During the first lockdown, Coen van de Ven was sitting on the sofa next to his girlfriend. When he looked over to see what she was reading on Instagram, he was shocked. “There was so much total nonsense on there. People on lovingly decorated pages that usually talk about health foods and yoga, were now sharing conspiracy theories.”
The journalist, who works for the Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, read how 5G towers supposedly spread corona, why the elite had developed the virus to control the masses and how Microsoft boss Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to inject people with tracking nanochips.
Network of paedophiles
Also popular: the American QAnon conspiracy, that is starting to gain a foothold outside the US. In short: a devil-worshipping elite is guilty of child abuse, and the most powerful even drink the blood of babies to stay young. The QAnon followers” biggest hero: Donald Trump, the stalwart fighting against the underground network of paedophiles.
“I was already familiar with these theories from Twitter and YouTube”, says Van de Ven, who gave a lecture at the MISDOOM Leiden symposium on online disinformation. “That’s where you’ll find the core group of conspiracy theorists, like the rapper Lange Frans.”
The rapper, whose YouTube channel was recently deleted, released a song entitled “Lockdown” in April, in which he states:
A worldwide pedo network, don’t ask how
From the Dutch royal family to Hillary Clinton
Welcome to the craziest party of all
You don’t need a ticket, you’re already in
This is the fall of the cabal
Van de Ven: “But now I saw these ideas making the rounds on Instagram.” Together with colleage Rosa van Gool and scientists from Utrecht University, he investigated the matter for De Groene.
“We were on the lookout for conspiracy super spreaders. I started chatting with some influencers and that led to some long conversations. We eventually met up with one of them, Nadja van Osch. It turned out that a group of influencers that usually share spiritual content had been in contact since March and were encouraging each other to share conspiracy related posts: “We’re now finally able to speak out.”
Van Osch’s Instagram page looks quite innocent at first glance. Between the family pictures, yoga poses, Spanish landscapes and inspirational quotes (“It takes ten years to become an overnight success”) a podcast with the title “Let Love Rule” is promoted. It’s all very mindfulness.
But her Instagram stories show a different picture. Under the headings “WAKE UP 1” and “WAKE UP 2” Bill Gates is attacked, antivax talking points are shared, corona virus measures are denounced and links with a global network of paedophiles are suggested.
“I’ve been studying conspiracy theorists for a number of years now”, Van de Ven says. “Until recently, it was usually middle aged men in attics playing online detective. On Instagram, we’re now seeing a whole different demographic: much younger and hipper, and more women. It’s a totally different world, almost a mirror image.”
One of the super spreaders was fashion model Doutzen Kroes, who shared her doubts on the trustworthiness of the media, governments and major corporations with her 6.5 million followers. “Do they want us to be healthy? Do they want us to be united or divided? Do they have our interests at heart? Ask questions, follow the money and connect the dots. Use logic, follow your heart and your instincts.”
“She threw a huge rock in the pond”, Van de Ven says. “But where did she get these ideas? We started peeling back the layers of the onion until we found a connection with Tessa Koop, also known as Cosmic Woman on Instagram. She has about 7000 followers, negligible really. But she is followed by all Dutch celebrities peddling conspiracy theories. You keep coming back to the same semi-spiritual food, coaching and yoga groups.”
On her Instagram page, Koop couples the corona virus to astrology, magic, and ideas about the influence of cosmic frequencies on reality. On the 9/11 attacks she muses:
“For me 9/11 was my wake-up call in the realization that nothing in the world is what it seems. ‘Reality’ is far more greater, more magical and beyond our comprehension than we THINK. But we FEEL it in our blood. Our cosmic powers are returning.”
Van de Ven: “This group is very susceptible to ideas about energy and forces that aren’t directly observable. There is, and I don’t mean to be condescending, a certain kind of wishy-washiness that makes you more open to ideas that aren’t grounded in observable reality. They don’t trust medical science, they oppose vaccinations, they mistrust – sometimes rightfully so, I must add –food from supermarkets, and think the media are out to frighten people. It’s an alternative vision to society where acting together and spreading love (or LOVE as they write it) is central. It’s all very holistic.”
Van de Ven can understand why some people find strength in these influencers. “We’re living in a literal pandemic. We’ve all been afraid of something we can’t see. In a weird way, that’s also pretty hard to get your head around. It’s very reassuring when there’s people that can offer you an explanation.”
Conspiracies fill the holes usually occupied by journalists, politicians and scientists. But where they have to tell you how complex and muddy reality can be, conspiracy theorists can state without a shred of doubt or factual basis who the enemy is. They can say: “We do know. They are behind it all. Be mad at them.” That can fill a need. It has nothing to do with being smart or dumb, It’s a way for people to get to grips with the world.”
Criticizing conspiracies is tricky, he thinks. “You have to be careful not to become patronizing or condescending. Real conspiracy theorists only become more emboldened. Most people who believe in conspiracies, don't mean any harm. You want to tempt them to come back to the world of reason and facts.”
And what about deleting dubious content? “I’m very wary of censorship”, Van de Ven says. “It goes against freedom of speech, unless you’re talking about threats of course.”
He thinks It’s more important to make people media savvy. “Speaking for the classic forms of media, we have to be much clearer about what we do and why. It was a real eye-opener to talk to conspiracy theorists. They hardly have an idea what journalists actually do. I often hear “Who paid you to write that piece?” The answer is: me. But it is our solemn duty as a journalist to explain. The press is very powerful. Being accountable is part of that.”
Even though some of the audience will find solace in conspiracy theories during a pandemic, there are also those who read more classic media.
“The problem is that the gap between these two groups is getting wider. And as parts of the conspiracy circles get angrier, threats start going round. It’s a shame and frightfully scary that the Dutch state broadcaster NOS has had to remove their logo from their vehicles due to threats. I do feel for conspiracy theorists, but you have to act against the small group that uses threats and violence, especially now that the group is growing.”
Conspiracy theories and disinformation are hard to counter. Fact-checks do have risks, Coen van de Ven explains. “You can amplify the nonsense by giving it attention.”
According to Van de Ven it is quite bizarre that the international press agency Reuters fact-checked a video where a man can be seen holding a computer part. When the camera zooms in, the part can be seen to read COV-19. The man states he is not a conspiracy theorist but wonders aloud: “Why do they put these parts in 5G towers?”
Van de Ven: “If Reuters pays any attention to that, It’s one more piece on the link between corona and 5G, even if it is meant to refute the connection.”
How effectively you can counter nonsense also depends on the platform. “On Twitter a lot of disinformation is being spread around, often by PVV politicians. It’s a good thing that Peter Burger (Leiden University Lecturer in journalism, ed.) and others rectify that on Twitter. This approach is very straightforward, because you're on the same platform and directly replying to the viral message. That’s a lot better than giving attention to the same story in a different medium.”