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
In February, the WHO warned about the outbreak of an “infodemic.” The stories doing the rounds of the internet range from “there’s no such thing as coronavirus” right through to speculation that the virus is a biological weapon developed by the United States, China or Israel, depending on who you’re talking to. Certainly trust in politics, science and the media has risen in Germany over the course of the crisis, but at the same time, a minority of the population is increasingly beyond the reach of fact-based discourse. This has dire consequences for efforts to stem the spread of the virus. In some countries, including the United Kingdom, conspiracy theorists have gone so far as to attack mobile phone towers, convinced that the virus that causes Covid-19 is spread by 5G.
Conspiracists from all sectors of society
It is quite likely that the young people on the U-Bahn in Berlin had stumbled across the Bill Gates myth on the internet. Across the world, a surprising number of people believe the same thing, even though it just takes a few clicks to see that there is no substance to the story. Conspiracy theories often sound bizarre to outsiders, and it is tempting to label believers “crazy” or “paranoid.” But research has shown that the proportion of conspiracy theorists suffering from mental illness is no greater than the proportion among the general population. Belief in conspiracies is a phenomenon found in all sectors of society.
The seeds of conspiracies fall on particularly fertile soil in times of crisis. People living through fear and uncertainty are more likely to see patterns where there are none. Believing in a “plot” or “master plan” can be a source of comfort, however false, particularly as it provides a clear target for blame. Many groups in conspiracy theory circles have convinced their followers online that they are playing the lead in a great heroic tale. Some people find that extremely alluring.
Many social media accounts with the broadest reach spreading content about coronavirus had a significant fan base even before the pandemic broke out. In many cases, coronavirus-related elements were simply tacked onto existing narratives. Groups that had been spreading rumours about mobile phone masts being used to control people’s thoughts started to claim that 5G had triggered the pandemic. Longtime anti-vaxxers saw another plot to push through compulsory vaccinations. The basic tenet is, “There’s something they’re not telling us! There’s a secret plan! There are bad guys pulling strings behind the scenes!”
Digitalisation fanning the flames
This isn’t the first time that a new illness has given conspiracy theorists material to spin into new stories. In the Middle Ages, during the time of the Black Plague, there were terrible pogroms against Jewish communities in Europe because of rumours that they had poisoned wells and thus caused the epidemic. During the Spanish Flu, there were rumours in various countries that the opposing sides of the First World War had deliberately spread the virus.
Yet the new global networking possibilities have obviously changed the dynamics, even within the groups in question, and the various factions readily name-check one another. Via these networks, new narratives frequently spread across national boundaries in a matter of hours.
Some groups collaborate to collect “evidence” of a conspiracy. Followers of QAnon, a conspiracy theory with roots in the United States, devote a lot of time to interpreting the words of a mysterious user called “Q.” Over the years, the tale has become so complex that it is virtually impossible for outsiders to sort through and counter it. In their world, the governments of many countries have been infiltrated by murderous secret organisations, and Donald Trump is hailed as some kind of saviour. At some of the demonstrations in Germany against measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, some participants even had T-shirts and banners featuring references to QAnon. At one demonstration in Mannheim, a moderator addressed the rally with the words, “Where we go one…” – and the audience responded: “… we go all.” This slogan is an identifier in QAnon circles.
Overlaps with the far right
Conspiracy theorist circles already overlapped significantly with the far right before the pandemic. References to an alleged all-powerful enemy are used to bolster group spirit. If you can convince your supporters that the media landscape is secretly controlled, you are immune to criticism from outside.
Conspiracy theories are also used to legitimise violence. The perpetrators of many far-right attacks in recent years believed in far-right conspiracy theories, such as an alleged Jewish world conspiracy or the myth of “The Great Replacement,” a term that emerged in the French “Nouvelle Droite” to describe the claim of a conspiracy concerning migration. During the pandemic, far-right groups have even sought to stoke a civil war through targeted actions. Threat scenarios are constantly being sketched out – “there’ll be tanks in the streets tomorrow,” for instance.
Even outside the major service providers, such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, a whole conspiracist ecosystem has evolved, made up of news portals, video streaming websites, publishing companies, magazines and off-line events covering all aspects of conspiracy theories. In addition, well-known social media platforms continue to play a huge role in recruiting new followers. Users are often directed from there to other channels and platforms. This was the case with the encrypted messenger service Telegram, which was seen by many influencers as a kind of “safe haven,” as they believed that there was no risk there of having their accounts blocked.
YouTube’s toxic algorithm
The concerns are not without foundation. As a result of a number of acts of violence involving conspiracy theories, a broad public debate ultimately has encouraged the public to cast a far more critical eye on social media platforms. As long ago as 2018, activists and scientists warned that the YouTube algorithm, optimised to maximise viewing time, had toxic consequences. Extreme content was blatantly promoted, as it would keep users glued to their screens for longer – thereby also benefiting conspiracy theorists’ accounts.
Only after an extensive debate did YouTube take action. Even so, it is virtually impossible to verify the effectiveness of the company’s measures from outside. Twitter has been pressed to act too -- this summer, the company announced that in the future, accounts linked to QAnon, which has been classified as potentially violent, would be banned from the platform.
These days, the internet is a crucial conduit for the spread of false information – but also provides the greatest counterbalance. Not only is a lie only a few clicks away, so is reliable information. On platforms such as YouTube, there are countless videos with easily digestible scientific analyses, such as the enormously popular MaiLab channel (available in German with English subtitles) by the well-known host Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim. There are numerous fact-check services available to counter the most prominent conspiracy theories – the website of the Correctiv initiative, for instance (available in German only).
To divide truth from falsehood against the backdrop of the pandemic, many social media platforms have announced measures to halt the spread of coronavirus myths. Warnings are now shown on relevant Instagram hashtags. YouTube links reliable sources as background information. On Facebook, fact checks warn users when they are about to spread suspect content.
Whether these measures will be enough to win over those most susceptible to conspiracy theories, however, is open to question. In the worst-case scenario, warnings are reinterpreted as “evidence” of attempts to suppress the “truth.” But in the case of users who have not yet descended permanently into the black-and-white world conspiracy ideology, these measures might have some effect.
What more can be done?
There is no magic bullet for conspiracy theories. What is clear is that platform operators’ measures to deal with the phenomenon is not enough. Civil society and each individual citizen needs to be alert and ready to act. Counselling services recommend taking action as soon as possible if friends or relatives start to spread conspiracy theories. Asking the right questions could prompt them to start questioning their basic assumptions.
The good news is that many who have not yet fallen into the void can still be won over with fact checking. That was also my experience in my encounter on the U-Bahn in Berlin. I expected the young people to come back with counter-arguments or at least annoyance, because I had just butted into their conversation on the Gates coronavirus conspiracy. But the opposite was the case. While we were talking, one of the young men whose mask had been dangling under his chin put it back on. When the young people got off a few stops later, they bid me a charming farewell. I put my headphones back on and thought: “If only it was always that easy!”