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Author: Samantha North

How Do Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Leverage Tribalism To Threaten Public Health?

In recent days, large crowds of Trump supporters have taken to the streets of US cities, demanding an end to coronavirus restrictions.

Donald Trump has publicly encouraged these protests via Twitter, urging his followers to ‘liberate’ various cities from stringent lockdown measures. Critics have slammed Trump’s actions, accusing him of ‘fomenting rebellion’ and risking public health.

But why are people of a certain political ideology so keen to disregard public health advice at such a time of crisis? I believe part of the answer is found in political tribalism combined with widespread coronavirus conspiracy theories.

In this post, I’ll explain how conspiracy theories and disinformation leverage tribalism to influence people’s behaviour towards the coronavirus.

Divided societies, universal threat

When the pandemic first hit, some hoped that the shared experience of facing universal threat would bring warring political tribes together. But it seems the opposite is happening. One key driver of this is an organised and sustained campaign of disinformation, which is using the virus as an expedient tool.

The UK and US response to the virus have been unlike those of many other countries. For example, Portugal, Germany, New Zealand, Canada and South Korea have already managed to regain some level of control over its spread.

In contrast, both the UK and the US were slow to implement lockdown measures. Both gave their populations mixed messages about how to handle the pandemic. Both countries’ leaders have displayed a cavalier attitude towards the virus.

Political tribalism in the UK and the US is now affecting their populations’ response to the coronavirus crisis. This tribalism is a hangover from 2016, the same force that played a role in the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit – polarising the populations in the process.

Conspiracies demonise groups

A sustained torrent of coronavirus disinformation has compounded these issues. In particular, numerous coronavirus conspiracy theories have eroded trust in public institutions among some segments of the population. Distrust of experts is nothing new. It’s been a central feature of tribal politics since 2016 and shows no sign of dissipating in this pandemic.

Common conspiracy narratives include: coronavirus as a distraction to install 5G, 5G causing the virus, coronavirus as a US-created bioweapon, Bill Gates’ plan to use the virus to install tracking devices and implement forced vaccinations, and the virus as an excuse to impose military martial law on US cities.

Tribalism means viewing the world as ‘us vs them’, with ‘us’ being superior and ‘them’ being threatening. This perspective is inherent in these conspiracy theories, which revolve around the demonisation of a particular group (e.g. elites, the establishment, experts, the WHO, China, and so on). True believers view anyone who supports the demonised group as being part of it. And so the tribal divisions persist.

Casting doubt on the coronavirus situation is the end result of these narratives, as they promote a distrust of expert advice and official organisations. Shifts in population behaviour result: refusals to heed public health advice to observe lockdown, wear masks and practise social distancing.

From Facebook to the streets

The situation has become particularly dangerous in the US, with its current protests. It’s here that the role of social media comes under the spotlight.

Private Facebook groups have been key sites for inciting and organising these protests. Some groups are large, such as ‘Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine’, or ‘Reopen Virginia’ (the latter with over 18,000 members)

Both groups are rife with talk about the aforementioned conspiracy narratives, such as the below from the Michigan group.

Source: https://twitter.com/willsommer/status/1250838111992647680

In ‘Reopen Virginia’, there are comments like the below, in which users are calling for civil unrest while also demonising the outgroup (in this case, ‘leftist Democrats’). The post has attracted significant engagement in both comments and likes.

Source: https://twitter.com/jaredlholt/status/1250842215435337728/photo/3

These posts clearly illustrate how belief in tribal conspiracy theories not only leads to coronavirus scepticism and denial, but also promotes a drive to take real-life protest action, which could potentially turn violent.

What’s more, we have no way of knowing who is producing these comments. To what extent do they reflect the views of genuine American citizens? Have they been compromised by those who seek to stoke division and cause social unrest?

Conspiracy theories aren’t only a problem for Facebook. YouTube hosts thousands of videos discussing conspiracy theories in great detail. The platform recently changed its policies, to crack down on coronavirus and 5G content, but it’s likely too little, too late.

