On the 22nd of April, the Financial Times published an analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), stating that the coronavirus death toll could be twice as high as the government's official figure.
That day, VICE UK published a post about the Financial Times report on its Instagram account. The response was not positive. "Nah. Media lies. Inflated numbers," wrote one commenter. "100% bullshit!!" another. Of the ten comments decrying the ONS stats featured in the post, many included accusations that the government had been fabricating higher numbers of coronavirus deaths, and that the media was perpetuating this lie.
The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a wave of conspiracy theories, shared across social media and messaging platforms – including the VICE UK Instagram page. As millions around the world have contracted COVID-19, the spread of disinformation about the virus has been almost as rapid.
Perhaps the most widely known is the theory that 5G radio waves spread coronavirus – a falsehood that led to arson attacks on over 70 phone masts, and This Morning presenter Eamonn Holmes to claim that the media "don't know [the 5G conspiracy is] not true". A recent survey from charity Hope Not Hate found that 8 percent of Britons believe that the 5G mobile network spreads coronavirus, while almost half think the virus is "manmade".
The coronavirus "truther" movement encompasses many other theories, too. Some believe the virus was created in a virology lab in Wuhan as an instrument of biological warfare, either by the Chinese government or the New World Order – supposedly a powerful group that secretly rules the world. In the UK, some believe that the deadliness of the virus has been overstated by the government in order to increase state powers or instigate mass vaccinations, and that the death toll is exaggerated for this reason. Truthers also say that Bill Gates, who has funded coronavirus vaccination research through his foundation, somehow planned the pandemic as a way to profit from creating a vaccine.
While the exact origin of the coronavirus pandemic has not yet been determined (it is likely to have come from bats, but how exactly it spread to humans, and whether this happened at the Wuhan seafood market, remains unclear), some things we know for certain. The UK now has the highest coronavirus death rate in Europe, with over 40,000 recorded deaths. Despite this, coronavirus truthers refuse to believe the science behind the pandemic, preferring unsubstantiated and often bizarre explanations that are discredited by experts.
In the US, anti-lockdown protests have attracted conspiracy theorists, far-right protesters, anti-vaxxers and Trump supports keen to reopen the economy. But what's fuelling truthers in the UK? Are they from the school of flat-earthers, or simply exercising their right to reject what the government and the media says at face value?
I contacted some of the people who commented on the VICE UK Instagram post and asked why they believed that the ONS coronavirus death figures were false.
One person replied, saying I should "tell the world why WHO [the World Health Organisation] and bill gates are puppets of the elite and are what Hitler and the Nazi were on a global scale [sic]".
Another commenter responded over email. In a long message, the 30-year-old claimed that the government was recording the deaths of people who had died from causes unrelated to coronavirus as coronavirus deaths. As evidence of this, he attached a video of a government press conference broadcast on the 16th of April, in which Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific advisor, said "the ONS rates are people who have COVID on their death certificate", which "doesn’t necessarily mean they were infected". Later in the conference, chief medical officer Chris Whitty clarified this statement, saying: "The ONS data tells us not only the people who are diagnosed as having COVID on the death certificate with a diagnosis, some of which is on a basis of tests, some on the basis of the fact that a doctor thought it was likely but not definite, but it also gives an indication of what’s called excess mortality." The commenter's claim – that medical staff are manipulating death certificates in order to inflate coronavirus deaths – has also been used in a widely shared fake social media post.
The same commenter also saw the video of people clapping on Westminster Bridge during a recent "Clap for Our Carers" evening as further evidence of a government cover-up. While the clappers on the bridge were criticised for flouting social distancing rules, the commenter said it was proof of ministers overstating the danger of the virus. "If this virus is as serious as people say," he wrote, "why allow this[?]" The most recent lockdown advice from Boris Johnson, which confusingly allows some sectors to return to work while discouraging the use of public transport, was another red flag. "No one seems to understand what is and isn't acceptable," the commenter wrote. "The rules make no sense at all how are ment to trust someone who makes rules that they don't even understand themself [sic]?"
