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.
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.
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.