Once such ideas have taken root in minds already suspicious of experts and official organisations, platform takedowns are viewed as a sign of elite censorship. This adds even more fuel to the conspiracy theory fire.

Local groups are key targets

Private local Facebook groups are a prime target for influence operations. They have already been identified as key battle sites for the US 2020 election, where influence operatives aim to manipulate the political narratives in key swing states. Targeting local Facebook groups is an effective way to do this. As well as activity such as voter suppression in these groups, influence operations can also compel populations to protest on the streets.

It’s difficult for researchers and analysts to study private Facebook groups in aggregate, as tools such as CrowdTangle don’t allow access to private groups. But as these groups are hotspots for US 2020 manipulation activities, Facebook would be advised to monitor them carefully. Its moderators should be alert not only for signs of voter suppression attempts, but also for coordinated attempts to incite populations to real life violence.

We must take conspiracies seriously

These times of heightened fear offer a prime opportunity to for disinformation purveyors to influence the outcome of the US 2020 election. When political tribalism is so entrenched, fact checking and counter disinformation messaging campaigns are unlikely to be effective on a large scale, instead simply exacerbating existing suspicions of the establishment and ‘elites’.

Coronavirus conspiracy theories aren’t trivial. They have the potential to cause real life harm on a massive scale, by encouraging populations to ignore public health advice and instigate real life violence.

It’s essential that social media companies take conspiracy theories seriously, particularly within private groups. Whether or not they do so may end up as a key deciding factor of the US 2020 election. 

6 Things I’ve Learned From Tracking Coronavirus Disinformation

Disinformation thrives on chaos, and a global pandemic is about as chaotic as it gets. For those who seek to disinform, the coronavirus presents a far grander opportunity than either the 2016 US election or the vote on Brexit. The upcoming 2020 US presidential election further fans the flames.

With that in mind, it’s important to regularly stop and take stock of lessons learned from the front lines of disinformation tracking. I’ve been studying cross-platform coronavirus narratives for the last month or so. Here are a few of the things I’ve found.

1. Q is a major player

Qanon is a mega conspiracy narrative that encompasses a whole range of smaller ones. The basic premise of Qanon has Donald Trump in league with a shadowy figure called Q. Together, Trump and Q are fighting against a group of elite paedophiles entrenched within the mainstream media and the Democrat Party.

Previous presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and current one Joe Biden have both been major targets for Q’s accusations. Every so often, Q releases tantalising nuggets of new information (called ‘Q drops’) for his followers to chew over. These have sparked a whole ecosystem of pervasive social media content, from Twitter threads to entire YouTube channels.

Coronavirus disinformation is being well-leveraged by Q and his followers. Q related themes and activity underpin many of the most widely spread corona conspiracies, including coronavirus being either a hoax or a bioweapon, 5G causing the virus, a supposed plan to enforce mandatory vaccinations, and the imminent arrival of military martial law.

2. Mainstream media is pushing conspiracy narratives

Conservative media sources in the US, such as Fox News, play a significant role in promoting narratives that draw on conspiracies, including around the coronavirus. They claim it’s ‘not a big deal’, or it’s ‘just like the flu’, or, ‘it’s all a big hoax’.

Although these stories may be less colourful than those of the average Q acolyte, they are still risky. Provenance in established media sources provides the necessary social proof to make the narratives more credible in the minds of their audiences.

What’s more, this scenario means less work for those who intend to manipulate public opinion around the coronavirus. They no longer have to waste time crafting convincing content, but can simply engage with organic content that already exists. And that’s exactly what they’re doing, with a firm eye on the US 2020 election.

3. Coronavirus tribalism is prevalent

Pitting ‘us’ against ‘them’ is at the core of most disinformation, including conspiracy theories. The narratives can take many forms, but always come down to one group (the ingroup) facing off against a predefined opposing group (the outgroup).

