— Article by Sofia Strodt and Antonio Di Noto
Online platforms being a hotbed for the spread of inaccurate or downright false information is nothing new. Facebook enables users to spread content with an unprecedented speed and ease, which makes fact-checking and identifying where information stems from all the more difficult. With the Corona pandemic came a lot of uncertainty, which has ultimately resulted in a surge of questionable information surrounding the topic. From cocaine being a remedy for Covid-19, to 5G technology being responsible for weakening people’s immune system, many theories have been ferociously shared online.
We wanted to see for ourselves how far the spread of this dubious information goes. Just by typing ‘Anti-Covid’ into Facebook’s search engine we were able to find a vast number of groups, both private and public that are meant for people who want to exchange their beliefs about the pandemic.
“This is a place where people can come and learn the truth. Let’s unite, organize, educate and fight back,” reads the mission statement of the Facebook group Global Frontline Nurses, a virtual space “created to empower healthcare workers who disagree with the lockdowns”.
As protests and rallies all over the world have shown, many seem to disapprove of the measures that are in place to contain the spread of Covid-19. This anti-attitude is not new, but nurses? Healthcare workers that every day face the gruesome effects of the coronavirus? We were gobsmacked and wanted to know more. We wanted to learn the truth.
After having clicked on the forgotten password button a shameful number of times for two digital natives in their twenties, we had it all: A new email address, a new Facebook profile, and a new life. Esther Wilson, 51, happily married, from Calgary, Alberta became our passepartout to enter the private, healthcare-workers-only Facebook group we wanted to investigate.
Exposing corruption from the inside?
Alberta can offer some gorgeous scenery, there’s no denying that, but that is not the reason why we chose it as the hometown of our parallel life. Our aim was to get in touch with Canadian citizen Sarah Choujounian, the mastermind and co-founder of the private Facebook group Global Frontline Nurses. In the hope to get more insights Esther requested access to it. After sneaking in, we discovered that we had entered the mother group, so far, of an only child: Canadian Frontline Nurses. Things may change soon though, the nurses have contacts with like-minded colleagues in England, Australia and Sweden, and soon “every country will have a chapter,” according to Choujounian. On top of that, there is another page – public – whose name sums up what we are dealing with here: Nurses Against Lockdowns.
Despite their claims, the nurses do not have a crystal clear definition of what their truth is. The group substantially constitutes a cauldron of ideas, that span from genuine concern regarding the severity of the measures currently in place in the USA and Canada, to dangerous calls against the use masks and against the closure of indoor activities, touching upon delirious videos that explain why the pandemic is just an excuse to continue climbing the steps that will lead up to a worldwide genocide.
Much of their content supposedly “exposes the corruption from the inside” – as their website reads. However, many of their posts are subject to warnings issued by Facebook’s fact checkers regarding their veracity. What is not preceded by any warning, is this video, taken at the rally the nurses held in Washington, before the rioters took Capitol Hill.
In the video, Nicole Sirotek, one of six leading nurses, recalls what happened when she worked at a hospital in New York. “I had a dying patient,” she says. The man was going to be put on a ventilator, but he absolutely wanted to see his family. Sirotek claims that she unplugged the man, gave him a tank of oxygen, and then called his family. She warned him that he was only going to have a few minutes. She then took the patient out in the street, where his family was waiting for him. “After eight minutes he died, in a wheelchair, next to the trash can,” Sirotek concludes.
Although we can only rely on what Sirotek said at the rally, it is safe to say that a patient in critical condition should not be exposed to the risk of running out of oxygen next to a trash can, outside of a hospital.
However, according to Sirotek her undertaking was justified because “nurses, doctors and healthcare professionals can leave’’ while patients have to stay in the hospital and can not see their loved ones. For the Frontline Nurses this goes against their code of ethics, which they have also shared in their Facebook group.
Repercussions of the pandemic beyond infection rates
Although this interpretation of the code of ethics could be deemed as questionable, it is true that since the beginning of the pandemic, the greatest effort and attention have been directed toward containing the spread of virus, which has caused other problems to exacerbate. The number of people that experienced anxiety, loneliness and depression, as well as binge drinking rose significantly in Canada. Social isolation has hit the elderly particularly hard, as they are among the most vulnerable groups with regards to contracting the virus. Further, students have seen the quality of their education drop drastically and experts already talk about the expected consequences of this on future generations.
These problems were on the agenda of the latest rally held by the Frontline Nurses, on the 20th of February in Vancouver. Crowds gathered downtown and people manifested their concern regarding the consequences of social distancing. Protesters waved posters showing powerful slogans such as “hugs over masks” and “forced isolation is elder abuse”. On top of that, more elaborate thoughts stood out. A man who identified himself as doctor Orn, claiming to have contributed to the definition of guidelines for long term care in the province of Alberta, said: “You need to look at four dimensions of seniors: the physical, the psychological, the social and the spiritual domains that make us people. And currently all is being focused on is the physical”.
The Canadian government has decreed several measures, devoting special attention to healthcare workers who are at a greater risk of exposure, to contain the spread of the virus. Among other things it is strongly advised to “avoid crowded areas, close-contact settings where there is singing, shouting or heavy breathing’’; furthermore, the wearing of a mask covering mouth and nose is deemed necessary.
These measures have sparked controversy and debate and are fiercely contested by some. As the videos of the rally show, many participants did not abide by the rules.
