Protests against Covid-19 have been sweeping across the world since the start of the pandemic. The motivation for joining such protests differs among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people they attract. Some believe that lockdowns have too great of a social and economic impact and that the benefits do not outweigh the costs. Alternatively, others do not believe in the virus at all – and this group’s paranoia has grown now that the vaccination has commenced. As one protester said in Amsterdam, last week, “They’re killing people in this country with vaccines. That’s what I’m fighting against” (Telegraaf 2021). What does one do with a group that is this paranoid about the government?
Because, whereas Covid-19 will hopefully leave us soon, this group is unlikely to disappear with it. This is partially because, for most, the distrust towards the State is not limited to Covid-19 measures. A group of protesters in Amsterdam explicitly affiliated with QAnon, who – amongst others – also believe in a global paedophilia network run by political elites. Or that these elites drink children’s blood to remain young. But it does not have to be this extreme; even believing that Covid-19 is a hoax is enough. Just consider. If you think your government is willingly trying to kill you by staging a global disease, you’re not likely to trust them again any time soon.
It might be tempting to ignore them, in the hopes they eventually tire themselves out. But that is not guaranteed. First and foremost, they are fed by Youtube algorithms and their echo chambers, not by the national media they distrust. Moreover, it is difficult – and I would argue undesirable – to ignore them when they disrupt the political sphere. In the Netherlands, a country that prides itself on its cultural level-headedness, politicians are called Satanists and receive death threats from QAnon supporters (Bouma, 2020). Last week, on Museumplein, two police officers were injured when they broke up an illegal protest. This is not just fear or hate towards the government. It might be, and in some countries it already is a threat to democracy (Schabes, 2020).
Therefore, as a society, we need to decide what we are going to do. Some have called upon Youtube and other social media outlets to change their algorithms, to prevent other people from falling into this rabbit hole. Yet this still has not happened, and waiting until it does is not a great strategy forward. This is especially because the most urgent problem, perhaps, is the group that has already been radicalized – and is both the biggest threat and hardest to convert. They will not listen to the government and ridicule outsiders, or “the sheep” who believe in Covid-19. So how do you reach them in a way that works?
Frankly, I have no idea. It is a difficult question, and the issue of conspiracists and their theories is challenging in general. What I do know, however, is that it nevertheless remains essential. We cannot ignore them simply because we do not know what to do with them. Because, as it currently stands, conspiracy theories will continue to infect people long after the Dutch lockdown has lifted.
Written by Marlinde Schellekens, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.
Bouma, R. (2020). “Amerikaanse complottheorie QAnon ook in Nederland in opkomst”, https://nos.nl/nieuwsuur/artikel/2349814-amerikaanse-complottheorie-qanon-ook-in-nederland-in-opkomst.html. Consulted on January 18th, 2021.
Schabes, E. (2020). “Birtherism, Benghazi and QAnon: Why Conspiracy Theories Pose a Threat to American Democracy”, student research, https://scholarship.depauw.edu/studentresearch/158.
Telegraaf (2021). “Demonstratie Museumplein loopt uit de hand”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeDd5IQErQU. Consulted on January 18th, 2021.