Like viruses, conspiracies mutate to spread

Anti-COVID lockdown camp in the Vienna Stadtpark, later dismantled by police.

After the Omicron variant emerged, scientists needed time to figure out how dangerous it was. Finally, we are starting to get answers. But while we waited the conspiracists had a field day, with fresh confusion proving fertile ground for increasingly far-fetched narratives blossoming online.

Conspiracists quickly adapted to the news of the new variant. Disinformation monitors have been watching this process play out in real time. Our partner First Draft News identified a raft of conspiracy theories about Omicron, many carefully designed to play on widespread existing fears.

Many conspiracy theories strike similar notes. Voices claim the variant was made up or deliberately released to scare people into submission, force lockdowns, and oppress the unvaccinated. Others say the variant was “scheduled,” or blame vaccines, or the vaccinated for its spread.

None of these claims are entirely new. They have been repurposed for Omicron. Just like the virus, disinformation is opportunistic. Conspiracy theories mutate in a bid to spread faster and dominate more online conversations. They hunt down weaknesses — fresh fears, unknowns — and exploit them.

And the conspiracists are upping their game, seeking to capitalize on widespread alarm generated by multiple global crises: not just the pandemic, but also climate change. Lately, narratives are expanding to neatly fit both crises together as two prongs of a nefarious plot for world domination.

Bizarre as they are, these theories can do real harm if used to undermine both climate action and pandemic measures such as mask wearing. All efforts to combat or curb the effect of these twin catastrophes are dismissed as part of the conspiracy, with journalists and scientists in on the act.

These messages are no longer confined to the extremist fringe as voices of inaction are pivoting away from denial. Accepting that crises exist, populists are drawing on fear of COVID and climate change to peddle anti-immigration rhetoric. Crisis is coming, we must protect our own, they say.

Disinformation has many variants. Monitors say the fossil fuel industry is also shifting away from outright denial of man-made warming to try and present themselves as the solution, deploying micro influencers to push their message across social media. The bottom line is they are not doing nearly enough.

For both crises, the science is clear. The deployment of safe and effective COVID vaccines have saved countless lives. Meanwhile, 99.9% of the planet’s scientists agree human activity is heating the atmosphere at an alarming rate. Conspiracists have nowhere to turn but to outlandish lies.

That said, we communicators have a heavy responsibility. The science behind vaccines and climate change is complex and challenging to explain. This leads to a deficit of trustworthy information, despite high demand. Into these gaps flows disinformation. We must get better at filling in the gaps.

At the UN, we’ve been working on how to do just that. Recently I co-authored a piece for The Economist evaluating the lessons we’ve learned while combating disinformation during the pandemic. Together with Jeremy Heimans, CEO of our communications partner, Purpose, I explore how these hard-won gains can be applied to all major crises, including climate change.

The crux of our argument is that institutions need not remain passive in this ongoing information war. They can offer sharable nuggets of fact-based information. They can turn to trusted community messengers. They can fight back against damaging conspiracies and give truth a fighting chance

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Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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