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Misinformation has found a home with conspiracy theorists, some exploiting political divisions and others convinced of its truth.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories have been invoked to enflame anti-vaccination sentiment. (Ivan Radic, Flickr) : Ivan Radic, Flickr CC BY 4.0 Misinformation and conspiracy theories have been invoked to enflame anti-vaccination sentiment. (Ivan Radic, Flickr) : Ivan Radic, Flickr CC BY 4.0

Misinformation has found a home with conspiracy theorists, some exploiting political divisions and others convinced of its truth.

A global cabal of elites seek to ‘depopulate and control the world’, breaking down Western (or white) civilisation: so goes the long-lasting New World Order conspiracy theory proving resilient in the face of COVID-19. 

Misinformation helps such conspiracy theories to thrive. What’s less clear is why people spend time and effort over an extended period posting conspiracy-related content to communities that agree.

People spread misinformation for a range of reasons. Some intentionally mislead, while others are driven by their genuine belief in what they consider to be the truth. Sharing misinformation may be an attempt to convert others to their ‘truth’, while for others it’s to reassure their sense of belonging to a like-minded community, characterised by much broader ideological worldviews.

This analysis came from an extensive analysis of the political fringe actors in Australia and their online messaging. The study, undertaken by Victoria University in partnership with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, explored both radical-left and far-right online mobilisation (and the interplay between both). But this article focuses only on the far-right, for one reason: the analysis did not uncover examples of misinformation from the far-left.

The analysis encompassed around 19,000 posts on 50 far-right Facebook pages and groups between January and July 2020; 142,000 tweets posted between January 2016 and May 2021 on 57 far-right Twitter accounts; and 45,000 posts from 40 accounts on the fringe platform Gab from January to September 2020. 

Topics related to COVID-19 — such as vaccinations and lockdown restrictions — dominated posting across all three platforms.   

Around 13 percent of the posts on Gab were about COVID-19, with a further 4 percent related to lockdown measures in Australia — far-right messaging across Facebook and Twitter were dominated by the same issues during the period. 

Misinformation was a common element of these far-right online posts, especially in calls to agitate against public health orders. But in these online environments, a dissenting voice was rare. In these digital silos, converting others or providing enlightenment does not appear to be the aim.

Rather, misinformation about COVID-19 is often incorporated into a more comprehensive far-right ideological narrative. Online messaging weaponises misinformation and distortions of the truth, as reported by mainstream media or hyper-partisan fringe sources. The weaponised information conveys and promotes far-right messages of nativism or ethno-nationalism, racism and alleged conspiracies. 

Misinformation about public health measures is often used to highlight the threat of the alleged New World Order plot — arguing, for example, that lockdown restrictions have been established to usher in a totalitarian tyrannic regime or that vaccines would kill. 

References to tech magnate Bill Gates, US Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci, the World Economic Forum or the World Health Organization as powerful players are offered up as proof for such conspiracies. 

The following Gab posts illustrate this: “Coronavirus is an obvious scam to anyone paying attention”, or “The only reasons to keep this fear…going are political. They want to turn the west into a satanic Marxist hellhole and inject everyone with Gates swamp juice.”

In many instances, misinformation related to COVID-19 was shared to racially attack minority groups, most commonly Chinese and Muslim communities, and international students. Here, the purpose of misinformation appeared primarily driven by the prevalent racist and Islamophobic agenda within these far-right online communities.

A secondary purpose motivates sharing misinformation regarding COVID-19 and other events (such as Black Lives Matter and climate change) in a larger far-right ideological message. Since the audience of their posts in these far-right environments do not need to be converted to their version of the “truth”, their message instead becomes a statement of group identity — a claim of belonging to the community that has not fallen for “brainwashing” of the “evil” globalist forces.

Factually incorrect information and conspiracies becomes the glue that holds this counter-hegemonic community together, providing them with a sense of superiority, belonging and respect among themselves.

These far-right online spaces sometimes spill into mainstream discussion, as seen with COVID-19 misinformation. They can also create and deepen social polarisation, resulting in what sociologist Mark Davis called “anti-publics” — where there is no interest in deliberation or rational exchange of different views or opinions.

Tackling socially harmful conspiratorial misinformation requires a solid understanding of the psychological and social factors that make alternative truths appealing. Only then, can nuanced strategies be developed to prevent more people falling down misinformation rabbit-holes — and, possibly, restoring a space where robust public debate can replace ideologically parallel communities.

Dr. Mario Peucker is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities at Victoria University. He is also an Executive Member of the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies. He has published five books, and numerous reports, book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals, such as Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Politics and Religion, Ethnic and Racial Studies and Australian Journal of Political Science. Dr. Peucker disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Dr. Peucker’s research has received funding by the Victorian state government, through its funding of the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (RIS).

This article was first published on February 14, 2022.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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