For Qanon, it’s Q’s followers who are the ‘enlightened’ ingroup, joining forces with him and Trump to battle the predatory elites. In British politics, we see ‘patriotic’ supporters of Brexit setting themselves against ‘treacherous’ Remainers (and vice versa).

Tribalism even filters down to matters of life or death, i.e. the coronavirus. On social media, I’ve noticed a recurring adversarial narrative emerging around how best to respond to the pandemic. One camp downplays the severity of the virus, claiming measures such as the lockdown are an overreaction, while the other camp is strongly in favour of lockdown and promotes WHO advice to Stay At Home. Each camp supports their own and attacks the other, often in derogatory and aggressive ways.

When people are already suspicious of ‘elites’ and experts, there’s a real tendency to dismiss guidance from governments and public health organisations, which can lead to the flouting of virus mitigation measures. Real world harms can result.

4. Virus fears are being monetised 

The chaos and fear of a global pandemic has spawned many opportunities for leveraging the attention economy. In addition to conspiracy theories, there are many examples of people making money by tapping into the fear, confinement, and increased search for answers.

I’ve identified two main ways of doing this. The first is through creating highly clickable content about the virus. This content may or may not be factual; it doesn’t matter to the creator, as long as it brings in the clicks.  The content is published on websites festooned with online ads, where each click brings extra ad dollars to the site owner.

The second way is to create content on topics such as ‘miracle cures’, which then feeds into attempts to sell products. Vitamin C is a prime example. It’s a cynical exploitation of people’s fearfulness about the virus and their need to somehow regain a sense of control.

These ‘miracle cures’ are not scientifically proven. They provide a false sense of security, which may lead to individuals choosing not to self isolate and spreading the virus as a result.

5. Takedowns have a ‘backfire effect’ 

Although takedowns are a necessary part of tackling the disinformation problem, by denying bad actors freedom of reach, they can also strengthen the impetus behind conspiracy theories by feeding into an existing sense of elite suppression. Here, the platforms are viewed as part of the elite, working together to keep the ‘truth’ hidden from the people.

Conspiracy theorists are quick to react to takedowns by working them into their narratives. With 5G, a trend has sprung up of referring to it as ‘5gee’ or similar permutations, in an attempt to avoid the keyword being picked up by moderators or analysts who are tracking it.

For conspiracy adherents, this sense of persecution further reinforces their existing worldview, making them more likely to cling onto it. In this way, a ‘backfire effect’ has occurred. 

6. Platform responses are shifting 

Social media companies are frequently accused of not doing enough to reduce the flood of misleading content that overwhelms their platforms. I don’t believe they’re reluctant to do so, but they have to balance it with being seen as supportive of free speech. Finding that balance can be challenging when addressing conspiracy theories, as opposed to purely false information.

Most conspiracy theories are spun up like candy floss around a small kernel of truth. A typical post will build a whole story around how some real life event is of possible significance to the wider narrative arc. This creates murky territory for the platforms because the difference between opinion and actual false information is not always clear-cut.

But things have shifted after some conspiracy theories, such as the one about 5G causing coronavirus, triggered real life harms. A recent video by notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke was pulled from YouTube just days after it was released, heralding a change in approach.

A growing amount of research indicates that coronavirus conspiracy theories form a central part of coordinated influence operations.  We can no longer afford to overlook the role of conspiracy theories in influence operations. 

How I Stayed Productive And Upbeat During Week 1 Of Coronavirus Lockdown

When the UK coronavirus lockdown was first announced, I thought life was going to become a nightmare. I panicked inside at the thought of being confined to my apartment all day, every day. I didn’t know how I could stay productive and maintain a good mood when forced into my own company around the clock. Although under normal circumstances I often work from home, I like the ability to switch things up by working from cafes and co-working spaces.

