A Tale of Three Cities: Part II – Polarization and Conspiracy on Social Media

In a new three-part series for our blog, UC Berkeley undergraduate and MGP contributor Jezell Lee reflects on a personal experience of the pandemic and political polarization, caught between the gravitational pull of the United States, Germany, and Taiwan and heavily mediated through social media and the particularity of each locale. In the second installment, Jezell analyzes the role of social media in the proliferation of misinformation from her vantage point under lockdown in Berlin.

Introduction

Like any start to a new year, the initial hours of a young 2020 were saturated with positive potential, resolution and optimism, as countdowns commenced and clocks struck midnight to hopeful crowds around the world. Social media, on a global scale, was an explosion of picturesque fireworks and encouraging messages spread with wide-eyed hope, from which I was not exempt. January 2020 was a month of excitement for my first solo trip to my mother’s city of Taipei and quiet yearning for February, when I was slated to leave my hometown of Los Angeles for my long anticipated study abroad semester in Berlin.

But as COVID-19 took the world by storm, halting possibilities of international travel and ultimately cancelling my study abroad program in early March, I was faced with the choice of either withdrawing from the university for a semester and retreating back to Los Angeles in bitter disappointment for the rest of the spring semester and the upcoming summer, or staying in Berlin to complete the semester online. So I stayed. As the world shifted its focus to the online digital space, channels of information and news were forged out of this delicate time of minimized physical contact and social distancing.

Zooming forward to the year’s end, social media, especially Instagram and Telegram, depicts a vastly different picture of ordinary life than the one envisioned by January 2020, one fraught with social tension and an avalanche of information surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the viral vaccine’s state of affairs. But what exactly is special about how news travels on social media, Instagram and Telegram in particular? How does it become searchable as an “infodemic” archive, and how does information travel transculturally and translinguistically?

BERLIN, GERMANY

Instagram as a Pandemic Archive

Using the same strategy as outlined in the first part of this series to understand how information is presented across different communities and social media circles, I then browsed the following archives of relevant hashtags surrounding the coronavirus and its vaccines in German:

Germany (German):

#coronaimpfstoff → 2.8k posts

#coronaimpfung → 10.9k

#impfung → 54.6k

#impstoffgegencorona → 809

#coronadeutschland → 22.7k

#coronanews → 83.8k

#corona* → 28.4m

*In the United States, the novel coronavirus is colloquially referred to as “COVID-19,” while in Germany it is commonly abbreviated “corona.” 

As I am writing this from Berlin, a multicultural city with both German and English as its default languages of business and international discourse, the Instagram posts that can be found circulating within the hashtagged archives here are thus often written in both German and English. But because the United States is the world’s leading country in Instagram audience, with 140 million users compared to Germany’s 26 million, much of the most popular infographic content is thus created and circulated in English, a language that is easily accessible by the English-speaking communities in the United States as well as in Germany.

This is particularly evident in the fact that as of this year (2021), over two-thirds of Instagram users worldwide are aged 34 and younger, further supporting the suggestion that social media as a type of news platform is immensely popular amongst young people. Simultaneously, it can then also be reasonably deduced that older people are more likely to turn to more traditional media or alternative platforms in order to access information.

Impfen? Nein, danke!

Telegram, a cloud-based instant messaging application, allows for users to partake in voice and video calls with secure end-to-end encryption as well as “secret” chats that have the option to be end-to-end encrypted. It currently has over 500 million users worldwide and has been blocked, banned, and/or restricted in other countries such as Belarus, Russia and China, where political dissidents were using the platform to speak out against the government and organize protests because it was marketed as the most secure messaging platform available, as opposed to using another service such as WhatsApp.

A plausible explanation as to why it may have gained traction and popularity amongst users in Germany is that the company was headquartered in Berlin between 2014 and 2015, and the growing anti-vaccination community in Germany is now using it as a continuous feed of postable and shareable information that bolsters their stance in the form of a channel called “Impfen? Nein, danke!” eerily echoing the former Cold War messaging of “Atomkraft? Nein, danke!”

The format of the posts shared in this particular anti-vaccination impfen-nein-danke channel are vastly different from the eye-catching aesthetics of those found circulating throughout Instagram circles. Telegram channels are structured more like a continuous news feed in which news articles and information can be posted chronologically, and anyone with access to the channel can simply scroll through the many pages of media available.

These media forms include pictures, videos, links to articles, screenshots, quotes and individual commentary, and the overall structure of the channel reads like a minimalistic messenger chat log. It is worth noting that though the channel has 5,135 subscribers, 12.7k photos, 4.47k videos, and 1.09k other files, individuals such as myself who are not Telegram users or subscribed to this particular channel can still openly access the publicly posted information, opening the avenue of possibility that perhaps the “impfen-nein-danke” channel has a much farther reach into various pockets of communities than its modest following attests to. This can be particularly dangerous given that any posted misinformation can also be seen by anyone if a channel is public. For instance, a post that dates from April 14, 2021 states the following:

“Komm: Unnötiges Leid für die Dogmen der Virus-Religion!

