SIM Report: Central & Eastern Europe, Issue 6

In many ways, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the growing spread of disinformation that has exacerbated social tensions across Europe. Authorities are increasingly alarmed over how rapidly disinformation has broken through the mainstream, with its impact becoming clearly visible in the form of continuing protests against COVID-19 restrictions. 

Anti-lockdown rhetoric fuels growing protest movement

Disinformation and fake news have been key drivers in the growing anti-lockdown movement. A state of collective uncertainty and high levels of mistrust towards national governments have created fertile ground for conspiracy theories to grow and expand their reach. This is supported by the diverse demographic present at anti-lockdown rallies, which includes civil freedoms advocates, vaccine sceptics, and supporters of far-right groups. 

In Germany, widely seen as the epicenter of Europe’s anti-lockdown movement, demonstrations have been organised by a group calling itself Querdenker or ‘lateral thinkers’. A common theme among groups participating in the protests is the view that national restrictions should be opposed because they jeopardise fundamental civil liberties and freedoms. The anti-Islam Pegida movement, for instance, echoed these views when shifting its narrative away from the issue of migration towards the government’s handling of the pandemic. Attendance at the protests has been bolstered by influential fringe figures who rely on social media platforms to disseminate fake news. There have also been parallels drawn between Querdenker and Reichsbürger, a movement rejecting the legitimacy of the modern German state.

The importance of social media services and online messaging apps as tools for the dissemination of disinformation cannot be overstated. Avaaz, an online activist network, found in April 2020 that COVID-19-related disinformation was shared over 1.7 million times on Facebook and had been seen an estimated 117 million times. Similarly, Telegram allows users to access groups with up to 200,000 members, enabling protest organisers to access large audiences in a forum where information can be easily disseminated. Another contributing factor is the fact that enduring restrictions on mobility have led to large numbers of people spending long hours online. 

US-based conspiracy theory makes inroads in Europe

In 2020, website analytics firm NewsGuard said it had identified 448,000 QAnon followers in Europe, with an estimated 200,000 adherents to the movement in France. While there are different strands of QAnon, it originated online in 2017 and posits that former US President Donald Trump is engaged in a conflict with so-called ‘deep state’ enemies who seek to undermine him. In a sign of how malleable this narrative is, QAnon has attached itself to local European contexts and grown in popularity. In France, for example, this has evolved into a broader anti-system ideology and portrays President Emmanuel Macron as a leading ‘deep state’ figure.


                                     Anti-lockdown protest in Berlin, 29 August 2020 @ Shutterstock

The decision by MIVILUDES – a French state agency responsible for monitoring sectarian movements – to launch an inquiry into the ‘highly concerning’ development of conspiracy movements reflects rising government concern over QAnon’s expanding reach in France. Indeed, a France-based YouTube channel called ‘DeQodeurs’ saw its subscribers increase from 21,500 to 68,500 last August. Moreover, countries where anti-vaccination movements have deep roots have seen a hardening of such attitudes, in tandem with the prevalence of disinformation.

Telecommunications infrastructure remains at risk

In addition to public unrest, actors engaged in spreading disinformation have instigated small groups to take violent steps to address perceived threats posed by modern telecommunications technology. For example, mobile telecommunications masts were targeted across Europe in 2020, in response to a theory that tied the COVID-19 outbreak to the development of 5G technology. Industry groups ETNO and GSMA estimated that over 140 arson attacks were reported in 10 European countries, including 87 incidents in the UK. On 31 January 2021, around 2,700 residents of Chelmsford, Essex, experienced internet connection issues after arsonists set fire to three broadband cabinets. A police investigation into the incident suggested that conspiracy theorists could be behind the attack.

Disinformation targets global vaccination efforts, undermines Western alliances      

Beyond exploiting social tensions internally, some actors have sought to undermine the global vaccination effort as well as weaken European unity. At the start the pandemic, a ‘complex disinformation operation’ aimed at weakening US-Poland ties was identified in Poland. Moreover, hackers have conducted several attempts to compromise news websites in Poland and Lithuania, planting false stories focused on discrediting NATO. More recently, disinformation campaigns have been reported in various Eastern European countries that seek to call into question the efficacy of Western-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines. In a related development, on 16 February Ukraine’s health minister Maksym Stepanov said the country’s vaccine-buying program was being hampered from ‘dirty information attacks’, which triggered a corruption inquiry into the ministry.

While the anti-lockdown movement is unlikely to crystallise into a unified political force that could realistically challenge mainstream parties, the growing popularity of alternative narratives may lead to an erosion of trust in national governments for years to come. This in turn, could increase polarisation, prolong social tensions even once the pandemic subsides, and escalate the risk of violent unrest. 


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