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Opinion: That dodgy Covid story you saw on Facebook here in Ireland? It probably came from abroad first

Misinformation is now local, global and transnational all at the same time, writes Shane Creevy.

Shane Creevy

NOW IT’S OFFICIAL: we’re in lockdown for another while yet.

That means more time hunkered down with our phone and computer screens for company. But many of us, unfortunately, are encountering disinformation and misinformation throughout this Covid journey.

By now you may have seen the videos. The camera is often shaky but the message is clear. Beginning outside a hospital, the narrator declares Covid is a hoax and that they can prove it. Apparently, we’re all being lied to by governments, the WHO, NPHET, Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci. We’re living through a “plandemic” or “scamdemic”, and they say they’re going to show us the truth.

In they amble. We could be looking at the corridors of St James’s Hospital in Dublin,   University Hospital Galway, Cork University Hospital, or any other in Ireland. Indeed, there appears to be few people hanging around in the halls. (Perhaps that is because everyone is staying at home).

These videos usually end in confrontation with a masked security officer who tells them to get out. This gives the narrator an opportunity to declare they have found the truth: the State apparatus is out to get us all and supress what’s really going on, and we must rise up against it. 

The thing is though, I could just as easily have been describing videos from England, Australia, the United States, or almost any other country around the world. The “empty hospitals” videos are just one part of the conversation for conspiracy theorists but we must realise that, for the vast majority of such narratives, they are part of a movement that is truly transnational and global.

The insinuations are, of course, utterly baseless.

TheJournal.ie recently published an excellent expose of this trend, with insights from Irish hospitals themselves. But in my work at Kinzen I regularly see examples like this from all around the world. Go to YouTube and type in “hospitales vacíos” (Spanish), go to Facebook and search “ospedali vuoti” (Italian), go to Twitter and try “boş hastaneler” (Turkish). There are lots more examples in English and of course in many other languages across multiple platforms. German factcheckers are working on the same stories as Irish ones.

Campaigns that span the globe

Because what we’re witnessing is not some bottom-up revolutionary investigation. Instead, this is part of a concerted campaign. Social media allows us all to live in cloistered corners, net-enabled niches that speak powerfully to us.

Some of us have become completely lost to these networks of organised deception. And so the borders of nation-states mean nothing in this world. Like the butterfly effect, what’s happening with misinformation in Austria will impact Scotland, and what’s happening in Washington DC will impact Tokyo.

In my work, I regularly see the disinformation “superspreaders” here in Ireland share information from, and advocate for, their international brethren. These could be Q-Anon influencers from the States or conspiracy theorists in the UK. This could be on Telegram but it could be on Bitchute and Rumble; it could be in Facebook Groups or maybe it’s public on Twitter.

One of the more surprising examples of this has been the rallies in support of the “Stop the Steal” pro-Trump movement on the streets of Tokyo. Movements like Q-Anon, leaderless and emboldened by the communication powers of the modern ecosystem, allow local influencers to adopt key narratives and figure out their own ways to reshape or reframe them. Doing so allows them to make the disinformation most palatable to that local audience. It’s a form of A/B testing that works so powerfully in modern marketing.

The motivations for the people behind all this may vary from politics to money, but there is also no question that fame plays a large role. Underlying this group are the people who pass on the message, whether through willful deception on their part, or perhaps more accidentally by people who think they’re helping family or friends.

At a wider level, what we’re seeing is not just the consequence of amplified algorithmic deception, but a loss of faith in institutions. This lack of trust is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing policymakers, platforms and the media too.

How narratives have evolved 

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Back in March 2020, I was warning Kinzen clients about the hashtag #FilmYourHospital. This was the beginning of the false suggestion that the pandemic is all faked and hospitals are actually empty. In May, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said that hospital workers were partying and having orgies in these empty hospitals. Despite the claims being completely bonkers, the narrative shifts and lives on.

There are plenty more examples of how the same false stories get repeated like Chinese whispers. We’re seeing it now aplenty with the anti-vaccine movement claiming lots of people are dying from the Covid vaccine, whether it’s in Norway or California.

We saw it move from country to country before the first lockdowns were introduced – WhatsApp audio messages went viral which breathlessly claimed the sister of a friend has an army cousin who said the military will be on the streets within hours. We followed the trajectory of this narrative through Europe before it came to Ireland, and then we saw it move across the US as Covid-19 hit there a few weeks later.

So whenever you come across something that seems suspicious, know that, like Chinese whispers, it probably originated somewhere else already. Its origin may be difficult to track down but, like a marketing campaign, it’s been A/B tested for maximum effect. Before you hit that share button, take a breath and consider if this information could dangerously mislead friends and family.

Sometimes I tell people that misinformation swirls. Like wind in a football stadium, it whooshes around and changes direction quite unpredictably. That Irish video or meme you see has probably already been tried and tested elsewhere, and the people behind it are deliberately trying to deceive you for their own gain. Misinformation is now local, global and transnational all at the same time.

Shane Creevy is Head of Editorial at Kinzen, a Dublin-based startup focused on scaling solutions to the information crisis

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Shane Creevy

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