The COVID-19 pandemic has been described as a ‘perfect storm’ for the creation and dissemination of disinformation (intentionally misleading), misinformation (unintentionally misleading) and conspiracy theories.
The fear and anxiety created by a serious and unexpected health threat, combined with the isolation imposed by travel and work restrictions and consequent reliance on online platforms for social interaction, have left many people vulnerable to messages which seem to offer security, reassurance and hope.
Experts have different views about the extent to which conspiracy theories and dis/misinformation pose a threat to efforts to combat the pandemic.
However, they all agree that COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the role of social media in influencing political and policy debates and raised challenging questions about the need for a radical rethink of digital platform regulation.
Croakey editor Jennifer Doggett discusses these issues below, in the wake of a recent call by the World Health Organization and other agencies for governments to tackle the “the infodemic” as a critical element of pandemic responses.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
Pandemic conspiracy theories have been around for centuries so it’s no surprise that COVID-19 has spawned a raft of new conspiracies and other forms of dis/misinformation. What’s new though is the role of social media in spreading false and potentially harmful information and that’s what has the experts worried.
Canadian political scientists Dominik Stecula, Mark Pickup and Clifton van der Linden have studied the pervasiveness and consequences of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. They argue that these theories “are not just harmless, fringe beliefs” but “have consequences for how individuals respond to the pandemic…which in turn, have consequences for the larger population” leading to “devastating consequences for public health and the economy”.
The UK based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) think tank also believes there is cause for concern. It has monitored the “information ecosystem” around COVID-19 and recorded an increase in the volume of misinformation about the pandemic which correlates with lockdowns in USA, UK, Canada and Australia.
ISD research shows how the COVID-19 pandemic is being exploited by:
- State-sponsored media and extremist movements to spread harmful messaging
- Anti-migrant and far-right networks to spread disinformation targeting migrants, refugees and other vulnerable populations on- and offline, as well as explicit threats of violence/harm to non-white populations from white supremacist groups online, and
- Various groups and individuals attempting to profiteer off the coronavirus pandemic through online platforms and advertising.
The ISD also describes how the pandemic is playing into “accelerationism” on the extreme right, which promotes the idea that democracy is a failure and that groups should accelerate its end through mobilising social conflict and violence.
Other researchers have identified a number potential harms resulting from COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theory messaging including:
- Distracting from the main public health messages being communicated by governments and other authorities
- Undermining specific measures being implemented to reduce the spread of disease, for example by promoting false messages about the ineffectiveness of masks and the harms of vaccines
- Fuelling racism, a key determinant of health and a major contributor to the gap between the health and life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians. While not all ‘COVID sceptics’ are racist, there is a clear racist element in some misinformation and conspiracy theories, including QAnon
- Undermining existing work being done to address genuine health and welfare concerns. Groups working on child sex exploitation have publicly denounced child sex trafficking conspiracies stating that they are based on false data and do not target actual cases of child abuse
- Providing governments with a ready excuse for COVID-19 policy failures, for example through blaming conspiracy theory supporters for the low uptake of COVID-19 containment measures, and
- Obscuring the underlying factors influencing the spread and impact of COVID-19, such as poor health literacy, poverty, poor access to health care and unstable or inadequate housing.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time that social media has been used as a political tool.
Conspiracy theories and disinformation spread via social media played a role in both Brexit and the 2016 US election, leading one expert to describe these platforms as “a threat to coherent political discourse”.
One of the most high profile COVID-19 conspiracies, ‘QAnon’, has been on the political radar since 2017 when a QAnon precursor conspiracy, Pizzagate targeted Hilary Clinton in the lead up to the 2016 US election.
QAnon pre-dates COVID but during the course of the pandemic it has functioned like a fishing trawler dragging into its net a wide range of existing unrelated conspiracies which have coalesced into an overarching COVID-19 meta-narrative. In brief, this is that the pandemic is a hoax created as a distraction by a ‘global elite’ of Satanist paedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring, soon to be uncovered by Donald Trump.