As an avid gym goer and outdoor runner, I also worried about losing the mental boost of exercise. I was nervous about maintaining my healthy eating patterns, due to the effects of panic buying and shopping restrictions at my local supermarkets. I feared every day would just blend into one big mass of nothingness and that I’d end up staying in bed all day feeling sorry for myself.

One week later, I’m happy to report that none of this actually happened. In fact, I had one of my most productive weeks ever. I tried out a new way of working, one that I was initially sceptical of. But it was superb. I also adopted some new habits and reinforced some old ones that I’d let fall by the wayside.

In sum, this resulted in a working week during which I kept on track with my goals, stayed healthy, and maintained a positive attitude; all while discovering some new things that revolutionised my working life and which I plan to keep using far into the future. I’d like to share them here in the hope that others will find them useful.

Lockdown Work Routine

Video Co-working 

The idea of this freaked me out a bit at first. An entire day on video with other people, some of them strangers. Wouldn’t it be awkward? What if I looked weird or accidentally did something weird while on the video? But video co-working was where pushing myself out of my comfort zone really paid off. 

It worked like this. A group of friends, all digital nomads based in the same time zone (either the UK or Portugal), invited me to join their daily video co-working sessions. We used Discord, because it works well with multiple screens and gives a smooth experience without dropping or delays. Zoom would be a good alternative.

Every day at 8:50 am, we each went to our desks, fired up Discord and our webcams, and interacted just as we would in a physical office. After having coffee and a little small talk, we launched into the working day at 9 am sharp. We followed the work cycle pattern of 8 x 50 minute focused work sessions with 10 minute breaks after each one. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the next section.

I underestimated the value of having colleagues working alongside me, even by video. They gave me a huge amount of motivation and kept me accountable. For anyone who feels awkward about being on screen, you can do what I did and shut down your microphone and camera while you do each 50 minute work cycle. In the end, most of our team did it this way.

Work Cycles

Created by the team at Ultraworking, work cycles are similar to the Pomodoro Technique, which you may have heard of before. The basic idea is having a set time period to do focused work, followed by a short break. You then repeat these cycles until the end of the working day. We used cycles of 50 minutes followed by a 10 minute break, but you can adjust the parameters however you like. We found that 50 minutes was a good amount of time to get into a flow state.

Work cycles have one particular feature that makes a huge difference: each cycle gets recorded on a spreadsheet. For me, this is the driving force behind the whole concept. It allows you to set objectives (both for the week and for each cycle) track your progress and reflect on any distractions. You can also define areas for improvement, and track your energy and morale levels for each cycle.

It’s very satisfying to look back on your workday and see how you progressed. You can spot distraction patterns and figure out how to tackle them. Social media is a massive one for me. During each 50 minute cycle, I keep my phone on airplane mode and use the Freedom app to block browser distractions on my laptop.

Seven Minute Workout

We decided to bring in a mid morning energy boost, where we worked out together in front of our webcams. We wanted something short but energetic, so this seven minute workout was a perfect choice. It’s all bodyweight exercises with no equipment necessary, although you might want to use a mat for the sit ups and push ups.

Many apps do the same job as the video. I loved doing this workout. Not only did it really help with boosting energy after the effects of the morning coffee had worn off, but it also brought a deeper sense of camaraderie to our team. You could extend the concept to other forms of exercise, particularly yoga.


Lockdown Lifestyle Habits

I also adopted a couple of new habits that helped reinforce the benefits of work cycles. There’s nothing new here; they’re all things I’ve been trying (and failing) to maintain for years. But the lockdown has given me an extra incentive to lock in good habits, just to stay afloat.

