Distrust towards institutions drives denialism

Social networks make conspiracy theories visible but the vaccination campaign in Catalonia and the State does not suffer the consequences

5 min
Manifestants at the 'March for freedom' convened in January in Madrid, who questioned the veracity of the pandemic.

BarcelonaSome say that the virus does not exist and that the pandemic is a conspiracy to dominate the population. Others, on Telegram channels with more than a hundred thousand followers, say that for decades the elites have wanted to turn a virus into "a biological weapon to cleanse" the world and that the authorities are taking advantage of the "pandemic" by subduing the population with masks, curfews and vaccinations. But in recent months, against the backdrop of the mass vaccination campaign, the messages of people who have not previously been sceptical have also become more radical, especially about vaccines: they believe that they intentionally cause serious side effects or that they will control our brains "with 5G". Most of those who defend these ideas are denialists and anti-vaccine, but now because of the exceptional situation caused by covid there is also a confused or skeptical population that reproduces them, intentionally or not. They have different ideologies and come from different social classes, but they have one thing in common: they distrust governments and official sources.

The coronavirus has given wings to collectives that question each and every one of the scientific evidences about covid-19, often with manipulated information. They demonise the origin of the virus, exaggerate the possible side effects of the vaccines and even claim that they are used to experiment with the population. "The excess of information that there has been has greatly misinformed and has benefited the denialist theories", says journalist and doctor in communication specialising in rumorology Marc Argemí. A proof of this, he points out, is that any denialist manifesto provides some data that comes from official sources. "Sometimes they change them and they are categorically false, but others are true and they just take them out of context", he explains.

Denialist or anti-vaccine messages have increased across Europe, as has vaccine scepticism. But they have not spread everywhere in the same way: they have done so according to the confidence of a country's citizens in its institutions, scientific authorities and health system. "It is difficult to compare this situation with any other, because we have never had a global pandemic and the population has never been offered a massive prophylactic vaccination, which is immediate and works well", admits Xavier Bosch, an expert in vaccines and researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Bellvitge (Idibell).

In Spain and Catalonia it does not seem that these speeches are diminishing the success of the vaccination campaign, in which more than 60% of the population is already fully immunised. In France, however, there has been a clearer opposition, because the negationist and anti-vaccine movements, partly driven by the extreme right, have more strength. "In any country, coverage rates are the result of adding fears and trust in the system and what we see is that, in our case, trust overcomes fears for now", explains sociologist and professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid Josep Lobera.

Lobera has conducted the latest survey of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT), made from 2,100 people, which states that as the vaccination campaign has advanced, the acceptance of vaccines has also been consolidated. In July 2020, when there was still no approved vaccine, only a third of the population was completely convinced that they wanted to be vaccinated as soon as the health authorities offered them the possibility. By May, the figure was already 83%.

This is not to say that there aren't people with doubts or, directly, conspiratorial mindsets. "But neither does it mean that everyone who decides not to be vaccinated is an anti-vaccine or believes that the pandemic does not exist", Lobera states. Bosch agrees, saying that in the vaccination campaign it quickly became clear that in all countries there was a small group of recalcitrant people who said they would never get vaccinated, and another group who said they would get vaccinated immediately. "In the middle there is the so-called grey zone, that is, the population that has to think about it, that may be sceptical, that has doubts, that would like to wait a while before getting vaccinated, but that could end up getting vaccinated", he explains.

83% want to be vaccinated

Antivaccine groups and convinced denialist activists are anecdotal in Spain, but some of the messages they spread have been taking hold. The FECYT survey also reveals that one in four Spaniards (25%) firmly believes that there are secret organizations that strongly influence political decisions. "The denialist or antivaccine news have more echo than two years ago because with covid anyone can feel challenged, everyone follows what happens and looks for information", explains Lobera. The almost live broadcast of the process of creating vaccines has also been fertile ground for doubts and skepticism. For instance, the live coverage of trials' suspension as a precaution (a fact that actually shows that the process complied with safety guarantees), or when side effects were identified, such as thrombosis triggered by AstraZeneca in a few cases in the world.

"We all have a dose of conspiracy mentality, we all question some official versions. And this is not negative. The problem is when this dose is very high and we not only doubt, but we are sure that our idea is the only reality although there is no evidence to prove it", says Lobera. For example, the expert recalls that there is no evidence that the coronavirus has been created in a warnlaboratory, that there are international agents who have been preparing the pandemic for some time or that Bill Gates wants to insert nano robots in the brains of millions of people with the vaccine. "And yet, there are people who are sure that this is the case", he says.

These groups use social networks and hard-to-control channels, such as Telegram, to spread content such as fake news and real information taken out of context. There are many examples. The channel of Rafael Palacios, disseminator in Spain and Latin America of the conspiracy theories of the far-right group Qanon, has more than 135,000 followers, and the denialist propaganda platform founded by R. Delgado Martín has almost 152,000.

In fact, more than half (58%) of the participants in the FECYT survey have seen or heard messages encouraging people not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus: 27% claim to have heard or seen them on television and 34% through social networks. "What the survey shows is that there is a strong substrate of distrust towards institutions, health authorities and scientists, but also towards the media", says Lobera. "And this already happened with 9/11 or with terraplanism", says journalist Marc Argemí.

The role of social networks

The exceptional situation that the whole planet has experienced due to the coronavirus has led some people to legitimise some denialist discourses. "There are people who in serious crisis situations like the pandemic are prone to resort to conspiracy theories because they see it as a way to make sense of and control what is happening", explains Lobera. Until now, scepticism about the vaccine could be redirected through health professionals, who were the intermediaries between scientific recommendations and the population. "But during the pandemic this filter has been skipped and politicians are directly those who launch the messages. In those environments where there is distrust towards the institutions and a problem of credibility with the information from official sources, the so-called alternative versions emerge with strength", Bosch emphasises.

The experts consulted by ARA place part of the responsibility on the most extreme ideologies, both right-wing and left-wing: they tend to be reticent because, by definition, they are associated with a more evident support for disobedience and a propensity to support conspiracy theories or alternative versions. Messages that are very easily transmitted on social networks, where these people reaffirm their ideas. "The networks are not to blame, they only make visible and act as catalysts of this previous mistrust", Argemí clarifies. And Lobera adds: "These people connect, organise themselves and the next day they hold a rally in Plaça Sant Jaume".

The example is quite true. On Wednesday a meeting of antivaccine activists was called by Telegram (and without much success) at the entrance of the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona to boo health professionals for "being accomplices" of the vaccination campaign. And this Saturday a demonstration has been called in the centre of Barcelona against adolescents' vaccination. To the most convinced activists, experts say, bringing them scientific evidence to make them rethink their position may not make any sense. According to Argemí, transparency is a necessary but not sufficient condition to overturn negationist theories. It is not that they do not trust the data, but that they distrust the sources that provide them. "They simply perceive ill will, they feel that something is being hidden from them and this goes beyond any reasoning", he warns.