Wer fragt, ob es das Virus wirklich gibt?

Wer fragt, ob die Tests das Virus nachweisen?

Wer fragt, ob ein positiver Test eine Diagnose erlaubt?”

Come on: Unnecessary suffering for the dogmas of the virus religion!

Who asks if the virus really exists?

Who asks if the tests detect the virus?

Who asks if a positive test allows a diagnosis?

I have translated the original German text into English, and in this short interrogatory commentary, the original author perpetuates the idea that whether or not the coronavirus exists is a mere matter of simply believing, not unlike religious belief, as there is also a comparison to the idea that the virus itself is the head of its own religion. The questions posed here cast shadows of doubt on the strictly scientific progress that society has made in the last half century, questioning scientific integrity and sowing seeds of mistrust in the form of guided misinformation. 

Another post that is completely inaccurate in its description and demonising portrayal of the vaccine can be seen below (for context, I am a bioengineering major and the novel coronavirus has made certain classes much more applicable to reality):

“Die Hälfte wird das bald Kommende nicht überleben, die einen, weil sie zu alt und zu schwach für die Genspritzen sind, bei den Stärkeren wirken Gift und Nanoteilchen mittelfristig. Die meisten werden es erst kapieren, wenn sie den mRNA-Tod durch den Zytokinsturm sterben.”

Half will not survive what is soon to come, some because they are too old and too weak for the gene injections, and with those who are stronger, poison and nanoparticles have a medium-term effect. Most won’t get it until they die of mRNA death from the cytokine storm. 

Where is the data that supports the claim that half of the population will not survive vaccination? Interestingly enough, this German user’s claim echoes strongly with a post written earlier this year by prominent American anti-vaxxer Mike Adams, or the self-proclaimed “Health Ranger”:

“IMPORTANT REMINDER: Most people who take the mRNA vaccine will be dead within 5 years. So far, 4.2 million doses have been administered in the United States, and that number is growing by the day. The population by 2025 may be HALF of what it is now, depending on how many take the mRNA vax.”

Though Mike Adams is most widely known for being the owner of NaturalNews.com, an online echo chamber of misinformation promoting anti-vaccination, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience with 7 million unique visitors per month, a further look into his prolific empire of misinformation reveals that he actually owns over 50 different websites that cover a wide variety of topics ranging from “doomsday prep advice” (survival.news, collapse.news) to fear in science and medicine. (gmo.news, medicine.news, vaccines.news). This online “ecosystem” of fake news operates on search engines like Good Gopher, running parallel to Google. They reveal a frighteningly intricate web of results that Adams claims to “filter[s] out corporate propaganda and government disinformation.”

For instance, when one searches for the Washington Post, a well-known and established news source, one is sent instead to Adams’ TruthWiki, RealInvestigations.News, and Disinfo.news, an alternate reality “Wonderland” of sorts that feeds its hysteria to a willing audience through the looking glass that is the Internet. His vast, worldwide-reaching online network could have easily been the basis for similar ideas circulating echo chambers in other countries, such as that of the German anti-vaxx community on Telegram. 

The digital rabbit hole of misinformation can seem rather benign in nature to the casual user who only gives it a cursory glance and knows how to distinguish it from scientific truth, but within it belies the much more dangerous notion that modern medicine cannot be trusted. The baseless claims across NaturalNews and Telegram that half the population will die as a result of the COVID-19 mRNA-based vaccine are grounded in emotional mistrust and fear rather than scientific facts and data across a plethora of experimental iterations.

In fact, data from the clinical trials of multiple different vaccines have proven to be exactly the opposite, at high efficacy rates between 76% and 95% across a diverse profile of populations of varying ages, underlying conditions, and ethnicities. The author of this post also makes the unfounded claim that the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine is a gene injection, which is simply untrue. If that were the case, those who have genetic illnesses that require gene therapy would simply have their problems solved by a simple injection into the bloodstream and moved on to living ordinary lives.

The mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine does not in any way, shape, or form, alter individual DNA or inject genes into the body. Instead, it delivers the instructions for making viral proteins to the cells, triggering an immune response in which the immune system then responds to these proteins and develops the ability to react to future infections with the COVID-19 pathogen.

Furthermore, lipid nanoparticles are used as delivery vehicles for the vaccine and do not have harmful effects on the body, while gold nanoparticles are important for allowing quick detection of viral load without the need for advanced laboratory testing and equipment, which is particularly crucial for underserved populations that may not have access to the state of the art facilities.

The mRNA-based vaccines also cannot induce COVID-19 in the injected body simply because they do not carry the full information for cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The oh-so-ominous “Zytokinsturm” the Telegram poster warn their readers about will not come because it doesn’t exist (neither does mRNA death), as cytokines are simply a very loose, broad categorization for proteins secreted by the immune system that play a role in various cell signalling pathways.

About Kumars Salehi

Kumars Salehi is a PhD student in German Literature and Culture.
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