Meditation, Yoga, Coffee

I began waking up at 6 am and starting my day with a short meditation followed by a short yoga practice. Combined, these take just 15 minutes. I use this guided breathing meditation by Jack Kornfield, on the Insight Timer app, and the YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene. Here are the specific videos I’ve been using (but she has loads more): 

I follow these up with a cup of bullet-proof coffee and pen-to-paper journalling. I write about my intentions for the day, or just random reflections on how I’m feeling under lockdown. Sometimes I try a gratitude list. I go for bullet-proof coffee (with cacao butter and coconut oil) because I’m normally quite caffeine sensitive. In fact, I’ve been off coffee for many months. But the extra fats seem to reduce the effects of caffeine so I don’t get that immediate spike. I enjoy the coffee routine and I’m going to maintain it at least during lockdown (after which I might go caffeine-free again). NB, I don’t add all the fancy ingredients used in the above video. I just make normal coffee with my Aeropress, then add a little oat milk, a teaspoon of cacao butter and a teaspoon of coconut oil. Then I blitz them up in my blender.

Diet, Exercise, Sleep

After the coffee, I make a large dark green smoothie. It normally includes a banana, oat milk, kale and spinach, spirulina, blueberries, frozen avocado, a kiwifruit, pumpkin seeds or walnuts, and two scoops of hemp protein powder. I drink it at my desk as I start each day of video co-working.

Under the lockdown we’re allowed to take one form of outdoor exercise per day. I normally go out in the evening when it’s dark so that I’m less likely to encounter people. I do either a 5km run or a similar length walk around the city. In normal life, I do strength training with barbells three times a week. The closing down of gyms was one of my biggest concerns, but I’ve managed to replace the weights with a resistance band routine. If you like strength training, I highly recommend getting some of these bands. You can do practically any weight-based exercise using bands of varying strengths in different permutations. Here’s a video from Barbarian Body, with lots of good substitutes for things like squat and overheard press.

Sleep is important for maintaining immunity, so I try to get to bed relatively early each evening. 10.30 is my usual target time. I switch off my phone and computer an hour beforehand. I only use my old Kindle, which doesn’t have a back light and is more or less like a physical book. I wear industrial strength ear plugs and a blackout eye mask, to keep all possible disruptions at bay.


These are the habits and routines that have kept me afloat during the first week of lockdown. Of course, everyone has different life patterns and responsibilities. Many of us have kids, pets, or sick relatives to take care of, or jobs that don’t easily convert to being done online.

What’s more, we all cope with the huge change in vastly different ways. It’s ok to have off days or not to be productive at all. I had a couple of bad days at the beginning, when I descended into a spiral of panic-checking social media, or spent hours mindlessly staring at YouTube. Even now, the urge to do this still appears from time to time.

I hope some of these ideas might be helpful to others. I’d love to hear what sort of routines and habits other people are using. Most importantly, I wish everyone continued good health during these challenging times. 


Tribalism In The Time Of Coronavirus

As I write this, the world has descended into a major crisis, with effects more far-reaching than anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. A powerful virus has swept onto the scene and is now ripping its way through the world. Barely any country has been spared.

Here in the UK, the coronavirus crisis is getting worse by the day. But merely observing the city streets on this sunny spring Sunday would give no indication of the gravity of the situation. Indeed, some UK tourist spots, notably Snowdon, experienced their ‘busiest day in living memory’. That’s quite something at a time when a highly contagious virus is on the loose.

In contrast, the streets of Paris, Lisbon and Barcelona are deserted. Most EU countries have issued a decisive response, putting their populations under strict lockdown to try and curb the spread of the virus. The UK government hasn’t followed suit.

Britain is saddled with unfortunate leadership in such a time of crisis. Messages from central government have been unclear and have arrived far too late. Many people have died. Amid the frenzied warnings from other countries, tribalism, rooted in the impulses that drove Brexit, still bisects British society — even influencing how we perceive the choice between life and health, or possible death. 

Brexit tribalism could be seen as a barometer for who will approve or disapprove of Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus situation. No scientific study has yet been conducted to prove or disprove this, but research from Cambridge has shown that Leave (and Trump) voters have a strong tendency to believe conspiracy theories.

So if I may hypothesise for a moment, it would go as follows.

