This section inquires into the role influencers play in spreading disinformation. It addresses this issue through a literature review of works in the field of sociology, focused on the alt-health movement. The section identifies the narratives that influencers employ in order to justify their claims, such as the idea that they can guide the respondent to a "truth" which the "system" wishes to hide. Further, through an analysis of three case studies of influencers, from Romania, Malta and Spain, the section documents the role of influencers in spreading disinformation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Main research questions addressed
● What is the role of influencers in spreading conspiracy theories?
● What are the main rhetorical techniques used by influencers to spread conspiracy theories?
The role of influencers as catalysts for spreading misinformation was not the subject of academic investigation until the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, unlike previous global-level events, came at a time when social networks were already well-developed and a set of online communities, sharing common conceptions and approaches, had already formed. Within these communities, some members have been defined as "influencers", given that they express points of view which are then adopted by members of the community. Baker (2022, 4) defines influencers: as “content creators [who] build an online following on social media in exchange for social, economic or political gain". Baker's work on wellness influencers (Baker 2022, Baker and Maddox 2022, Rojek and Baker 2020, Baker and Walsh 2022) has identified several topics present in the online posts of her subjects: micro-celebrity practices, the persecuted hero and appeals to a common journey through the moral matrix.
The first involves addressing the influencers' audience as equals through forms of direct address and the use of emojis and content about one's personal life. This is contrasted with traditional celebrities who remain aloof from their audience.
The second represents a narrative which places the influencer as a direct opponent of an impersonal "mainstream", composed of medical professionals, classical media and judicial/law enforcement authorities, which together work to persecute and marginalize the "truth" which the influencer has discovered. After several cases of removal from mainstream platforms, influencers have generated a "pied-piper effect" and have encouraged their audience to migrate to less-regulated platforms such as Telegram (Baker 2022).
Finally, the last refers to inviting the addressees to embark on a journey of self-discovery, which, under the mentorship of a guru, will lead to a better life. According to Fong et al. (2021), language is crucial in how conspiracy theorists address their audience: unlike those in the science community who use neutral language, conspiracy theorists employ highly emotionally charged language and appeals to action. However, Harf, Bollen and Schmuck (2022) found that being exposed to misinformation shared by influencers does not necessarily translate into accepting its truthfulness, with the exception of those who already had similar points of view with that particular influencer and only in the case of messages that advocated mistrust in authorities.
While these general categories could be applied to any type of influencers, Baker has specifically described the role of wellness influencers (described as the "alt-health" community) in the spread of COVID-19 disinformation. Even before COVID, alt-health influencers and their followers were generally opposed to mainstream medical professionals, advocating, instead, natural remedies and a "holistic" approach to healing, which involved spiritual awakening and the use of "natural" supplements endorsed by the gurus. Vaccination of any type was strongly opposed, with the justification that vaccines are toxic, cause autism and are generally inefficient. Alternatively, viruses could be combated through increasing immunity through natural substances such as vitamins, sometimes included in supplements endorsed by them. COVID-19 and the associated restrictive measures represented an opportunity for the "alt-health" influencers to come to the fore by peddling "miracle cures", opposing masks and lockdowns and, especially, vaccination once the vaccine became available.
In Baker and Maddox (2022), the authors trace the role of influencers in the spread of information about two COVID-19 "miracle cures": hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. While the first was popularized by "elite" influencers such as US president Donald Trump, the second was endorsed by influencers in the alternative sphere such as Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson. In the first case, the belief that hydroxychloroquine cures COVID became an ideological article of faith in conservative media, while in the second, the claim was debunked through humorous contestation.
By using the approach proposed by Baker (2022), an analysis of a Romanian case-study was conducted, sampling relevant posts from the Facebook page of the most important "alt-health" influencer (Olivia Steer Facebook page). A former journalist, Olivia Steer was a well-known proponent of the anti-vaccination movement before the pandemic, proposing raw-veganism as a solution to preventing cancer, opposing chemotherapy and screening for cervical cancer. Posts were collected for a year (October 2022-October 2021), covering the post-pandemic period, the last large pandemic wave in Romania (Omicron variant of COVID-19 - January - February 2022) and debates on instituting new restrictions such as imposing a vaccination certificate in the workplace. While most of the narratives shared in her posts were common to the Western "alt-health" community, one Romanian specificity was that the proposed remedy (raw-veganism) should be complemented by religious faith.
