The Interconnected Web Of Anti-Vaccine Disinformation
Dr. Chamila Liyanage is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Researcher/Content Developer at Radical-R: Radicalisation Research, UK.
Vaccine disinformation does not come from a single source; it is like a hydra with many heads. Sometimes, its origin is geopolitical, authoritarian states, and even vaccine nationalism playing a role to misinform and spread disinformation. Disinformation also comes from the elements of populist nationalism, dedicated anti-vaxxers, believers of millenarianism, good people of faith, conspiracy circles, and from anyone who try to reason current unusual times. These many disinformation channels render conceptualizing and understanding vaccine disinformation a complex task. This article aims to analyze the depth of vaccine disinformation, sources, and underlying interests.
Vaccine disinformation is not a rootless phenomenon. It comes from established and novel thought movements. All these movements, despite their differences, share something in common as they all react to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is the unusual. It is a disruptive new context. This context creates new opportunities to discredit democracies. The context is also ripe for conspiracies and unverified speculations as people try to reason the unusual beyond the simple reality of a global emergency.
The unusual also brings parallels with religious belief systems. Many tend to doubt official explanations, holding to speculations on pandemic and the vaccine roll-out. Many political movements—whether it is populist nationalism against the democratic establishment, the far-right and authoritarian regimes trying to discredit democracies, or believers of alternative realities and conspiracies who demonize democracies—all seize the opportunity when democracies are weakened amid fighting a pandemic.
This is the context, the actual dynamics behind vaccine disinformation. However, what is the practical reality of vaccine disinformation? How does vaccine disinformation take shape online?
Narratives Of Vaccine disinformation
If we focus on several overarching narratives, the big players of vaccine disinformation, those are incredibly versatile, simple, and able to influence varied interests, all the while evading reason. For example, the conspiracy narrative that Bill Gates plans to inject microchips through vaccine is extraordinarily adaptable to different interest groups. It strikes a chord with the populists, the far-right, and authoritarian regimes, and conspiracy circles. They can use it to discredit democracies, saying the vaccination is a plot of the fabled New World Order.
Anti-vaxxers can connect to this narrative as they distrust liberal elites, the political establishment, and big pharma behind vaccination. Religious elements and believers can relate to it as they try to explain the current reality through a thousand-year-old religious text. Advocates of alternative medicine, green lifestyle, and New Age beliefs buy this narrative because it somehow legitimizes their cause. For ordinary people, it fits established perceptions about powerful villains trying to harm people, bringing in tyranny and control.
Related conspiracy narratives such as 5G causing the pandemic, the mandatory vaccination without which people could neither buy nor sell, the Great Reset, allegory of the coming kingdom of the Antichrist, all these are equally versatile, evade reason, and belong in a domain of creative fantasy (imagination) with just the right backing from cultural and religious belief systems, established perceptions, and political interests.
In fact, this is the epoch-old belief systems, cultural history, and cultural psychology, almost forgotten and downplayed behind modern reason and empiricism, all of a sudden, start feeding incomprehensible claims, making a tsunami-like comeback. How does this happen in a world where we used to consider the evidence before jumping to conclusions? It occurs in the domain of metapolitics.
What is metapolitics? According to Guillaume Faye, ‘metapolitics is the occupation of culture.’ Alain de Benoist considers metapolitics as a strategy to change the ‘collective consciousness,’ rooted in liberal values. Metapolitics invades culture, like a virus, attacks its cells or cultural values embedded in neo-liberalism and liberal democracy. It is a cultural assault against liberal democracy. If it is a metapolitical assault in the domain of culture, why does vaccine disinformation seem to have roots in fantasy?
Fantasy is part of the culture. Fantasy also has a natural ability to tap into human nature. Goethe, in his Faust, identifies passion and creative imagination alongside reason and intellect. These are not always contradictions but could work side by side. The depth of this comeback of imagination must not be underestimated as madness. It is deeper and is part of a potent metapolitical strategy that unsettles mainstream hegemony in unusual and bizarre ways. What matters is that it is working. If so, how does vaccine disinformation make a real-world impact?
The Impact Of Vaccine Disinformation
Vaccine disinformation makes an obvious gradual impact, making people confused, doubtful, cynical, and conspiratorial. It could even drag them into alternative realities in their effort to understand reality ravaged by a pandemic. Vaccine disinformation has already settled into a nucleus, finding followers and sympathizers among people who belonged to some socio-political, alternative lifestyle, belief, and interest groups. The core of vaccine disinformation fiercely believes their version of reality. To make things worse, many anti-democratic political elements are fanning the fire, setting people against democracies.
The formation of social movements such as anti-vaxxers, pandemic deniers, and anti-lockdown protesters would not have happened if they did not hold onto some form of vaccine disinformation. Such social movements are the clear indicators of the impact of vaccine disinformation. These movements can provide a false sense of security for people who are trapped in the new normal. What more can be done if people can make a pretense and act like there is no pandemic. It can even become a popular choice against the current confines of life. However, vaccine disinformation in the context of a pandemic is not an isolated phenomenon. If so, where does it finds allies, and where is it heading?
Vaccine disinformation and anti-vax activism fit naturally in the current widespread opposition against elites, the establishment, big corporations, official narratives, and even experts. It is part of an anti-establishment movement now finding grounds in the circumstances created by a pandemic, forming a new front against the democratic establishment. With all the challenges, limitations, and outright weaknesses of democracies, this opposition is widespread.
Anti-establishment sentiments are centered around an illusion that bringing down the democratic establishment would create a better world. However, there is an important question. What will be on the table or what is in offer for the people who form movements against the establishment? Unfortunately, the core drivers of anti-establishment fervor disguised in the mindset of ‘people against the establishment’, lies deep in and plays directly into the hands of authoritarian elements. It is the revenge of democracy of sort, and you cannot dump democracy without serving its natural nemesis: the authoritarian. In fact, the worst democracy is better than an authoritarian one.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.