During the pandemic, large crowds of Trump supporters took to the streets of US cities, demanding an end to coronavirus restrictions, such as lockdown and the wearing of masks. Britain saw similar issues, albeit on a smaller scale.
Why are some people so determined to ignore public health advice? Part of the answer may be found by examining political tribalism and coronavirus conspiracy theories.
In this post, I’ll explain how coronavirus conspiracy theories and disinformation leverage tribalism to influence people’s behaviour.
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. This is partly driven by an organised and sustained campaign of disinformation and coronavirus conspiracy theories.
In the UK and US, government responses to the virus have been unlike those of many other countries. 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.
Coronavirus conspiracy theories 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 coronavirus conspiracy theories include:
- The virus as a distraction to install 5G worldwide,
- 5G causing the virus,
- The virus as a US-created bioweapon,
- Bill Gates’ plan to use the virus to install tracking devices and implement forced vaccinations,
- The US government using 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 coronavirus conspiracy theories.
Many 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.
These coronavirus conspiracy theories cast doubt on the public health situation. They promote distrust of expert advice and official organisations. The result is shifts in population behaviour, e.g, people refusing to follow lockdown, wear masks or practise social distancing.
From Facebook to the streets
The situation has become particularly dangerous in the US, with its current protests. Here 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 full of talk of coronavirus conspiracy theories, such as the below from the Michigan group.
Below is an example comment from the ‘Reopen Virginia’ group. This user is calling for civil unrest, while also demonising the outgroup (‘leftist Democrats’). The post has attracted significant engagement, both comments and likes.
These posts show how belief in tribal coronavirus conspiracy theories can lead to virus scepticism and denial. It can also trigger people to take real-life protest action, which risks turning violent.
Furthermore, it’s not easy to know who is producing these comments. Do they reflect the views of genuine American citizens? Or are some of the comments being astroturfed by those who seek to create social unrest?
Coronavirus conspiracy theories are a problem for other social media platforms too. YouTube hosts thousands of videos discussing all kinds of conspiracy theories in great detail. The platform recently changed its policies in an attempt to crack down on coronavirus conspiracy theories and 5G content. But it’s likely too little, too late.
The trouble is, platform takedowns are viewed as a sign of elite censorship in the minds of people already suspicious of experts and official organisations. This adds even more fuel to the fire of coronavirus conspiracy theories.
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.
These groups are hotspots for US 2020 manipulation activities. Facebook should monitor them carefully. Its moderators should look out not only for signs of voter suppression, but also for coordinated attempts to incite populations to violence.
We must take coronavirus conspiracy theories 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 may be less effective on a large scale. Instead, they risk exacerbating people’s existing suspicions of the establishment and ‘elites’.
Coronavirus conspiracy theories are not trivial. They risk causing 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 coronavirus 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.
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.
Main themes in coronavirus disinformation
1. Q is a key player in coronavirus disinformation
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 coronavirus disinformation. 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. As well as conspiracy theories, there are many examples of people making money via coronavirus disinformation, by tapping into people’s fear, boredom, and increased need 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’
Takedowns are a necessary part of tackling the coronavirus disinformation problem. However, denying bad actors freedom of reach 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 coronavirus disinformation 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.
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
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.
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.
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.