Covid-19

Have Covid-19 conspiracy theories evolved?

New research from Te Pūnaha Matatini shows the prevalence of conspiracy theories about Covid-19 in New Zealand has remained constant throughout the pandemic - but the tenor has shifted dramatically, Marc Daalder reports

Although some commentators have expressed concern about a surge in conspiracy theories after the reemergence of Covid-19 in New Zealand, new research from Te Pūnaha Matatini shows the prevalence of misinformation on social media has remained stable since February.

The analysis of tweets sent from New Zealand over the course of the pandemic shows the percentage of posts linking to reliable news sources has been remarkably stable - in the area of 85 to 87 percent - through New Zealand's first lockdown, the easing of restrictions, and the advent of a second lockdown in Auckland. However, mainstream media coverage of conspiracy theories did spike after the August outbreak began.

What has changed is the tenor of the conspiracy theories themselves. Early false postings on social media was more likely to be misinformation ("false information that people didn’t create with the intention to hurt others") while the material in August was more likely to be disinformation ("false information created with the intention of harming a person, group, or organisation, or even a country"), Kate Hannah, one of the study's authors, told Newsroom.

Hannah is an executive manager and associate investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini who has also done research on Holocaust denial in the past.

"The feeling that we'd all had that there was this large upswing [in conspiracy theories] was not a large upswing necessarily but was in fact a change in the nature," she said.

While the gross amount of conspiracy material about Covid-19 posted to social media may have grown in mid-August, that would be merely a natural reaction to the broader surge in media and public attention on Covid-19 in general. As the below chart shows, the percentage of reliable sources shared on Twitter remained fairly stable after the reintroduction of public health restrictions.

The prevalence of misinformation on Twitter has remained constant over the course of the pandemic, as this chart from the study shows.

By contrast, as the below chart shows, mainstream media coverage of conspiracy theories in New Zealand skyrocketed over the same period.

New Zealand media coverage of conspiracy theories jumped briefly in May with the emergence of the American Reopen movement and then surged in mid-August. Nonetheless, it made up just a small percentage of overall media coverage even at the height of the surge.

The new nature of false postings on social media comes more from a place of anti-government sentiment and concerns (with no base in fact) about a planned lockdown than earlier conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus and medical treatments for it, Hannah said.

"It was really interesting to see more of that discourse around distrust in government coming through in New Zealand as we have seen now. Digging down into it further, I hypothesise that what we saw earlier in the pandemic will be lack of trust in those inter- and intra-government organisations [like the World Health Organisation or China's role in the outbreak]. But now it's coming to a New Zealand context," she said.

An anti-lockdown protest in Wellington on August 29, during the second lockdown. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The study identified early "meta-narratives" in false information shared during the initial outbreak in New Zealand, including distrust of the efficacy of the Government's health response, rejection of mainstream health advice and theories around the virus' origins. The more recent meta-narratives have involved distrust of the Government itself and theories that the Government was using the pandemic for its own hidden agenda.

"It seems that the change in discourse around Covid-19 conspiracy theories really does seem to link with Auckland going into lockdown Level 3," M Dentith, a conspiracy theory researcher at the University of Waikato and another author of the study, told Newsroom.

"It seems quite plausible to think that an awful lot of the conspiracy theories about Covid-19 emerged at a point where people had thought things were going fine. People then reacted to that with a notion of, 'Well maybe there's something more to the story'."

The authors identified, for most meta-narratives, mainstream actors who legitimised or spread them. These included National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee and his "interesting series of facts" around the reemergence of the virus, New Zealand Public Party founder and conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika Jr's false allegation that the second lockdown was planned and US President Donald Trump's endorsement of alternative or unproven medical treatments.

Radio talk show hosts like Mike Hosking and anti-lockdown academics like the Plan B group were also labelled as bolstering the meta-narratives that contended the Government's response was overwrought and the virus isn't as bad as it has been made out to be.

"We want to understand where that space is where things start moving from being just discussed in really closed places into more open places," Hannah said.

"That's the piece that I'm personally going to be looking at in quite a lot of detail next, because I am really interested in the ways in which some of the dismissal of the impacts of the virus fit into existing narratives which you might call, if you were being kind, utilitarian. If you were being less kind, you might call them eugenicist."

The paper also found that later meta-narratives "have increasingly reflected US-based disinformation and conspiracy related to the role of the government in mitigation, suppression and/or elimination; government control mechanisms; and individual rights".

Jess Berentson-Shaw, an expert on the science of communication and misinformation who peer-reviewed the study, told Newsroom that this provides fertile ground for preparing to head off future misinformation around the virus.

"A lot of that false information was coming in from the States, so I think that gives us some really good markers for where the false information's going to come from and what it is going to be. Thinking about prevention and getting in front of it, the finding from that gave me quite a lot of confidence that we can predict these sorts of things," she said.

"Human beings are nuanced but they're not often that original. Patterns repeat themselves. So that sort of data can be used really effectively for building prevention campaigns."

But Berentson-Shaw says we're operating in reactive mode now and need to build strategies for inoculating against misinformation into our pandemic and crisis response planning. The next big issue she foresees is misinformation around vaccination when a coronavirus vaccine arrives on our shores. The Government, businesses and civil society should be acting now and not waiting to embed the sort of public health refrains that proved so effective in the early stages of our response around hand washing and social distancing.

That's in contrast to the Government's communications around masks, which were only launched with the reemergence of Covid-19 and had been beat to the punch by anti-mask narratives from the United States.

"It's utterly predictable that we are going to get an upswell in false information about vaccinations to do with Covid. We need to be looking forward and thinking about what are the aspects of that and how might we get in front of that?"

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