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Covid-19 and conspiracy theories

The COVID-19 infodemic has led —and it is still leading— to a spike in D&FN through hoaxes, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, breeding distrust in public institutions and putting lives at risk. Most of the disinformation spread during the COVID-19 crisis has modified content, false or misleading, coming from prominent public figures. In addition to the this, the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing trends of foreign interference in EU Member States national matters but has also unleashed new dynamics.

The spread of D&FN concerning the COVID-19 has already had relevant impact not only on the health-related sphere of EU citizens, but also on the societal and criminal environment at large.

During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, D&FN had a central role in creating a hostile environment fostering protests, riots, and clashes with police in several EU cities. The spread of fake news resulted in instigating tensions and violence against minority communities and healthcare workers in many parts of the world. In early 2020, multiple reports were filed for cases of physical harassment and violent attacks toward healthcare workers, people of Asian origins, people who were quarantined, or people who were evacuated from Wuhan. In Ukraine, local people blocked buses that carried 82 people who had evacuated Wuhan and threw stones at them. D&FN may also induce self-stigma–associated deaths. A notable example is the man in India who committed suicide because of a misconception that he had been infected with coronavirus. His family members mentioned that he was feeling guilty and was shamed for being infected by COVID-19. He had the impression that the virus would have unwittingly transmitted to family members, and he was afraid of how the local society would react.

Within the same topic, a recent study in Great Britain examined the association between 5G technology and COVID-19 conspiracy theories and its correlation with violent intentions and anger. Anger was then associated with a greater justification of real-life and hypothetical violence in response to an alleged link between 5G mobile technology and COVID-19, alongside a greater intent to engage in similar behaviours in the future. The study also showed that the conspiracy beliefs were reinforced by the spread of D&FN that were justifying the use of violence. In general conspiracy theories tend to be positively associated with the justification and willingness to use violence, an effect mediated by heightened state anger.
In such cases, where there is a strong relation between D&FN on COVID-19 and violent protests, it is important to understand the characteristics of this unrest and its causal link with the spread of D&FN, since they always carry the risk of widespread contagion, given their often chaotic and crowded nature.

The risk of evolving into uncontrolled, violent clashes with authorities and/or among protesters and counter-protesters is significant and a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that lead D&FN to foster social unrest is needed. Police Authorities and other stakeholders need to be equipped with additional intelligence in order to allocate, in a timely manner, well calibrated resources to these events that have the higher probability to involve or trigger violence and criminal activities.