As public backlash to reimposed Covid-19 restrictions in Austria and the Netherlands intensify, so too has the spread of misinformation.
With infection rates rising and government restrictions returning, misinformation and conspiracy theories are flourishing once again across Europe, fuelling protests and political backlash.
In the face of governments clamping down to curb the virus, thousands have taken to the streets to demonstrate against Covid restrictions in Austria, Netherlands, Italy, Croatia and Switzerland.
Last week, the World Health Organization described the challenge faced by Europe as “very serious,” with almost 4,200 deaths a day recorded compared to 2,100 a day back in September.
After Austria went into its fourth national lockdown last Monday, around 40,000 protestors descended on downtown Vienna in a rally organised by the far-right Freedom Party, the third largest political party in the country.
“STOPP Impffaschismus,” (stop vaccine fascism) one sign in Vienna read. “Kontrolliert die Grenze, nicht euer volk,” (control the border, not your people) another said, among the slogans that mixed vaccine scepticism with far-right ideology.
The Freedom Party’s leader, Herbert Kickl, has regularly expressed misleading views, like describing vaccinations as a genetic experiment and legitimising “apartheid”.
The Austrian government stated that vaccinations will be made mandatory from February next year.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets today in one of the largest protests in the history of Vienna, Austria, after the government implemented a new COVID lockdown and became the first in the world to announce compulsory vaccination.pic.twitter.com/FFriWCZioG— Michael P Senger (@MichaelPSenger) November 20, 2021
Austrian journalist Michael Bonvalot believes the far-right have capitalised on discontent some of the public have towards the government’s pandemic regulations to organise around anti-Covid measures and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
“If we look at the numbers right now, I think there is 20-25 percent of the population which are not entirely happy and are close to some kind of conspiracy theories, and that’s who the right-wing extremists are trying to recruit,” Bonvalot said.
In the areas where the right-wing movement is strong, “[fewer] people are vaccinated and more people get ill,” he added.
Less than 65 percent of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully vaccinated, below the European average and far behind those like Spain where it is nearly 80 percent.
In September, another Austrian outfit – the newly formed anti-vaccination People, Freedom, Fundamental Rights party (MFG) – rode a wave of vaccine hesitancy to win 6.4 percent of the vote in Upper Austria’s regional election, enough to nab three seats in parliament.
The MFG has been influential in planning recent protests on the ground, going as far as to draw parallels to the Nazis to describe Covid restrictions.
The Dutch riot
Last week in the Netherlands, the response to the government’s recent curfew turned violent, as social media was used not only to organise protests but also spread disinformation.
“What is unique about the Netherlands is that we have repeatedly seen Covid protests turn into riots just this year,” said Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
An ISD study found that on Facebook, the top 125 groups disseminating false information about the pandemic experienced a 63 percent rise in followers over the past six months, or 789,000 members in a country of 17 million.
Telegram groups during last week’s riots were filled with calls for demonstrations along with hateful messages targeting Jews, Muslims and gay people.
While social media groups don’t usually call for violence, “they may accept it as part of the solution,” O’Connor said.
“The anti-vax and anti-Covid movement is creating a space allowing for other forces to engage and express their frustration in a violent way.”
While a vocal minority in the country, anti-vaxxer elements have had their voices amplified by a sympathetic political ally in parliament, the far-right Forum for Democracy party.
The group’s leader, Thierry Baudet – dubbed the “Dutch Donald Trump” – has pivoted from anti-immigrant rhetoric to adopt an anti-vaccination position.
Exploiting public distrust
The driving fear among anti-vaxxers is generally focused on government abuse of power. New research carried out in Austria indicates that low trust in vaccines is strongly linked with low trust in authority overall.
But that mistrust is increasingly being co-opted by the far-right through an adoption of baseless theories that vaccines are deadly or part of a sinister global plot, which social media has exacerbated by playing to negativity biases around public health messages.
Human beings “react to things that are very scary or frightening and give them disproportionate weight,” conspiracy theories expert David Robert Grimes said in an interview.
“Covid has upended the entire world, which is very fertile ground for conspiracy theories to breed and we have seen several iterations of this throughout the pandemic. The anti-vaccine core has capitalised on this and caught other people in their wake.”
Further protests are being planned this weekend in Austria and the Netherlands.