In times of uncertainty, people look for theories that offer a route out of the chaos. A global pandemic is frightening, and the government's response has been less than reassuring, so it's unsurprising that some have turned to conspiracy theories.
"Psychological research suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy unmet psychological needs, such as the need for knowledge and certainty,” Professor Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, explained over email. "The need for control and autonomy and the need for self-esteem."
These needs become heightened during a crisis. "People are experiencing a lot of confusion, feelings of powerlessness and insecurity," added Douglas. "It is reasonable that they are looking to conspiracy theories to help them cope with these feelings."
A number of UK-based Facebook groups have sprung up since the start of the coronavirus crisis, dedicated to protesting the lockdown and spreading "the uncensored truth" about the pandemic. Save Our Rights UK, which objects to the lockdown, has 4,100 members, while Coronavirus Truth has 2,700 members. Some of these groups are private and require users to answer questions before being admitted. I managed to gain entry to Coronavirus Truth UNCENSORED by confirming that I would "take the red pill" (a Matrix reference often used in Reddit incel culture) and answering a multiple choice question in which I declared myself either a "paid government lackey", a "troll", "AI" or a "truth seeker".
The discussion in these groups covers the main coronavirus conspiracies. One poster claimed that Bill Gates is "killing millions of children and ruining billions of lives" (there is zero evidence of this), while another claimed the "plandemic" was organised as a "false flag operation to usher in a new world order". Many members object to the lockdown, criticising the increase in police powers and inconsistent messaging from government.
The posts on Coronavirus Truth UNCENSORED may seem benign – albeit nuts – when confined to a private Facebook group, but such thinking can have real-world consequences. Many members write about disobeying the rules of the lockdown, which risks spreading the virus further. "I’ve been accused of trying to kill my elderly father because I visit him every day!" reads a typical post.
"These conspiracy theories have the potential to be dangerous," said Douglas. "Research suggests that believing in conspiracy theories about vaccination is associated with vaccine hesitancy. Reading about other types of conspiracy theories – for example, climate change, politics – makes people less likely to engage in civic behaviours that are important for these issues."
One coronavirus truther is taking his skepticism a step further. Simon Dolan, a Monaco-based British entrepreneur with a personal fortune of £142 million, has launched a petition to legally challenge the government’s lockdown policy and expose a "cover-up". At the time of publishing, the crowdfunder for his case has raised over £110,000.
"I thought this whole virus thing was overblown right from the start," Dolan told me. "Because you come at it from that kind of mindset, I guess you're always looking for things to prove yourself right. You see more and more of those things and you think, 'This is wrong.'"
Dolan believes that the government has ulterior motives for the lockdown. He sees it as a way for those in power to "test how malleable a society is" in order to limit citizens' freedom, or as a way to introduce mandatory vaccinations. Dolan also referenced climate change, which he says the government has "been banging on about". He said: "What has happened will undoubtedly help [climate change campaigns], because the world has become cleaner as industries have shut down."
Worryingly, Dolan's anti-lockdown take is shared by others. Flyers for around 60 lockdown protests held in cities across the UK appeared on social media this week, with police sources warning the Guardian of a "cross-pollination" between anti-lockdown sentiment and the far-right.
According to Dolan, people who receive “a cheque for nothing” – presumably Universal Credit claimants, or those who have been furloughed since the start of the pandemic – are the ones supporting the lockdown. This view ignores that fact that millions in the UK have lost jobs, homes and savings due to coronavirus, pushing them into poverty.
Does Dolan consider his views on coronavirus a conspiracy theory? "I don't actually think there's really much of a conspiracy in most of these things," he said. "But the more I see of this, and the more I look into it, the more you think, 'Well actually, there is something more going on.'"
It's very scary knowing that an invisible virus could harm you and the people you love, especially when our government continues to make decisions that put people in danger. Just this week, doctors called for an inquiry into the PPE shortage that may have threatened the safety of frontline workers. Coronavirus is terrifying, but denying the reality of the pandemic isn't going to make things any better. The truth has never been so important.
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