#Covid & the Spread of Conspiracy Theories

Being able to tackle a pandemic relies on the vast majority of the population trusting in governments and public health actions.

During the first few months of 2020 social media was very effective at spreading conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 virus. Despite political leaders and health officials appearing on TV to get out factual information about the virus, misinformation continued to spread – and still does.

Researchers at Washington State University conducted a study examining 400,000 posts on the social media platform Twitter. Their results are a wake up call to us all on how we use and share stories.

The study identified that the most common false narratives feature Bill Gates, 5G Networks, vaccinations, QAnon and Agenda 21.

Previously misinformation spread about all of these issues was only partially effective, however, tagging onto Covid quickly accelerated the delivery on these malicious theories. All of those theories shared some common cross over points and it became clear that people who believed one of them were more likely to buy into believing the others.

To conduct this study, the researchers used Brandwatch, a social media analytics and data library, to collect Twitter posts associated with the five conspiracy theories from the first six months of 2020.  This resulted in a total of 384,592 posts. The researchers then narrowed these down to the top ten most linked to URLs on a weekly basis. This allowed them to conduct a qualitative as well as quantitative study and examine more of the theories’ content beyond Twitter’s character-limited posts.

They found that the most common posts contained statements of belief that a theory was true, but those did not get as much engagement as posts about malicious purposes and secretive actions. The least likely posts to be shared were those that attempted to provide some sort of authentication or sources for these conspiracies.

COVID-19 proved fertile ground for conspiracies, but the authors were surprised by how quickly existing theories adapted the pandemic into their storylines. For instance, prior to the pandemic, there was a relatively minor conspiracy theory that 5G cellular technology could harm human health, but once COVID-19 hit, the theory expanded by falsely claiming that 5G towers were responsible for its spread worldwide.

This quick incorporation of COVID-19 into false narratives was particularly true of the “mega-theories” QAnon and Agenda21. QAnon contains the outlandish idea that the world is run by a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles. Agenda 21 is a twisted take on a real United Nations climate change initiative, claiming it is instead a secret plan to depopulate the world.

Ital Himelboim, study first author and an associate professor at University of Georgia explained:

“When you have overarching theories as big as QAnon and Agenda21, they can really fit anything into them. Immediately, the pandemic fits into the existing conspiratorial way to explain the world — and of course, there’s a villain.”

During this time period, the most popular conspiracy theory villain was Microsoft-founder Bill Gates. Some posts falsely contended Gates was behind the creation of the disease, wanted to depopulate the world, or intended to benefit from a future vaccine – or some combination of the three. The Bill Gates as a villain appeared in the most posts the researchers examined, bleeding over into other theories.

Ital Himelboim continued:

“There are many ways you might to explain the focus on Bill Gates, but when something people can’t control is happening, sometimes they need someone to blame, so they look for that villain in a conspiracy theory. Somehow Bill Gates became that invented villain.”

The authors called for further research to understand the psychological attraction of theories that claim malevolent purposes and secretive actions. Also, regardless of similarities and overlaps, the various conspiracy theories had many differences which points to a need to find different strategies to counter each one.

 Porismita Borah, associate professor in Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communications added:

“To combat these conspiracy theories, we have to keep in mind how the content is created, what people believe and what they share.

“It’s a very complex situation, but it is important to understand the content to be able to counter it. You need to know what you are fighting.”

Click on this link to access the study, What do 5G networks, Bill Gates, Agenda 21, and QAnon have in common? Sources, distribution, and characteristics, published in New Media and Society

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7 replies »

  1. What occurs to me is – that one of the worst ways that mis-information about Covid is spread, is through the mechanism of pretending it isn’t there.
    The telly is presently full of ads. for holidays – travel in a tube full of re-cycled air – good idea. And cruise ship holidays – cluster together in a big ship and sail around the world – a good way to produce a Covid Cluster – then spread it.

    There are many kinds of nonsense propounded about Covid – one of the most dangerous is pretending it’s gone away. Take a look at what’s happening in China. Folk possibly feel that China is a long way away. Covid started in China – and then spread out.

    For a clever species, we humans don’t appear to learn from experience.

    Meanwhile – we stay home – getting a bit stir-crazy – but think it’s worth it.

    • I seem to have lost the will to go anywhere other than necessary shopping and back home. Perhaps one side effect of lockdown. Who knows?

  2. Maybe the consequences of closing down the economy and staying away from hospitals in order to “save the NHS” will have a bigger impact on the nations health than we thought.

  3. All a person needs to do is look around them, think of how many people the know who have had Covid, and how many of those have been left with Long Covid ( more and more being diagnosed as such, as time goes on) and how that affects their lives.

    It’s all there – right in front of us.

  4. My husband and I, both in our 80s and with other health problems, have all our vaccinations and boosters. We had steered clear of covid until Christmas time this year when we both tested positive. Thankfully, and I just have to believe it was due to the boosters, we did not have a serious bout although my husband, who also has asbestosis, has taken much longer to get better than I have. He is still being kept awake at night by a runny nose and nagging cough.

    • I’m sorry to read this, and it’s hard to know what to say. You’ve pretty much encapsulated why I stay away from people and Mike only goes shopping and into work when he has to – wearing a mask and keeping his distance. Anyone with an underlying condition has to be extra careful – it could be a matter of survival.

      As I’ve said before, personally, I’m not so much worried about dying, as about being seriously ill again and the strain that would put on Mike, again.

      Folk who are generally healthy don’t appear to be able to get a grip on the effect that being in that kind of situation can have on a person. And an awful lot of people just blithely carry on regardless. I try not to let it get to me – but it does.

      At the moment, I’m having a rough patch and will be pleased to get back to my usual state – and I do appreciate being able to do the things I can do, when I can.

      It’s a terrible pickle – the whole state of the world, is a terrible pickle. I/we just keep plugging away, enjoying what there is to enjoy – but the care-less-ness and lack of understanding of others can be very dis-heartening. When will they stop asking me am I going to things that they know I can’t go to? I’ve been told that it’s “entirely my choice”. It isn’t – unless choosing whether to breathe or not is a choice.

      I don’t know if you look at my blog… http://www.spanglefish.com/berniesblog/blog.asp?blogid=16098 , but if you do you’ll have seen this …

      “ It’s not a good time to be young, and the years ahead won’t be a good time to be old.”

      Not cheerful – but, I think, realistic.

      Sending supportive wishes to you and your husband


  5. On a practical note – when I’m coughing, coughing, coughing – good old Vick Vapour Rub helps. And – sitting up – propped on pillows.

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