Corona dominated life in 2020 and triggered a new dimension of disinformation. When the virus was not yet raging in Europe, claims were circulating that the danger was being played down. Then the story of the “great swindle” caught on.
By Patrick Gensing, editorial office at ARD-faktenfinder
Almost exactly a year ago, the first reports of a puzzling lung disease appeared in China. It didn’t take long for religious fanatics to come up with the first scenarios of doom and crude explanations: clergymen from Tunisia and Egypt, for example, claimed that the epidemic punished China for dealing with the Uyghurs.
In Iraq, a political commentator put forward the thesis that the epidemic was an American-Jewish plot. The aim is to decimate the world population.
But this was only the prelude to a global triumph of conspiracy legends, all of whom follow an identical internal logic: A small minority control politics, media and science, according to the myth, in order to realize a sinister plan. All conspiracy legends work according to this principle – and they tie in seamlessly with anti-Semitic myths such as the falsified “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Therefore, experts speak of an anti-Semitic structure – even if the legend is not explicitly directed against Jews.
Right-wing extremists called for tougher measures
In Germany, the thrust of the spring was completely different: It was claimed that the risk was being played down, that politicians and the media would deliberately downplay the actual risk. The racist portal “PI-News” wrote at the beginning of April: “Merkelland: More corona sufferers than China!” The allegation is that the “1,100 corona deaths are Merkel’s deaths” so far. The press also talked about the situation nicely.
In mid-March, the right-wing extremist “Compact-Magazin” praised the fact that 60 million citizens were quarantined in Italy. In contrast, criticized “Compact”, advocating “for measure and middle”. In other words: the Chancellor should obviously take more drastic measures. In April, the magazine suddenly spoke of a “Corona dictatorship” in Germany. Voices were quoted at length that the virus was “not particularly dangerous”. And “PI-News” reports again and again how “the people are fighting against the Corona dictatorship”.
The notorious fake news site “Anonymousnews Russia” put the fictitious quote in the mouth of the Chancellor that open borders are more important than human lives. But the response remains manageable compared to previous similar contributions, as an evaluation shows. Refugee policy was no longer a suitable scapegoat in a global health crisis.
AfD called for drastic measures
The AfD also initially accused the federal government of failing to protect Germany. At the end of February, Alice Weidel urged Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn to downplay the danger. The death rate with Corona is ten times higher than with the flu. AfD politicians also claimed that climate activists show no consideration for the elderly and thus contribute to the spread of Corona. To do this, they shared pictures that were taken out of context and thus deliberately misleading.
But the strategy was unsuccessful – there followed a radical change of course, the emerging movement of the “Corona skeptics” provided the key words, which was followed by the political right wing. It was increasingly being read that Corona is at best as dangerous as the flu or even a complete hoax that goes back to Bill Gates. Experts observed how right-wing extremists were increasingly involved in protests.
Various “Corona skeptics” became leaders and key players in a new movement and radicalized themselves at breathtaking speed. Anti-Semitic agitation and insults documented their fanaticism. Calls for violence and even armed struggle were soon circulating. Various elements from well-known conspiracy legends reappeared in the context of Corona, for example the myth of kidnapped children being tortured in underground prisons.
Trump as a driver of disinformation
One driver of the disinformation was US President Donald Trump, who repeatedly spread false reports about the pandemic. The QAnon movement also played a major role in this context, and its symbols also appeared at demonstrations in Germany.
The spread of false reports and rumors can hardly be measured, as many were circulating in messenger services. But some figures show how enormous the phenomenon is: Facebook alone deleted seven million posts within three months. Yet much of the misleading content remained online – despite being refuted.
Escalation in Berlin and Leipzig
Tens of thousands of people then took to the streets during mass protests in Berlin and Leipzig. In a targeted manner, false information about the number of participants was spread in order to increase the relevance of the protests. In addition, demonstrators stormed to the entrance of the Bundestag, spurred on by fake news that US President Trump was in Berlin to take power or that police officers had “defected”. Obviously, many protesters actually believed there was an overthrow.
The AfD is increasingly acting like the parliamentary arm of this movement. It received sharp criticism after guests of the parliamentary group in the Bundestag had molested and harassed politicians.
At a “lateral thinking” demonstration in Leipzig at the beginning of November, the violence escalated, with right-wing extremists attacking journalists and police officers. The movement is increasingly being targeted by the security authorities.
More afraid of a cloth mask than of the virus
Germany is now in lockdown again, thousands of people have died from the corona virus, hospitals are at their limit. But the “Corona skeptics” relativize or deny the danger posed by the virus to this day. Everyday masks, on the other hand, are made a supposedly potentially fatal risk. For example, false reports were spread in a targeted manner, according to which children had died wearing simple mouth and nose protection.
The vaccines against Covid-19 are also represented by adventurous claims as a great danger to health: There is talk of genetic changes and infertility in women, and even cancer should be able to trigger a vaccine, it is said. But all of these theses are neither proven nor valid.
And so it looks like the virus could potentially be defeated in the coming year if the vaccines work. But the long-term damage caused by conspiracy legends as a simple explanatory pattern for complex phenomena is likely to keep society busy.