The question of ‘data deficits’ – or, better yet, the perception of unequal access to the ‘real’ information – is crucial to understanding how disinformation works, but also to how it can be combatted. The Covid-19 pandemic is not the first time that a health crisis has unleashed fanciful imaginations and a variety of conspiracy theories. In a recent story on the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian philosopher of neuroscience Colin Klein reminds us that when “things are changing rapidly, it’s not actually unreasonable to [assume] some people have more information than others”, with “conspiracy theories born out of the murky feeling that not all is being revealed to us, that the truth is still in shadow, and someone else is pulling the strings”. The fact that conspiracy theories ‘stick’ most powerfully in moments of crisis – and especially in those places and among those publics that feel least ‘in control’ of events – is thus not surprising.
Indeed, as various commentators have noted, the geographies of vaccination will be as uneven as the spread of the virus: both because unvaccinated people will not be randomly strewn but will rather form clusters in those communities that do not have equal access to the vaccines – but also because vaccine skepticism spreads among friends and families, in the everyday exchange of geopolitical imaginaries, physical as well as virtual.[iv]
This is already evident today, with vaccine skepticism directly bound up (and clustered) with wider conspiratorial beliefs, but also most strongly concentrated among those populations that feel least in control over their future fate, political-economic and socio-sanitary.
One of the most striking geographical contexts in this sense are the Western Balkans, marked not only by the highest opposition to the vaccine, but also by the highest rates of support for a variety of conspiracy theories regarding the virus’ origins, spread and the ‘real’ motives of attempts to combat it. In a study carried out by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group led by Florian Bieber at the University of Graz, the research revealed that over 75% of citizens in the Western Balkans believed in one or more conspiracy theories regarding Covid-19 (the percentages in EU states such as Germany or Italy are somewhere between 20-25%). What was striking is that while education, age or gender did not impact these beliefs, they were directly linked to wider geopolitical orientations, whether regarding the EU, Russia, the US or China. What is more, conspiratorial leanings also mapped directly unto broader political beliefs and ‘world views’, including trust in the democratic process and institutions, highlighting how ‘big’ geopolitical imaginaries and everyday fears are profoundly connected.[v]
How to combat such fears that do not only have immediate relevance for European public health agendas but also possibly much longer and pernicious effects on trust in public institutions and officials? Making European citizens feel they have full and equal access to information regarding the pandemic and the vaccines designed to combat it is a critical first step, and both national and EU bodies are doing their best to extend the range and availability of popularly-understandable scientific information. But alongside these science-communication efforts, governments should also make European publics better aware that what they may believe are freely informed ‘personal choices’ regarding the vaccine are not free and personal at all, but rather the object of targetted geopolitical strategies of hostile actors.
Notes and references
[i] See, among others, Rachel Pain and Susan Smith (2008) Fear: Critical Geopolitics and Everyday Life. Aldershot: Ashgate.
[ii] It is relevant to note here that Pope Francis has been unequivocal in his appeals in favour of vaccination. In his Christmas ‘Urbi et Orbi’ address, the Pope called the vaccine ‘a light of hope’, free and equal access to which should not be tainted ‘by closed nationalisms’ and ‘radical individualism’.
[iii] Launched in 2015 to address Russian strategies of disinformation targeting the EU and the wider region, but now with a much wider remit, including disinformation flows on the pandemic.
[iv] Including this excellent overview by Ed Yong for The Atlantic.
[v] As others have noted on these pages, European far-right movements have also ably exploited the pandemic to sow mistrust in government agendas. See here among others.