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