This narrative has proved to be remarkably attractive to disparate groups that share little in the way of actual beliefs but are linked by their shared distrust of authority, a desire for an alternative reality and a ‘good vs evil’ worldview.
The result has been some odd allegiances between communities not normally considered natural partners, such as right wing militants, the alternative health or “wellness” community and evangelical Christians (although not all members of these groups support QAnon or COVID conspiracies).
It’s difficult to quantify the level of influence (if any) that QAnon and other conspiracy theories have on political decision making but in the USA, in particular, they are showing up regularly in political discourse.
QAnon supporters have been visible at rallies supporting President Donald Trump, who has contributed to their legitimacy through making positive statements including that they “love our country” and “like me very much”.
Despite the fact that QAnon has been identified as a potential domestic terrorism threat by the FBI, Trump has more than once retweeted posts with QAnon hashtags and failed to take opportunities to denounce its core beliefs.
Trump is not the only US politician who has appeared to support QAnon.
MediaMatters for America, a research centre investigating misinformation in the U.S. media, has identified 81 current or former congressional candidates who have either endorsed or given credence to QAnon content.
These include several Republican candidates in the upcoming US election, including Marjorie Talor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Lauren Witzke.
The Australian context
In Australia, COVID-19 conspiracy communications appear less partisan but share many of the same features of the broad QAnon narrative.
Protestors in Melbourne during the lockdown period, some carrying QAnon signs, reportedly demanded action on “5G, vaccinations, child trafficking and paedophilia” as well as the COVID-19 lockdown measures restrictions.
There have been reports that an Australian who publicly promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory is a family friend of Scott Morrison and whose wife is on the prime minister’s staff (these reports make clear that there is no suggestion that this person’s views have influenced the Prime Minister or impacted government policy).
During the recent Eden Monaro byelection campaign a man was arrested for sending QAnon inspired emails to voters in the Eden Monaro federal electorate targeting Labor’s candidate for the marginal seat.
Across the Tasman, a new political alliance between Advance NZ and the NZ Public Party is campaigning on a ‘public health sceptic’ ticket for the upcoming national election. Policies supported by the alliance include repealing the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act and establishing an independent People’s Commission to investigate and research 5G technology, fluoridation in water and vaccines.
Learning from vaccine research
The COVID-19 conspiracy theories may be new but there are lessons from research into vaccine conspiracies and mis/dis information that can help inform communications by governments and public health authorities to minimise their potential to undermine evidence-based responses to the pandemic.
Julie Leask is a professor in the Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sydney and an internationally recognised specialist in risk communication, particularly in relation to communications around vaccination.
She feels that the conspiracy theories may have less influence on behaviour of the majority than many assume, citing as evidence Australia’s largely successful response to the pandemic thus far, which has required large scale cooperation and support from the community.
This view is supported by polls showing strong support for the lockdown measures in Melbourne including that around 70 percent of the sample polled backed the decision of the Andrews Government to impose a curfew and other restrictions.
While there are clearly some dissenting views about these measures being expressed via social media, Leask points out that increased visibility does not equate to increased influence. She cites a recent study she participated in with Associate Professor Adam Dunn, also at the University of Sydney, which showed that bots’ and trolls’ messages rarely intersect with real accounts.
“Social media has a role in shaping opinions about vaccine safety but mostly by affirming emerging beliefs and reinforcing existing views through sharing information within established networks,” she said.
Leask explains that research shows that misinformation about vaccinations only has a small impact on parents’ decisions about vaccinating their children. In fact, her research shows that misinformation is much less of a barrier to vaccination than practical and logistical issues, such as the convenience of primary health care services.
“It’s important to respond to misinformation if it’s reaching a lot of people. But focussing on combatting more marginal conspiracy theories around COVID-19 could distract from efforts to address the other more significant barriers to reducing transmission, such as ensuring people can access testing and (when available) vaccination services,” Leask said.
However, she also acknowledges that COVID-19 has increased the vulnerability of many people already susceptible to conspiracy theories.
“When people’s lives have been upended and they are forced into difficult situations about which they have no choice they can gravitate to sources of information which offer them certainty and validate their feelings of insecurity and stress.”
