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.