The COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting societies, economies, families and persons alike, is compounded by a global contagion of rumours, conspiracies, fake news and other deadly narratives that, despite their appearance of being tailored to fit local characteristics, are strikingly similar at a transnational level, writes Alina Bargaoanu.
Alina Bargaoanu is a member of the High-Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation and an expert affiliated with the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE).
Do these conspiracies work? Can we blame their success on people’s imperfect cognitive mechanisms?
Or, as we argue, are they a symptom of the failure of political leadership, both national and trans-national, to provide for public goods in the information and communication field? Here is the Romanian case, which may offer insights into some more generalizable trends in the European Union and elsewhere.
Global waves of polluted information
The infodemic spreading along the actual COVID-19 pandemic has hit Romania, too. Despite the appearance of diversity and richness of topics, the most shared conspiracy theories during the past 4-5 weeks have coalesced around the following narratives:
- the virus was “engineered” in a lab by China/ US/ Israel, in order to disrupt “Chinese/ American” interests, alternatively, to promote “Chinese/ American/ rich people/ Jews’ interests, to “impose a new global order” (US-led or China-led); or “to get rid of old/ poor/ vulnerable people”; to impose, alternatively, to stop the climate change agenda; to stop or to accelerate the construction of 5G infrastructure:
- there are miracle cures to the current illness: vitamin C, black tea, salt water, baking soda, vinegar, cheap medications or even vaccines: these cures are “hidden”, “denied”, “stolen” by the same actors or by new ones (“Germany”, “the European Union”); the story about a “fully-fledged” Romanian vaccine, discovered at a local cancer research clinic in the city of Cluj, attracted heavy coverage from mainstream media, too;
- “they” (such as Bill Gates or George Soros) seek to impose vaccination, to implant chips, with different motivations – surveillance, destruction of the traditional family/ conservative values; the last “intent” is gaining traction and new overtones – “there is a globalist/ New Age agenda to close down (especially the Orthodox) churches – during these days preceding the Orthodox Easter in Romania (April 19).
Do conspiracy theories work?
Evidence regarding the networks of COVID-19 conspiracies is difficult to collect, especially given their quasi-private circulation on closed instant messaging applications (WhatsApp and Facebook messenger). Evidence regarding their originators or and effects is even scarcer, with some exceptions, such as EEAS “Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation around Covid-19 Pandemic”.
Given this scarcity, during the 20-23 March period, we conducted a national survey on the adult population of Romania (stratified sample using online panel, 1,160 respondents, sample error +/-3%, at a 95% confidence level).
We tested five conspiracy theories that, according to our qualitative assessment, were heavily shared at the time of the survey design:
“Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by the US to dominate the world”, “there is fake news about Coronavirus shared with the intent to make people ill”, “Coronavirus was artificially created to stop the ageing process”, “Coronavirus was engineered in order to trigger a worldwide economic crisis”, “Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to dominate the world”.
The percentage of people declaring the first conspiracy “true or completely true” is 40.86%, with 17.33% declared that “they cannot say” (a kind of “undecided voters”).
Moreover, no significant differences could be observed according to socio-demographic variables, such as education, residence or gender. Put simply, in this particular situation, neither education nor residence (urban/ rural) provides safe haven against these instances of polluted narratives.
The results do not vary for the other conspiracy theories, our assumption being that, irrespective of what COVID-19 related conspiracy theories we would have tested, the results would have remained pretty much the same (see here a complete set of results and interpretations).
Lady Gaga and Pope Francis – the only global responses so far
Judging by the results of our survey, one would be tempted to blame it on the people, on their imperfect cognitive mechanisms, on their fears, uncertainties or unleashed emotions.
We argue that, these cognitive imperfections as well as imperfections of the information eco-system notwithstanding, this Babel of conspiracies (transnational in reach, but strikingly similar content-wise) reflects a failure of global, trans-national leadership to provide for public goods in the information and communication field.
The retreat from global leadership of major actors – a trend that long precedes the current crisis – as well as their first reflex to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic strictly at a national level – has left a void that was quickly filled by a variety of actors seeking to advance their geopolitical, political or commercial agenda.
The reach of conspiracies is global, but their effect – panic, mistrust, polarisation, cognitive war – is felt locally. It is our opinion that, in order to stop this global contagion of strikingly similar conspiracy narratives, global, trans-national meaningful responses are needed.
Until now, these responses have come either from global superstars, such as Lady Gaga, or a global religious figure such as Pope Francis. In order to stop the global conspiracy contagion and mitigate its local effects, political leaders, including EU leaders, should quickly follow.