Those who believe Johnson is doing well and don’t believe in the necessity of self isolation — more likely to be Leave voters. Those who believe Johnson is doing the wrong thing and we should follow the majority of the EU (and the world) into lockdown — more likely to be Remain voters. 

I can’t help but wonder if these divided attitudes are linked to the government’s aggressively anti-EU narrative. Could it possibly be that our leaders are reluctant to implement lockdown because it would mean them falling into line with the EU? The British government can’t possibly be seen to do that. On the contrary, it must do the exact opposite. After all, there’s a voter base to keep happy.

This tribal stance has filtered down to the population. People’s cavalier real-life behaviour at a critical juncture risks the health and safety of us all.

We’ve gone beyond Brexit concerns now. Freedom of movement is no longer the most important thing at stake. Continued tribal attitudes in the UK could now lead to significant numbers of deaths. The reckoning has arrived. No matter what side of the political spectrum we’re on, we must ensure that tribalism does not cloud our actions on tackling the virus, as the New European so rightly points out.

There’s another factor influencing public opinion around coronavirus: online disinformation. It’s been a key part of turbocharging existing tribal divisions.

Based on my research so far, I’ve seen the following positions solidifying into recurring narratives. Many are from sources that originate in the United States, but the shared language and overlapping ideologies mean they can mostly be considered as UK-relevant too.  

Narratives primarily from conservative/right-wing/pro-Leave sources:

  • The coronavirus is a hoax used as a smokescreen for elites to take control of society
  • It’s no worse than the flu, so there’s no need to believe WHO or UN advice (in fact we shouldn’t trust them because they may be part of the elite conspiracy)
  • Social distancing is unnecessary / too extreme
  • China is to blame for all this. To quote Trump, coronavirus is ‘the Chinese virus’ 

Narratives primarily from liberal/left-wing/centrist/pro-Remain sources:

  • The coronavirus is real, serious, and affects everyone 
  • It can’t be compared to flu
  • We should trust advice from WHO/UN and other legitimate experts
  • Social distancing and possibly lockdown is necessary to save lives across the wider population. 

Most of the disinformation that I’ve observed so far plays on the core narrative strands in the first group. People targeted by these narratives might well be less likely to take the virus seriously and more likely to carry on with a semblance of normal life, thus continuing the pandemic. This unhelpful behaviour is exacerbated by the population spending more time at home and hence online, seeking out constant updates on this critical global threat.

In the next post, I will unravel the coronavirus disinformation narratives in more detail, providing data-driven examples. It’s critical to understand the why behind the seeding of this disinformation, so I’ll also discuss the various incentives that are driving it.

Social Proof And How To Game It

Every day, countless online sources compete for our attention. To avoid information overload and possible burnout, it’s essential to zero in on the important parts and sort them into categories that make sense. But how do we know which parts are important?

The human brain uses many shortcuts to understand the complex world around us. With social proof, we use the approval of others as a shortcut. We evaluate the significance and quality of a piece of information based on how many other people like it.

Social proof is part of the psychology of persuasion, used to great effect by marketers and PR specialists. We rely on it all the time when making consumer decisions. On Amazon, for example, customer reviews are a shortcut to guide us when choosing between a large number of possible products to purchase. A quick glance at the reviews allows us to avoid wasting time and energy conducting our own research on various products.

We also rely on social proof when judging the importance of a message on social media. Almost instinctively, we tend to evaluate a post with many likes or shares more favourably. We assume a lot of other people have already approved of it, so we’re happy to jump on the bandwagon.

But relying too heavily on these shortcuts may leave us vulnerable to the risk of them being manipulated.

How Social Proof is Gamed Online

Social engagement

It’s easy to convey social proof on social media. Liking, favouriting or upvoting is the quickest and most basic form of online social proof. When we see a post with lots of likes, we instinctually view that information as important. The act of online sharing also taps into social proof. If other people believe a post is worth sharing, then it must be of value. We may decide to share it too. This is bad news for disinformation.

