As Facebook pledges to tackle urgent and potentially dangerous forms of misinformation about the coronavirus, conspiracy theorists on the platform have gone into overdrive.
Yesterday, a Facebook video rapidly spread through COVID-19-related community WhatsApp groups in London. “We know that they’re wanting a new world order,” a British man named Jason Nota said to the camera, before recounting theories from the far-right conspiracy QAnon, which claim the virus is a hoax. “The coronavirus is nothing but a smokescreen.”
The video attracted more than two million views and 80,000 shares before it was removed, along with Nota’s profile. It offered a doorway into a panicked online world, filled with competing positions, all racing to fit the global proliferation of the virus into a shadowy alternate reality of secret cabals and elaborate world domination schemes.
Some of the loudest voices are found within anti-5G groups — a movement Coda Story reported on last month. The Stop 5G UK Facebook page has more than 30,000 members and generates around 1,600 posts a day. Its feed is filled with apocalyptic messages and videos, claiming that the virus is a result of 5G exposure, a mass depopulation project, a plot led by Bill Gates, or a ploy to vaccinate people with a tracking microchip.
One of the most popular conspiracies circulating on the Stop 5G UK group is that COVID-19 was manufactured in a lab. This narrative, which Coda Story reported on earlier this week, has also been pushed heavily in recent months by Russian and Chinese state media. The strategy appears to be working. According to research published this week by the Pew Research Center, 29% of Americans now subscribe to this theory.
Meanwhile, others believe the COVID-19 pandemic to be a mass reaction to new wireless technology. “Do you Know the Corona virus is not a fuckin virus ???????????? it’s 5G that’s actually killing people and not a ‘virus,’” wrote one Stop 5G UK member on March 10. The post was shared more than 1300 times.
Daniel Jolley is a social psychologist at Northumbria University who studies conspiracy theorists. In an interview with Coda Story, he explained that, as governments around the world struggle to slow the spread of COVID-19, confusion and fear are driving many people to search for answers elsewhere.
“People are going to be feeling more uncertain, more anxious so they’re going to be drawn to more conspiracy theory narratives,” Jolley said. He added that researchers observed similar patterns during the Zika virus outbreak of 2015-16. “The conspiracy narrative emerged as a way to deal with extreme anxiety.”
On the Stop 5G UK Facebook page, one post by Bree Long, 47, from Devon, stands out. “I’m feeling pretty freaked out,” she writes. “So many people are not seeing this for what it is. The divide feels bigger and more gaping than ever before and I’m really struggling.”
When we spoke, Long admitted that her participation in Facebook groups often exacerbates her worries about the world around her. “It makes me feel worse for sure — the amount of times I’ve said, ‘I need to get off Facebook, I need to get off Facebook,’” she said.
But for Long, who has a deeply held distrust of mainstream media, the internet allows her to be part of a like-minded community. “You almost want to stay connected, because if you’re not connected you’d get pulled in by the other stuff — the mainstream stuff.”
On Thursday, Facebook’s head of health, Kang-Xing Jin, put out a lengthy statement about limiting misinformation on the platform. “We will also start to remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them,” it read. The company placed a ban on misleading coronavirus ads, but is yet to tackle the issue of conspiracy theory groups, which are often private and, like the Stop 5G pages, inundated with thousands of posts every day.
One of the most prominent advocates of the theory that COVID-19 is a side effect of 5G is Mark Steele, 59, from Gateshead, in northern England. In 2018, Steele made national headlines in the British press with claims that his local council was causing women to miscarry by installing high-tech street lamps fitted with 5G technology. The council rejected the allegations.
“I’ve seen a lot of actors on the TV who say they’re being polluted with this so-called virus. They’re actors. That’s what they do — they act,” Steele told Coda Story. He added that he was disturbed by the government’s measures to combat COVID-19. “This planned self isolation — it’s imprisonment,” he said. “We’re being forced into this sheep mentality.”
According to Jolley, the dangers of such beliefs are very real. “People who believe in medical conspiracies are unlikely to believe in official sources of information,” he said, explaining that they are therefore unlikely to follow established health recommendations, including regular hand-washing and social distancing.
When I put this to Steele on Wednesday, he said that he was ignoring UK government advice and attempting to continue life as normal. That includes uploading “coronavirus hoax” YouTube videos to his Facebook page up to twice a day. “I was in a restaurant yesterday,” he added. “I didn’t have any problems getting a table.”