We crushed the curve, the far-right took this as a recruitment tool
As the novel coronavirus spread first in Wuhan in January, then in Iran and Italy, the outbreak overwhelmed healthcare systems. The exponential spread of the virus meant that by the time it was discovered in the population it had already taken such a hold that hospitals were filling with COVID patients.
In March, widespread stay-at-home orders were implemented in the United States to flatten the curve of the pandemic. And they worked. With the exception of a few epicenters, the spread of the virus was indeed successfully flattened, and hospital capacity was largely not reached. A significant number of deaths were avoided. Yet this success created a new problem: many now believe that the virus was never an issue in the first place.
Far-right groups are pushing pandemic denialism as a strategy to recruit new supporters. They recognize that to many, the very real disruptions in everyday life caused by the shut-downs far outweigh the abstract threat posed by a new virus. They are deploying social media to foment suspicion of the facts of the pandemic, thus dismissing the governmental actions required to slow the spread of the virus.
Despite some positive news, and many states relaxing stay-at-home orders, the novel coronavirus remains very much with us. With an available vaccine still at least 12–18 months away, if indeed a vaccine is possible, social distancing remains the most important tool available to minimize the outbreak. However, as the protesters storming capital buildings across the United States remind us, pandemic denialism also shows no signs of slowing down.
As an anthropologist who has studied far-right and white nationalist movements for over a decade, I have watched as all of the groups I study have turned their attention to COVID-19. Whether claiming it is “just the flu,” equating governmental responses with communist repression, or declaring that Bill Gates created a “plandemic” as a means to mass-vaccinate the population, conspiracy theories have taken over conservative social media denying the seriousness of the pandemic. Disrupting this disinformation must be a central concern of public health efforts moving forward.
The viral spread of the widely debunked documentary “Plandemic” along with its censoring by Youtube and Facebook received attention from many news outlets, but this is only one of a multitude of disinformation efforts. Take for instance the Twitter hashtag, #filmyourhospital. Becoming popular just as stay-at-home orders began in the United States, hundreds of photos and videos have been uploaded of empty ER parking lots, COVID-19 testing tents, ER waiting rooms, and secretly recorded conversations with nurses. These videos work to disrupt the narrative that we are facing a crisis. Collectively, these interfere with public health messaging. They have also gone global, with videos being shared from around the world.
The fact that in many places the feared surge in COVID patients did not overwhelm hospitals is a sign that stay-at-home orders were largely successful at limiting the spread of the virus. Yet this success has led to a movement claiming the response was overblown. This is a problem. Some experts are suggesting that different forms of social distancing may be required until 2022, if not longer. Until we acquire a vaccine or herd immunity, we will remain in a delicate dance of loosening restrictions only to tighten them again if the outbreak numbers grow.
Far-right and white nationalist groups oppose governmental authority, with many seeking an overthrow of the government. The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel known as the Bible of the racist right, envisions a race war that destroys the US government. It is no wonder then that these groups only see oppression in stay-at-home orders. White nationalists and other far-right groups are also linking criticism of stay-at-home orders and hashtags like #filmyourhospital to their own causes, hoping to inspire more conservatives to move further to the right and join their ranks.
Although some hope that facts are the antidote to conspiracy theories, this approach often fails. In far-right Twitter, physician video diaries documenting crowded ERs and videos of healthcare workers’ synchronized dances are repurposed as evidence that the outbreak is a hoax. Posts claim the physicians are actors and that healthcare workers are dancing because they have nothing else to do. Thus, examples originally intended to highlight the crisis facing healthcare professionals become refracted through this conspiracy as evidence of the opposite.
Far-right movements see in the pandemic and the controversies it has created a chance to expand their ranks and to sow further discord. And just as hashtags like #filmyourhospital have gone global, white nationalist and other far-right groups in Europe are also seeing in the pandemic an opportunity to expand their cause.
Addressing pandemic denialism will require preventing these conspiracy theories from taking hold in the first place. Ideally it will require consistent, coordinated, and clear crisis communication from all levels of government, along with well-known spokespeople outside of the government. In the absence of this coordination, tech companies like Twitter must adopt stronger policies to challenge disinformation. Making it through this pandemic while reducing mortality will take a concerted collective effort. The problem of the pandemic, and of pandemic denialism, are thus not likely to end soon.