Misinformation has always been an underhand tactic in politics. The act of using false information for one’s own gain has a long history. In the 16th century, it was not uncommon for people to write a brief verse in the form of a pasquinade to show their opinion of a particular figure. These verses would be satirical and aimed to critique a specific person or group. While undoubtedly scathing and potentially lacking in outright truth, pasquinades were often seen for what they were – satire. It was generally understood that there was motivation behind the words, and so the scope for people taking them as gospel truth was limited. Nowadays, such clarity is in dangerously short supply.
Should you find yourself browsing through Twitter, which is a dangerous endeavour at the best of times, then it is likely that you will uncover a thread about “Freedom Marches”. These marches have been organised in the wake of lockdown extensions and the notion that government ineptitude has infringed on people’s rights. Top of the bill for some were the freedom to assemble, travel, and work. While I have previously defended the right to protest, and would do so again here, if I could reach out to the event organisers, I would implore them to protest cautiously – we are still in a pandemic after all…
These protests, apart from being a place to air discontent about the handling of the pandemic, have also been a draw for anti-vaccine and anti-mask advocates. Thousands have taken to the streets to chant “freedom” an “take off your mask”, in the mistaken belief that the COVID-19 pandemic is fake, or a conspiracy designed to suppress the rights of Britons.
The obvious question in response to this news is: why? To the average person, the idea that the government would invent a global pandemic in order to control the people of Britain is…well, ludicrous. Regardless of any motivating factors, it takes a strong imagination to believe that a government is capable of orchestrating such a conspiracy! Boris Johnson has previously found it difficult to keep his numerous affairs quiet, let alone an international conspiracy. It just does not seem likely. To a great many onlookers, it remains a mystery why anyone would believe such an unlikely narrative.
The mystery is easily solved however, and once again, misinformation is the culprit. Usually, my criticism of this political “device” has been firmly directed at the US, where the tenure of Donald Trump gave rise to more misinformation than a flat-earther’s membership newsletter. Regrettably, the time has come to address the growing amount of news pointing to widespread misinformation, and subsequent misunderstanding, in the UK.
I, taking my sanity into my own hands once again, recently ventured onto Twitter to see what I could find. I was dumbfounded. One individual claimed that by ignoring social distancing, turning away a vaccine, disregarding masks, and failing to test and trace, they had successfully proven the virus was a hoax because they did not fall ill. Naturally, in my naivety, I expected Twitter to disregard such inappropriate scientific method with vigour. I was disappointed to find that this was not the case. The comments section was filled with sympathetic and equally misinformed individuals who had claimed similar successful results from their own trials.
I should note at this point that being misinformed is not a crime in itself, so you should not take this as a beratement of people who believe something, even if it is untrue. Nobody is at fault for believing. It is only when belief turns into illegal action that my criticism should be considered active.
Conspiracy and cover-up are words which often feature in the arguments of misinformed individuals. People believe that there has been ‘a proposed plot carried out in secret, usually by a powerful group of people who have some kind of sinister goal’. As it turns out, that could just be how we are wired. At least, those are the thoughts of Karen Douglas, a Doctor of Psychology at the University of Kent. Douglas says that people believe conspiracy theories for three main reasons. Firstly, people want to have information about things; an explanation about an event which they can believe in. Often, this desire comes from not having a suitable explanation in the first place – e.g., no teaching of disease transmission. Secondly, people do not want to feel powerless. People desire control over their lives, so when something happens that they cannot control, like a pandemic, they seek out justifications for their lack of autonomy. Finally, people like to feel good about themselves, and one way to find this feeling is to have knowledge that other people do not.
All in all, the stage is constantly set for conspiracy to take hold in people’s lives. By combining human psychology, a free-flowing social media feed, a global pandemic, and an 18-month cook time, crafting widespread misinformation is impossible to avoid. Currently, it does not look like there is a remedy either. Large social media organisations are attempting to walk the fine line between freedom of speech and the removal of false information from their platforms. The consequences of stepping either side of that line are disastrous. Until a long-lasting solution to such widespread misinformation is found, people will continue to live and die by their ill-informed newsfeed.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.