A consistent feature of the pandemic has been the presence of a relatively small but vocal number of conspiracy theorists who resist attempts to tackle COVID-19. Their views might seem marginal and extreme but recent research suggests that we should take them seriously.
Survey data shows that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with a lack of confidence in steps aimed at addressing the pandemic and risky health behaviours and that conspiracy adherents are more likely to refuse to socially distance, wear a mask or get vaccinated.
One reason for this is that conspiracy theories work differently to other forms of misinformation. Rather than simply trading in inaccurate or misleading information, conspiracy theorists believe they have discovered the hidden truth that world events result from the deliberate actions of unseen, malevolent actors.
This might mean blaming the emergence of COVID-19 on “big pharma” or believing that social distancing measures form part of an attempt by a hidden “world government” to restrict civil liberties. This kind of thinking provides a simple explanation for complex and unpredictable events. In a time of widespread uncertainty and fear it is easy to see the appeal in claims that the pandemic is deliberate and controlled.
When we think about how conspiracy theories like these spread, there is a tendency to focus on the role of social media. We’ve become accustomed to seeing fact checking and moderators working in these spaces to manage to problem.
But with colleagues, I’ve been exploring the offline space through an analysis of the Light, a monthly newspaper (and self-described “truthpaper”) delivered free of charge across the UK. It provides sceptical coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and we’ve concluded that a significant proportion of its content can be seen as conspiracist in nature.
What is a ‘truthpaper’?
In terms of style and layout, the Light looks like a conventional newspaper. It has a masthead and banner headlines and each article is laid out in columns. The content varies in both style and topic, with opinion pieces and interviews appearing alongside news items.
Conspiracist articles are presented alongside other, unrelated material, so that overall, readers experience the variety of content that might be expected in a mainstream source of news. For instance, the same issue might include an article suggesting COVID vaccines could be used for mind control and a more conventional news item on Russian shipping.
As an example of the offline dissemination of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic, the Light is important for a number of reasons. It seemingly has a wide reach, with claims of a print run of over 100,000 copies for each issue. It is produced and distributed by a network of activists, drawing on a closed Facebook group of more than 8,000 members.
Conspiracy and activism
However, the Light’s real significance is that it appears to be encouraging a highly participatory engagement with its content. Readers are encouraged to seek out, disseminate and act on the issues they are reading about rather than simply passively receiving the information. This approach means that the Light doesn’t just aim to broaden readers’ knowledge but to engage them in a process of discovery, revelation and action.
We found this happens in a number of ways. There are direct calls for action, for example, through articles encouraging readers to attend rallies and events, or promoting the refusal to wear face coverings.
Other articles promote the importance of “doing your own research”, directing readers to seek out content that challenges mainstream opinion on the pandemic. There are even puzzle features that require the reader to conduct research into conspiratorial content in order to be successfully completed.
Being “awake” is a central theme in conspiracist content. Readers are invited to join an in-group of conspiracy adherents who refute the “official narrative”. The state of being “awake” is often put across as being virtuous and exceptional, and readers are frequently encouraged to view their knowledge of the pandemic’s “true” nature as a motivating factor to action.
Alongside this are frequent moral appeals to action which play upon readers’ emotions to drive them to act. This includes content written in language that draws on themes of war and conflict and emotive articles warning of the effects of public health measures on children.
Why it matters
These calls to action are taking place in the context of an increasingly dangerous atmosphere. We already know that conspiracy theories have the potential to promote political polarisation, extremism and violence. Recent months have seen numerous examples of COVID-19 conspiracy theories influencing real-world activism.
Some of these might seem relatively trivial, such as sticker campaigns disputing the safety of the vaccination programme, or leaflets promoting unproven treatments posted through letterboxes. But there have also been protests at media organisations’ offices, attempts to disrupt the work of vaccination centres and even footage of threats of violence being made against public figures associated with the pandemic response.
Offline material like the Light is highly potent because readers experience a sense of agency when they pick it up. They are being offered a way to actively engage in public issues which is outside of mainstream forms of political participation. And it’s all happening without the automated warnings and links to more reliable sources which are now a mainstay of social media sites.
In response to the issues raised by this article, the Light provided the following comment:
We absolutely defend people’s freedom to choose for themselves, and not live in a dictatorship.
This is clearly a lame and propagandist attempt to link reporting the truth which you would never dare to, with somehow calling for violence, when no sane link can be made, even stretching.
Obviously this is exactly the kind of Orwellian lies, deceit and control of thought and language employed by totalitarians, supported by propaganda rags.