It has not just been the Covid-19 itself has been spreading exponentially. Anatoliy Gruzd, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in privacy-preserving technologies at Ryerson University has called the circulating misinformation in relation to Corona an “information virus”. The spread of unreliable information has come to a point that has required the WHO to come up with guidelines that are meant to “flatten the infodemic curve”. According to a survey carried out by the University of Sheerbroke (in Quebec), 38.4 percent of the respondents believe that the government is hiding important information about the pandemic, while 15 percent believe that the pharmaceutical industry is involved in spreading the virus.
The use of social media plays a central role in terms of disseminating information. Aengus Bridgman, PhD candidate in political science at McGill University and co-author of a study which examines misinformation around COVID-19 and its impact on public health has found that about 16 percent of Canadians use social media as their primary source of information on the coronavirus.
The bewilderment the pandemic has caused, in combination with the possibility to construct one’s own media diet has turned out to be fertile ground for the growth of misinformation and, in extreme cases, conspiracy theories, according to Boris Noordenbos assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, who is specialized on conspiracies. People try to create meaning out of the things that happen to them, especially when it is difficult to ascribe sense to these things. The idea of a virus which is invisible, yet controlling all our lives seems hard for people to accept. Noordenbos explains that this obsessive attempt to cling on to some kind of meaning is something we witness frequently whenever things such as social or political insecurities that are not predicted arise.
“Essentially conspiracy theories are based on the belief that social and political reality is being manipulated in secret, by a small group of elite people that are pulling the strings, constructing the reality we’re living with for their own benefit,” says Noordenbos. The task of the conspiracy thinker in this scenario is to make connections between individuals and events that are seemingly unconnected, showing or rather fabricating the interrelation between matters. One of the most popular conspiracies around Corona revolves around Bill Gates, who according to some wants to use the vaccination program to implant digital microchips to track and control people.
When we speak of conspiracies the presumption often seems to be that certain people are more susceptible to them because of intrinsic factors, such as their social status or their mental makeup.
However, what is often overlooked is that the attractiveness of media that are being used plays a vital role with regards to the popularity of conspiracy theories. According to Noordenbos the rhetorical form of content that is being shared in the context of conspiracies often mimics scientific research by using lots of numbers and footnotes – something that we have encountered multiple times throughout our investigation. On the surface the majority of the seemingly well-researched content appears to be in line with academic practices. For instance the screenshot of a post that was shared in the group Global Frontline Nurses below shows an article that was written by James Lyones-Weiler, who holds a doctorate degree and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is an environmental lawyer. With one simple Google search we found that while it is indeed true that Kennedy Jr. is an environmental lawyer, he is also known to be an anti-vaccine advocate and conspiracy theorist. Also, the wording simply doesn’t add up. The adjective ‘disturbing’ really is more suitable for describing the plot of a horror movie instead of a scientific study. On Facebook it now says underneath the post that it partly contains false information.
In light of Noordernbos’s words, it is rather easy to understand why so many people cannot get themselves out of the quicksand of misinformation and conspiracy theories that surround the current pandemic. Nevertheless, it is still unclear why healthcare workers, whose knowledge of the matter is much more advanced than that of the average person, are falling in the same trap.
“A pandemic is as social and political as it is biological,” said Laura Spinney, a science journalist and author of Pale Rider, a famous book on the Spanish Flu, to Vice. This has been confirmed by our investigation too. The Frontline Nurses feel “violated by the government and pharmaceutical companies,” as stated by Nagle during the Vancouver rally. They were told the lockdown was going to last fifteen days, but it has now been going on for eleven months.
This “monumental erosion,’’ as Nagle puts it, has impacted freedoms that used to be taken for granted such as being able to travel, and see friends and relatives. Many people’s personal beliefs were challenged, nurses’ not excluded. Although some may perceive beliefs and knowledge to be the same thing, they really are not. Contrarily to knowledge “beliefs do not need to be externally validated. It is what people believe to be true. It’s personal to them,” reads Matthew Hornsey’s research. Hornsey is a professor in management at the School of Business at the University of Queensland.
Filter bubbles and the need to belong
Covid-19 spreading through respiratory droplets is not a belief. Scientific facts are not something that is up for debate. It seems illogical and it is hard to imagine that professionals, who have a deep knowledge about a topic such as healthcare, will go out of their way to go against that very knowledge. Something that could potentially explain their behavior is the idea that incommensurable amounts of information are accessible online, enabling users to patch together their own reality. The fact that people can now compose their own media diet and find themselves in filter bubbles where their existing beliefs are confirmed and never challenged takes this to the extreme. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that decision making is strongly impacted by beliefs engendered by group belonging.
We experienced first hand how deeply beliefs can be ingrained when we asked people who suffered from Covid-19 to tell us about their experience. As soon as they knew what our research was about, their reactions were rough. “Journalism with his own opinion and agenda – exactly why I avoid the news,” reads one comment under our post. Nancy Shaver even believes that “conspiracy theories are invented and promulgated by journalists, who then report on them”.
Right before Esther could join the weekly Zoom meeting the Frontline Nurses hold “to support each other”, as we learned from their leader Sarah, our investigation had to come to an end for now. If it’s one thing we have learned from attempting to untangle the nurses’ web it is that misinformation indeed has the potential to be as lethal as the coronavirus itself.