Once upon a not long ago, the saying went that a lie could travel around the world before the truth got out of bed. These days the same lie could be fitted out for a whole array of conspiracy theories and make it across the globe before the truth even beds down for the night.
We live in an age of disinformation, a contributing factor to the huge turnout for last Saturday’s lockdown protest in Dublin which culminated in violence. An estimated 2,000 people attended during a time of major restrictions. All reports suggest the majority, if not the vast majority, were there simply because of the lockdown.
Also in attendance were a number of activists from far-right entities for whom the occasion was a potential recruiting exercise. The end result was violence. Fortunately, the injuries inflicted on the gardaí were relatively minor but only luck ensured that something more serious didn’t occur.
The outcome was shocking but should be put in context. Since last October, there have been violent protests over lockdowns across Europe, in the UK, the Netherlands, France and Italy. Dublin’s event was of a similar, or possibly lesser, order.
Only serious alienation accounts for the numbers that took to the streets in the midst of a pandemic. Conspiracy theories fostered online prompted many among them to protest.
The government, the media, the virus were all part of a plot to do them down. One woman who spoke to therelated that RTÉ was involved in killing babies to harvest “adrenochrome” which is used to keep RTÉ celebrities “looking young”.
There was also talk of paedophile conspiracies in government and that the pandemic was a plan to “depopulate the world and create a high tech totalitarian world”. There was also plenty of less bonkers conspiracy theories that were baseless but fed into a narrative about a sinister government keeping everybody locked down for nefarious reasons.
How do you combat this stuff? Not easily. On a more mundane basis, look at what happened with the HPV vaccine for teenage girls over the course of three or four years. Take-up of the vaccine – designed to prevent cervical cancer – plummeted from 80% to 50% between 2014 and 2017.
The campaign against the vaccine was genuinely motivated but completely discredited by science. A government information programme eventually managed to raise the take-up rate to 70%. The issue demonstrates how easy it is for disinformation to take hold, irrespective of science or facts.
Imagine if that campaign had been conducted exclusively online during the pandemic. Social media is an echo chamber at the best of times, reinforcing beliefs, peddling narratives, shutting out any light. During the last year feelings of anger, fear and insecurity have permeated societies across the globe.
As Aoife Gallagher, an expert in online disinformation, pointed out at the weekend:
"Political incompetence, inconsistent restrictions & complicated science can be easily explained if this is part of an international plan to strip people of their rights,” she said.
Bringing people back from that cave is no easy task. On Sunday, Leo Varadkar said he intends to write to the social media companies to ask them to take down “anything that incites violence” or encourages people to join activities that undermine the coronavirus response.
Good luck with that one. The reality is that today, many view the world through a tunnel running from their faces to the screen, the view unencumbered by awkward facts, their suspicions reinforced, nurtured beliefs confirmed.
Beyond personal media consumption, tuning into the mood music of the wider prevailing culture offers further ballast for conspiracy theories. A strain of global populism is all the rage. In this country, it comes from the Left, but the basic tenets that fuel it are universal.
Those who govern are labelled an elite, concerned only with taking care of their fellow elitists, an evil cabal that exercise power over a virtuous people. Easy solutions are on hand for most problems, but the government is concerned only with corralling power.
The media is peopled with shills who do the government’s bidding and beyond the ripples of power, “the people” are condemned until their populist standard bearers finally smash the corrupt edifice.
So it goes with populism as we know it today. The populism didn’t appear in a vacuum. It was a response to decades of drift and mismanagement, but combined with the negative aspects of social media, it represents a dangerous environment where conspiracy thrives and right-wing extremists recruit.