This is how the COVID-19 Denialist Movement Misinforms

Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories, Why Do People Fall for Them?

On August 16, between 2,500 and 3,000 people gathered in Madrid, according to the Government delegation, with slogans such as “We want to see the virus.” It is a movement that denies what they call a “false pandemic” and rejects its protection measures. It has advanced by additional hoaxes on messaging networks and seeks to amplify itself thanks to your outrage.

What do you think?

Deniers (in international terminology, some call them COVID-19 flat-Earthers and other covidiots) reject the existence of the coronavirus to varying degrees. For some it does not exist at all and for others it may exist, but not with the severity that the health authorities confer on it. In other cases it is accepted that the virus exists but is believed to have been manufactured for geopolitical reasons. Deniers oppose the use of masks and confinement / isolation / social distance measures as a remedy. They deny the validity of PCR tests and reject the development of vaccines.

What data are they based on?

They hold their arguments in unscientific conspiracy theories that VerificaRTVE has already explained to you. This line of thinking considers that a powerful elite is taking advantage of the crisis to establish a New World Order. According to them, politicians, large corporations (especially pharmaceutical companies and the media) are part of a hidden plan hatched to deceive us and increase their turnover or control over us.

What is their relationship to misinformation?

Their websites and accounts on open social networks or private messaging networks (such as Telegram and WhatsApp) originate or import from abroad many of the hoaxes that the verifiers dismantle on a daily basis. Examples of misinformation created or republished by these initiatives (all are ideas denied by VerificaRTVE): the virus does not exist; masks are useless, they cause infections and other ills such as hypoxia; regrowth figures are false; COVID-19 has been transmitted to us through the flu vaccine; 5G technology caused the virus; or this was designed in a laboratory.

Where did they come from?

The movement is not new. Drink from anti-system, pseudoscientific, esoteric, conspiracy and anti-vaccine currents with decades of history. Supporters of pseudoscience and anti-vaccine have taken advantage of the uncertainty of these COVID-19 months to expand their opposition to these immune preparations through deceptive arguments. This is what one of the “ideological leaders” of the movement, Miguel Bosé, did in a viral thread with many lies.

Are they a unique group?

No. It is difficult to draw its borders and not all those who are part of the current think alike. For example, cross accusations of “controlled dissent” between one and the other are frequent. A controlled dissident is one who protests but does not want to bring down the system, something that according to the pure defenders of the movement would be desirable.

Are they apolitical?

No. Despite their insistence on their “neutrality” and their rejection of all parties, there are political interests that breathe all the oxygen they can to the initiative. Some members of the movement mix a criticism that can be legitimate and neutral against public powers, pharmaceutical companies, corporations or the media, with arguments that are very close to extreme right-wing protests in Europe. Social unrest is used as much as possible to generate anger. Last week, in preparation for the demonstration, various messages urged nightlife entrepreneurs to join the movement, a sector whose closure has just been decided to avoid outbreaks. Any cause works if it allows the movement to gain strength, even if the priorities of an anti-vaccine have nothing to do with those of the owner of a bar.

Who summons?

There were two main initiatives after the Madrid demonstration on August 16 that are considered “counter-information”. The channels of both, about 32,000 subscribers the first and 30,000 the second, were closed by YouTube on Friday for violating its regulations, after months of misinforming about COVID-19. They still maintain their activity on Telegram and have started posting on alternative platforms. Those responsible, Fernando Vizcaíno and Ricardo Delgado, the first linked to yoga and the second to the field of statistics, have become visible faces of the movement, together with health personnel grouped in the “Doctors for Truth” initiative. The latter systematically spreads misleading content through representatives like Dr. Natalia Prego, who has thousands of followers on her own channel. Other brands like Canal5radio, with almost 110,000 subscribers on YouTube, give a politicized expansion to these ideas.

Why aren’t their arguments further refuted?

The greatest danger in their proposals is that they are dangerous to health. That is why verifiers frequently deny these hoaxes with the help of doctors, but do not do so continuously to avoid making them known to a public who had not heard of them. Tiring the media with an overabundance of arguments as scientifically detailed as they are false causes them to waste time verifying them, which is a victory for those who lie. In #VerificaRTVE many times we have not offered you the names of these channels or we have avoided linking to them so as not to advertise them.

How to act before them in the networks?

In terms of numbers, yesterday’s demonstration was a failure. There are no concrete figures coming from the organization but the movement previously looked at what it achieved in Germany, with a protest of much greater attendance. However, in networks the echo was considerable, with relevant accounts using the # Madrid16A label even if it was to criticize it, which made it a trend for much of the day. It is something that is not recommended to do, because it turns what a minority thinks into the debate of a majority. It is best understood with the example of vaccines. The Wellcome Global Monitor 2019 study, conducted on 140 countries and 140,000 people, showed that eight out of ten citizens (79%) agree with the idea that vaccines are safe, while only 7% disagree and a 3% don’t know. In Spain, 80% thought at the time that vaccines were safe. Despite this public opinion clearly favorable to vaccines, the continuous images of anti-vaccine and anti-mask demonstrations in cities, for example in the Plaza de Callo in Madrid, suggest that their rejection is more widespread.

How to debate with members of this movement?

Again vaccines can serve as an example. The World Health Organization (WHO) proposes in a manual to speak with the anti-vaccine always with respect, because the movement is not uniform. The same should be noted with deniers in general. At one extreme are skeptics (for example, parents who lack information or fear that vaccines will harm their children). You can talk to them. At the other extreme are the pure deniers. They are determined to ignore the evidence and resemble religious fanatics. Debating with them can backfire.

Is there business?

Several of the initiatives that come together in the denial movement monetize their YouTube channels, obtaining advertising revenue from a certain number of subscribers. Others open Paypal or Patreon accounts and accept donations from their followers. Justice has repeatedly persecuted a person closely linked to the movement, farmer Joseph Pàmies, known as the “guru of alternative therapies”. He was fined 600,000 euros in 2018 for promoting chlorine dioxide (MMS), a derivative of bleach, against autism. However, the Lleida Prosecutor’s Office has recently filed an investigation against him. The General Council of Official Medical Associations had denounced him for promoting this same product to face the coronavirus, but it has not been proven that he manufactured or sold it. There is a possibility that an administrative penalty will be imposed for advertising unauthorized products.

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