A neighbour of mine told me this week that she is convinced Bill Gates has concocted an intricate plan to dominate the world, by having created the coronavirus out of a secret US intelligence lab in Washington.
Either that, she said, or the whole ‘thing of the virus’ is a hoax.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.
“I haven’t seen any sick people. I don’t believe it.” she said. I asked where she reads the news. “Facebook, of course,” she said, shrugging as if it should be implicit that she obtains her daily news fix from the schizophrenic world of unregulated streams of bogus information. “I don’t want the vaccine,” she added. “No way.”
Notwithstanding the fact that Bill Gates’ ambitions for world domination were most probably sidelined years ago – realizing as he probably did that it would not be Microsoft, but one of its competitors to take up the mantle of global tech supremacy – my bull-shit radar was going into overdrive during this week’s conversation with my kindly, neighbourhood friend.
And that, perhaps, was one of the most alarming aspects of this exchange – the fact that here was one such trustworthy member of the local community, engaging in the futile enterprise of spreading conspiratorial claptrap. Almost as if in the light of common day she appeared as one person, but behind her keyboard in the confines of her own home, she was another.
It is boredom? Is it a languorous state of semi-sanity imposed by the ongoing coronavirus restrictions? Is it a momentary lapse in terms of our understanding of what is real, true and ultimately undeniable? It’s impossible to probe so deep into the minds of conspirators, but for sure we can say that at the current time, our bull-shit radars are working weekends.
Of particular concern at the moment is the fact that vaccine scepticism, provoked by fresh waves of misinformation, appear to be taking hold in certain parts of Europe.
Recently, in regions of central and eastern Europe, this is starting to have a tangible impact on the public’s reticence in terms of being vaccinated. In the Czech Republic, for example, the Ministry of Interior has set up a webpage designed to counter disinformation related to the pandemic.
However, this comes at a time in which the country’s Health department has been criticised for a lack of collaboration with fake news researchers in the country, who have recently pulled out of a disinformation-combatting project with the government, because they felt that ministers weren’t taking their advice seriously. Since the start of the year, protests have been taking place in Prague, conducted by anti-vaxxers who oppose the government’s ongoing restrictions.
And such vaccine scepticism comes at a time in which traditional media outlets are facing their own battles. This week in particular has proven to be a testing one.
Polish outlets embarked on a coordinated blackout on Wednesday, protesting against the Government’s plans for a proposed ‘media tax.’ Opposers to the governing Law and Justice Party’s measures said that the levy could further erode media independence and sustainability in the country.
Further afield, meanwhile, China has embarked on a tit-for-tat dispute with the UK regarding broadcasting licenses, with the BBC being banned in the country, just one week after the UK’s regulator withdrew the license for the China Global Television Network.
Elsewhere, opposition journalists continue to face challenges in Russia – with a video surfacing recently showing Gennadiy Shulga, the editor of the local news website Newsbox24, being manhandled and humiliated by Russian masked police, in an attempt to invoke a state of fear in critics of the government and supporters of Navalny.
Closer to home, in Brussels, it has taken the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, weeks to brief all journalists on the EU executive’s current vaccine strategy, to the frustration of many reporters in the EU’s capital. Only did she surface in front of the media (digitally), on Friday morning, after having put pen to paper on the bloc’s recovery fund instrument.
I feel sorry for my neighbour. I still don’t know whether it is ignorance, tedium, or just plain stubbornness that informs her forays into the conspiratorial scrublands of social media. One thing this week has become clear though: in a world in which fake news takes on added agency and mobility, the value of trustworthy journalism becomes ever greater.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.