As the world reacts to promising initial results from the Pfizer vaccine trials, there is quiet optimism that there may be an end to the nightmarish Covid-19 pandemic in the not-so-distant future. While global stock markets rocketed upon the announcement of the trials’ 90% and 94% success rates, not everybody reacted so euphorically, with many ‘anti-vaxxers’ and conspiracy theorists warning against getting a Covid-19 vaccine. In a world of misinformation and so-called fake news, conspiracy theories have seen a surge in recent years, with social media acting as an echo chamber for these baseless and potentially dangerous views. Where does the limit to free speech lie, and what duty do online platforms have to prevent the spread of false information?
In May of this year, a 5G phone mast in Derby was targeted in an arson attack, one incident in a rising trend which correlated with the circulation of a conspiracy theory claiming that such masts were linked to the transmission of Covid-19. This is but one example of the tangible real-world effects of Covid-19 related conspiracy theories.
A quick search of Twitter hashtags results in a wonderful array of very imaginative Covid-19 conspiracies. Searching #Plandemic produces countless tweets claiming that the global trauma we are experiencing is merely a hoax by the political elite to control the masses. If you were to search #NewWorldOrder you would find numerous tweets suggesting that the Pandemic is a ploy to change society. Unsurprisingly, such claims are unaccompanied by evidence to support their views.
This kind of unfounded claims isn’t unique to Twitter but can be found on almost any online platform. Instagram, Facebook, and all kinds of social media are riddled with self-proclaimed experts claiming to be one of the few people to see through the ‘lies’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a world of ‘sheep’, they alone are ‘woke’.
Perhaps seeing such theories would be palatable if the vast majority of people rejected them and called them out for their ridiculous and unevidenced claims. However, although social media has the marvellous ability to bring people together, this also means that conspiracy theorists often find company in each other and support each other’s claims. In a self-perpetuating cycle, theorists share their own views and have them supported by like-minded individuals, which only further convinces them that they are right. One only needs to read the comment section below BBC News’ posts about the pandemic on Facebook to see all ranges of theories and claims about coronavirus, and the many likes and supporting comments that accompany them. To use a quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain, ‘It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled’.
It is evident that such theories spread misinformation and harm our society, either through direct action as seen in recent arson attacks, or by hindering collective efforts to curb the rate of infection. The question then turns to who is responsible for controlling the spread of misinformation and whether or not they are doing enough. The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) recently stated that in 95% of cases, social media firms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, did not deal with cases of ‘clearly harmful information’ even after it had been reported. Although Twitter recently made headlines for questioning the validity of claims made in some of Donald Trump’s tweets, it is clear that there is still a lot to be done to prevent the spread of harmful conspiracy theories and debunk false claims about Covid-19.
Image by Jernej Furman on Flickr.