Falsehood and the masses: how fake news takes people to the street

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3 mins read

By Gaëtan Ledoux

In the summer of 2021, plenty of protests flourished in several Western countries right after the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions, alongside the growing pressure for vaccination exerted by states on their population. While the number of people getting vaccinated was dwindling, and the Covid-19 cases numbers were rising again, some countries chose to diminish the wiggle room of unvaccinated people to prevent another lockdown situation followed by its economic damages. In countries such as Germany, Poland, or Australia the announcements of various rules to incentivize the unvaccinated population to take their two doses triggered the reluctant part of the population, especially in France and Italy, where the protests have been more intense and regular than elsewhere. These two countries that carried out similar legislation to encourage their population to get vaccinated subsequently faced some intense waves of protests. First in France, at the peak of the summer holidays, every Saturday, hundreds of thousands of anti-vaccine and anti-pass demonstrators were gathering all around France to show their discontent with the new restrictive legislation. In October, the dissatisfaction with these measures gathered thousands of people to protest in Rome, a protest that was characterized by violence associated with the far-right neo-fascist movement Forza Nuova.

 It is a surprise to witness protests of a reluctant population about vaccination. Especially since these protests are taking place in some countries which have been part of the waves of innovation from the technical revolution of the 19th century, particularly in a country that was the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, who developed the first vaccine for humans back in the 1880s. Although “freedom” was the star word of those protests – slogans and placards during the demonstrations were emphasizing that protestors were perceiving mandatory vaccinations and vaccination passports as a threat to Human rights – it does not seem to be the only driving force of these demonstrations. Even though they stressed the relevance of preserving their basic freedom against the covid pass, the fear of what the vaccine could potentially cause played a substantial role in the mobilization. Placards of tens of thousands of protesters reflected this distrust of the vaccine and its implementation, with slogans like: “We are not guinea pigs” or “Media, government, liars”, representing a message of mistrust in the vaccination the government was promoting.

What really made the demonstrator’s rows grow was the misunderstanding and the distrust toward a vaccine that was made in record time, a fact that engenders and fosters plenty of rumors and fantasies. As a result, the fear of the vaccine provides fertile ground for misinformation. Social media provides the soil for it to thrive by offering largely unregulated platforms to spread any information while providing the needed anonymity to not be held accountable for what is published. The ease of sharing and producing fake information on social media makes social media itself a weapon of mass destruction for the truth. 

Illustration: Maria Kuhn

A fascinating survey conducted by the American start-up NewsGuard sheds light on the amount of fake news the most visited and shared websites on the internet were producing during the pandemic. From the 6 730 websites which represent 95% of the internet activity in the USA, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy, 7% were publishing “harmful content” about Covid-19. The reason is that fake news only needs to look true. Pseudoscience, intellectual shortcuts, and misinterpretation of statistics can quickly cause completely false information to look accurate to an untrained audience. Many falsehoods around the vaccine, such as the modification of the DNA following the injection of an mRNA vaccine, or the sterility as a cause of these doses, were thriving on social media during the launch of the vaccine.

This vaccine distrust situation confirms Brandolini’s principle that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it”. Therefore, it seems that the misinformation, with its ease to be created and its quickness to be spread (the satirist Jonathan Swift wrote in the 18th “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after”), provides a significantly more explosive spark to gather people in the streets than the truth. Retrospectively, less than one year ago, Trump supporters were invading The Capitol, convinced they had been robbed of victory by rigged elections. The new tribunes are urging the masses on Facebook, brandishing the fear to conquer the forsaken lands of ignorance of our democracy as our governments try to catch an untameable flow of falsehood which only the tech giants own the means to handle.

Cover: Markus Winkler

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