First published by The Conversation
Scottish Sceptic says
May I ask what Mr Dacombe’s background is apart from Politics & Government? Does he have a research science, medical or nursing background? Does he have any personal experience of giving care to family members? Does he have any personal experience of being a Power of Attorney or Guardian?
It is no conspiracy theory that the NHS and the Scottish Government killed many of our elderly and disabled by discharging them into care homes without testing. It is no conspiracy theory that our Scottish Government did not/do not have a clue what care actually is whether in NHS, care at homes or care homes. If you don’t believe the evidence, then I can assure you that our NHS & social care system is very poor compared to what it once was.
I say this from many years eye witness, personal testimony and experience, along with working in higher education, research science & NHS. To be really sceptical, how much do they pay you for this garbage?
David Gow says
We cannot answer your questions as these are for Mr Dacombe to address. This is a curated piece as it says at the foot. Your points re @scotgov’s discharge policy are uncontested; whether this amounted to a “conspiracy” is highly debatable; cock-up possibly, ignorance also…
Sceptical Site says
Yes, perhaps Scot Gov should have ‘done their own research’ or consulted real experts instead of political scientists & psychologists. Isn’t that what we pay them for? Sorry, having worked with real scientists & consultants, there is no excuse for such ignorance in this day and age.
David Gow says
Apart from the odd donation we are entirely self-funded (by the co-editors)
Sceptical Scot says
Why did the Scottish Government, the NHS, social care, Care Inspectorate & SSSC not know about the high turnover of staff in care homes, or care at home? Did they not KNOW that there is currently no requirement for a care worker to have ONE minute of training before they work in a care home? PPE is irrelevant if the staff are not trained in basic care or infection control. Ask any relative who has had to support care of a loved one in hospital, at home or in a care home. Many would tell you that their loved one would likely die of neglect if not for their assistance and advocacy. This is no conspiracy theory. This was already happening YEARS before covid. Don’t insult our intelligence.
David Gow says
Valid/pertinent points but unrelated to the author’s main argument
J Galt says
You’re ‘avin a larf!
Ian Davidson says
The biggest threat to humanity is humanity. Increasing mental instability and lack of awareness, lack of insight, lack of emotional intelligence. Increasing stupidity and selfishness in more direct terms. Resulting in political and social “leaders” who reflect & perpetuate this instability?
“Cure”? Unknown, other than each individual doing what they can to develop individual awareness and connection with nature and other people. It is a “crazy” era to live through, a sort of dis-enlightenment?
Sceptical Scot says
As a Scot, I am quite capable of separating fact from BS & forming my own opinion thank you very much. I watch/listen/read news, UK & Scot Gov websites & ‘research’ for myself (e.g. Yellow Card reports).
For example on 7th July this year, Reporting Scotland reported that in the previous week there had been 21 deaths from Covid, but gave the figures in the context by also pointing out that there had been 1076 overall deaths.
Of the 21 Covid deaths, 15 were in hospital, 4 in care homes and 2 were at home or non-institutional.
(Did anyone else hear this? Did anyone else care that there had been 1055 deaths NOT of covid, which meant a lot of other families bereaved too?)
In the whole pandemic, this was the first (& possibly only) time, that I had heard covid deaths being presented in such a proportionate & rational manner on mainstream media. Were they guilty of peddling ‘conspiracy theories’ in this instance?
In April 2020, there was a 205% increase in deaths in care homes, which given the lack of trained staff & high turnover of staff in care homes should have come as no surprise to anyone who has experienced it.
What rational person would think that having untrained, but double jabbed staff will magically be able to stop the spread of covid, when they couldn’t give basic care or stop the spread of flu, shingles or norovirus previously? (All of which can be devastating or lethal to a vulnerable person).
Never heard anyone saying that flu jab should be mandated for everyone previously, despite it killing many elderly and vulnerable. What about TB which is on the increase again in this country? Do we stop migrants to this country & demand they show their childhood vaccinations?
On the PoA consent form for the 2019 flu jab it stated that ‘in the event of a case of an anaphylactic reaction to this vaccine, it may be neccessary to perform CPR, whether the individual has DNACPR in place or not’.
Prior to C-19, it was necessary to get informed consent from the individual or court appointed, Power of Attorney or Guardian to sign a flu jab, let alone DNACPR, but as we know all that was summarily dismissed last year.
(Apparently the age in which a person is considered ‘past their sell by date’ in Scotland, is 50, as I was jokingly told by a GP in 2018).
Please do your homework before you ‘curate’ such an ill informed article in future.