Hackers break into Sony Music account and tweet falsely about death of Britney Spears

But online likes and shares are also pretty easy to game. On Twitter, for example, a few lines of code can produce a bot that can automatically favourite a tweet containing a particular keyword (which can be anything). A large network of automated accounts can then mass favourite (or mass retweet) any tweet, giving it a false appearance of significance, via artificial social proof.

Another way to convey social proof is via the user profile itself. Twitter is the most obvious example of this. We perceive users with more followers as being more important than those with fewer followers. The followers provide social proof, like an exclusive club.

On the other hand, if an account has a lot of friends (accounts it has followed) but few followers, the social proof effect is diminished. Again, automated accounts can be used to game this. By mass following an account and then following each other back, they maintain the illusion of that account being popular.

Amazon reviews

Gaming social proof online isn’t only confined to social media. It happens across the web, in areas such as online shopping. Take Amazon. It has hundreds of options for anything we want to buy. So how do we know which ones are worth buying? We rely on the ratings and reviews from other buyers.

Ratings and reviews are a form of social proof for products, acting as an essential shortcut for navigating through the mass of available options. You can even filter search results by the number of rating stars each product has gained. Ratings directly affect the seller’s bottom line. For Amazon’s third-party sellers, ratings can make or break their business.

This random product has great ratings. It looks enticing, but how many are actually genuine?

This is prime territory for gaming. And Amazon’s fake review economy is massive and growing.

Trending topics

Trending topics are another major area where social proof holds sway. The trending topics list shows whatever keywords or hashtags are being most widely tweeted at any point in time. Whenever big news breaks – such as a terrorist attack, plane crash or celebrity death – it usually appears immediately in Twitter’s trending topics, often before the mainstream media can produce coverage.

There’s a strong incentive to game trending topics. For individual tweeters, tweeting using a keyword or hashtag from the trending list makes their tweet more visible. It’s common to see Twitter accounts for brands performing ‘hashtag-jacking’ (or ‘trendjacking’), where the trending hashtag is shoehorned into the tweet to get it in front of a larger audience. Hashtag-jacking can be done skilfully, if the hashtag is relevant to the brand, but it tends to be the domain of spammers.

This is gaming trending topics on a relatively small scale. But things get more insidious when bot armies are involved. Here, a large number of artificial accounts, perhaps controlled by just one person (the ‘bot herder’), tweet coordinated messages around the same hashtag. Done properly, this can push the hashtag into the trending topics list, where human users will engage with it, giving it further mileage. It’s an effective way to mainline disinformation. The holy grail is to get the false story picked up in the mainstream media. With so many journalists using Twitter to find potential stories, this is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Google search results

Lastly, we’ll take a quick look at the effects of social proof in Google search results. When searching for something, most internet users don’t click beyond beyond the first page of Google. So the higher your link shows up, the more likely it is to be influential. SEO experts make a lot of money out of getting client links onto the first page of Google results. What’s more, links that show up higher are considered more trustworthy.

Google’s PageRank algorithms work in mysterious ways. The company is constantly adapting to make them harder to manipulate. But it’s still possible to game Google search. For example, reputation management companies create a slew of positive content to help clients push negative articles off the first page of Google.

This happens in politics too. In the run-up to the UK’s general election of 2019, people speculated that Boris Johnson’s campaign team may have gamed Google by seeding bizarre stories about him to make negative coverage less prominent in searches. In 2016, extremist websites manipulated Google search to make their hate filled propaganda, such as Holocaust denial, rank highly in search. Although Google later fixed this, savvy disinformation purveyors can still find ways to leverage its power to deceive vast chunks of the population.

Key takeaways

Social proof matters because it’s both a cornerstone of how we navigate the online environment and a prime target for manipulation. It’s not just confined to social media but used all over the internet, from Amazon reviews to Twitter trends. Even Google search results, which many people trust more than social media, can be gamed.