Role of social media
This vulnerability and the increasing availability of social media are two key contributors to the ‘perfect storm’ of COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Digital platforms are ideally placed to facilitate the dissemination of disinformation and conspiracy theories and act to reinforce existing beliefs within established networks of like-minded people, due to their echo chamber effect, their lack of transparency, the ease of circulation of messages and difficulties in tracking original sources and verifying claims.
There is also evidence that social media can influence people towards more extreme positions on issues where they have existing beliefs.
Marc Tuters, an expert in the development of radical political cultures online, has outlined the number of exposés that have detailed how social media algorithms can take viewers down a radicalisation rabbit hole.
Mainstream platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have been put under pressure to remove content deemed to be against the public interest. But these efforts have limited impact as proponents of misinformation and conspiracy theorists have migrated onto other less scrutinised platforms or used coded phrases and dog whistle messaging to evade detection.
The need for regulation
Current monitoring and regulatory processes, largely designed for the mainstream media, have proved inadequate to address potential for harms caused by conspiracy theories and disinformation on social media and digital platforms.
This has led to calls for a new approach to the regulation of these forms of media by high profile inquiries both in Australia and overseas.
One of these is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry into digital platforms which found in its preliminary report that the current regulatory framework is failing consumers and exposing them to a range of harms, while also undermining policy and political processes.
Health groups participating in this inquiry, including the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), made a strong case for greater regulation of digital platforms from a public health perspective.
The PHAA’s submission states that “the impacts of unfettered intervention in political discourse by corporate interests through modern social media platforms is pervasive” and that powerful corporations can cause various “mischiefs” through digital platforms, such as creating false or ‘fake’ opinions within the community about basic facts and matters of science and medicine.
In the UK, the House of Lords also identified the risks associated with unregulated digital platforms.
Its report ‘The Internet: to regulate or not to regulate?’ stated:
In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices. While the Internet has brought many freedoms across the world and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, to mislead and to produce hatred and instability. It functions on a scale and at a speed that is unprecedented in human history.”
The inquiry recommended the development of a comprehensive and holistic strategy for regulation, including the establishment of a new Digital Authority. It also called for social media companies to be pressured to publicise any instances of disinformation, including sharing information about foreign interference on their sites.
Health system response
As debate continues over the need for a new regulatory system for digital platforms, in the short term governments and health authorities will need to consider how to address the immediate impacts of COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation.
In particular, they will have to address the potential for false beliefs about COVID to undermine support for the vaccination program, which research indicates requires around 85% of the population to be vaccinated for it to be effective.
Recent research by the Sydney Health Literacy Lab COVID-19 group has shown that there is a relationship between beliefs about COVID-19 and a willingness to be vaccinated, indicating that if scepticism about COVID increases this could impact on the success of the vaccination program.
Their study found that individuals who said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine were almost four times more likely to believe the threat of COVID-19 has been exaggerated than those who said they would get the vaccine if it became available (43.7% vs 11·5%).
The research also found high levels of confidence overall among respondents in the state (75·4%) and federal (65·2%) government’s response to the pandemic, highlighting the ongoing need for effective communication to build on this confidence and support future policy measures.
Leask stresses the vital role of communication in addressing misinformation about COVID-19 and recommends that governments follow the EPA’s 7 cardinal rules for risk communication which include being honest, frank and open and acknowledging where evidence is still being assessed.
She is cautious about social media censorship but suggests that the guidelines for safe reporting on suicide could be a useful guide for journalists wishing to report on COVID-19 conspiracy theories without contributing to their potential for harm.
Her advice is not to oversimplify information in a misguided attempt to promote community confidence but to trust the public to critically analyse the information they are provided and make good decisions.
With conspiracy theories about President Trump’s recent positive test for coronavirus already circulating on social media, this advice should be a timely reminder for all governments and public health authorities of the central importance of communications in their ongoing efforts to combat the devastating impact of COVID-19.
Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation: Joint statement by WHO, UN, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNAIDS, ITU, UN Global Pulse, and IFRC