Thursday

22nd Oct 2020

Coronavirus

Anti-mask protesters pose challenge for EU authorities

  • About 18,000 people demonstrated against mask-wearing in Berlin last month (Photo: Mike Maguire)

The past four weeks have seen a flare-up in anti-mask and corona-denier protests in European cities.

There is a risk these will grow as EU states re-impose hygiene measures due to a second wave of infections - posing a danger to public order and health.

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  • The coronavirus in close-up. Around 10,000 people held a protest in London, calling the pandemic a government hoax designed to undo democracy (Photo: Wikimedia)

Russia and China helped pave the way with disinformation campaigns.

But the trend is more complex than that, posing a challenge for EU regulators, who also need to protect rule of law and free speech.

Unusual times

About 18,000 people demonstrated against mask-wearing in Berlin on 29 August.

Around 10,000 people held similar protests in London the same day, calling the pandemic a government hoax designed to undo democracy.

And smaller rallies, ranging from fewer than 100 to some 1,000 people, have taken place in Brussels, Dublin, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Rotterdam, and Zurich in recent weeks.

They are being organised via Facebook groups, such as this Belgian one.

Calls to action are also circulating on Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, for instance under the Dutch hashtag #ikdoenietmeermee [I Don't Join Anymore], which was recently endorsed by three Dutch pop stars.

And the ideas behind them are being propagated by conspiracy-theory websites, such as stopworldcontrol.com, nomorefakenews.com, or rense.com.

Some experts, such as Irish scientist and science writer David Grimes, predict the protests will intensify.

"They'll increase in ferocity and become more political ... we live in scary, unusual times," he told EUobserver.

Others, such as Antoine Bristielle from French think-tank the Fondation Jean Jaurès, say it could go either way.

"People might say: 'It's better to wear a mask than face a new lockdown'. Or, maybe, new restrictions will create new motives for more protests," he told this website.

Russia and China made matters worse by unleashing what the EU foreign service called a "massive wave of false and misleading information" about the pandemic in spring.

This petered out in mid-May, especially on the Russian side, because by then the virus had also exploded inside Russia creating a risk of propaganda "backfire".

"Once corona spread to Russia ... even state-controlled media [started] criticising some of the conspiracies and nonsense spread by pro-Kremlin disinfo-actors, specifically about 'uselessness of preventive measures'," an EU official told this website.

The Russian corona-myths have a life of their own despite the policy change, the same way some today still believe the Soviet-era fabrication that HIV was an American bio-weapon.

But the corona-denial problem is more complex than foreign information warfare.

"As soon as Covid-19 was formally identified and sequenced, people started saying it was all made up", Grimes said, referring to autonomous conspiracy-theory websites, which he monitors.

And before Covid-19, the same online community was promulgating conspiracy theories about Jewish cabals, 9/11, climate change, vaccine plots, 5G, or QAnon - the notion that a US deep-state operated paedophile rings - also seeding the ground for corona-scepticism.

"If you reject climate change, for instance, then you reject science and you reject government authority and you are much more ready to believe other kinds of stupidity," Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on disinformation at the University of Vienna, told this website.

"There's even a growing number of people who believe the earth is flat - I thought it was a joke until I looked into it," he added.

Psychology

For Grimes, there was a big difference between hardcore conspiracy theorists and their "victims", however.

The former were "narcissists, who want to feel superior to genuine experts ... they do it for the notoriety, the attention - to become semi-famous in their own circles," he said.

The victims - those who declined to wear masks, for instance - were most likely to be people who felt like losers.

"You're far more likely to join these protests if you're not well off and you don't have a good job, if you feel the government doesn't care about you, if you feel politically homeless," Grimes said.

Failed personal relationships could be another factor, he indicated.

But the anti-mask movement is also more complicated than that.

The typical French protester, for instance, was a middle-aged, professional woman, according to Bristielle, who spoke to more than 1,000 people via Facebook for his recent study.

"It was really surprising," he said.

"Their main argument ... was they were fighting for their children, that they didn't want their children to grow up wearing masks," he said.

"Many people spoke of knowing at least five others in their social circles who refused to wear masks, so they weren't isolated loners," he added.

"Being made to wear a mask challenges people's civil liberties, and it might therefore make sense that more privileged groups in society would adopt this standpoint," Karen Douglas, a sociologist at the University of Kent in the UK, also noted.

"Anti-establishment beliefs cut through gender, class, and nationality," Shekhovtsov said.

And neurology also played a role.

Scientific discourse was nuanced and cautious, Grimes noted

But "more powerful, more emotive claims trigger our disgust and our fear, the reactionary part of our brain, more quickly than sober analysis" he said.

"It's inevitable that we react before we reflect, so we're all more vulnerable to conspiracy theories than we think we are," he added.

Clarity

EU authorities have so far tried to tackle the problem with a soft approach, such as sponsoring fact-checking services and drafting voluntary codes for social media firms.

For Grimes, they should be more hawkish.

"Companies like Facebook pay lip service [to regulators] and take down a few posts here and there ... but if they were serious about this anti-mask and anti-vaccination stuff, they could end it all in one week," he said.

"European authorities should say: 'We're going to royally screw you financially if you keep letting this happen'," he added.

But for the EU regulators who would have to design new legislation, the situation was delicate due to the need to protect free speech.

"A lot of people say you should oblige platforms to take down content that is disinformation. But who defines exactly what disinformation is?", an EU source said.

"A lot of the disinformation is often not even verifiably false. It is very contextual. So real events, real pictures, or real facts are put in a context that they give either a wrong impression or support a certain narrative," the source added.

And in the meantime, EU authorities could help by sending out a clearer message, Bristielle said.

"In France, the government first said masks were ineffective, or even dangerous, but now they are mandatory," he said.

"In times like these, the government needs to have one clear position," he added.

"Uncertainty due to conflicting advice is likely to fuel conspiracy theories," Douglas said.

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