The main premise on which Olivia Steer relies is that COVID-19 vaccines are experimental. In order to avoid having her posts flagged by Facebook, when using words related to COVID-19, she spells them by using spaces between letters, for example "v a c c i n e s", "e x p e r i m e n t a l". In addition to being experimental, COVID-19 vaccines are also inefficient, according to Steer. This argument made in a February 2022 post relies on the convenient exclusion of the distinction between stopping the spread of the disease and reducing its severity.
One of the most prominent narratives supported by Olivia Steer is that of the "persecuted hero", who is being censored by the mainstream. For example, a humorous Facebook post shared on 14.08.2022 comments on the negative feedback received by the few mainstream channels that take up the "alt-health" message by suggesting the latter are seen as guilty of the crime of "hampering the combating of trolls", a play upon words on the criminal code definition of "hampering the combating of disease". When being sanctioned by the National Council for Combating Discrimination for her comparison of public health measures with Nazi death camps, Steer presented herself as unjustly persecuted for telling the "truth" ( Olivia Steer’s Facebook page, 2.02.2022, 8.12.2022).
In order to obtain support for her "persecuted hero" narrative, Steer sometimes employs an argument of appeal to authority. This especially happens when inviting fellow spreader of conspiracy theories, lawyer Gheorghe Piperea, who is presented as a university professor, conveniently excluding the fact that he is a professor in law and does not have any medical qualifications. Novak Djokovic's decision to refuse vaccination is also employed as an example of appropriate behavior, especially by referring to his "sacrifice" during the Australian open of 2022 (by describing Rafael Nadal's victory as the "ugliest title") (Olivia Steer Facebook page, 31.01.2022).
The narrative of the need for a "wake-up" is supported by appeals to the Zimbardo experiment, which conditioned participants in their roles as prisoners and guardians and by references to Romania's communist past. Respecting regulations on disease control is described by Steer as accepting the conditioning imposed by a totalitarian-like regime. This narrative emerged specifically in autumn 2021, when authorities, as a mechanism to prevent a wide spread of the Omicron variant, were debating whether to introduce mandatory vaccination when coming to work.
Example of disinformation on Olivia Steer’s public Facebook page
Finally, like other supporters of nationalist-related conspiracy theorists Steer instrumentalised the delay in the spread of the Omicron variant to Romania. While this new variant was spreading in other countries in December 2021, Romania was less affected. However, once Omicron arrived in Romania, in late January 2022, its spread followed the rapid pattern known from elsewhere. But, for a short while, a color-coded map of the COVID-19 infection rate showed Romania in green and other European countries in red. This was a contrast to maps shared in the autumn of 2021, during the fourth pandemic wave of the Delta variant, in which the color codes had been reversed. This omission also aimed to undermine the arguments related to the comparatively higher death and hospitalization rates in Romania in autumn 2021, to a great extent caused by the low vaccination rate in the country.
Concluding, the Romanian case presents similar characteristics with those identified in the literature on "Alt-health" influencers in the United Kingdom. A focus on persecution by the mainstream was combined with appeals to a wake-up through the rejection of COVID-19 measures. Adopting a raw-vegan lifestyle was presented as a miracle solution, which could boost immunity and stop most diseases. Finally, a nationalist and religious element was also detected, specific of nationalist movements in Romania, peppered with comparisons to totalitarian communism.
A good example of an influencer promoting fake news and conspiracy theories in Malta is that of Simon Mercieca. Simone Mercieca is a History lecturer at the University of Malta and owner of a website entitled Simon Mercieca’s Free Press (simonmercieca.com) where he posts various articles referring to Maltese current events, most of which would fall under the category of fake news [His Facebook account is followed by approx. 2800 accounts in addition to his list of 4800 friends. If we consider that the page of the main opposition leader is followed by 39,000 individuals, this shows that the number of followers of Mercieca’s page is not small compared to the country’s size]. He also uses his personal Facebook page to further disseminate the articles published on his website as well as additional commentaries on the same topics.
Given the high frequency of posts on the website and the diversity of topics address, information collection was restricted to the following topics and data ranges: COVID-19 pandemic (posts ranging from October 2020 – December 2021) – covering the period when most of the COVID-19 measures were implemented in Malta and the assassination of Maltese journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia (posts ranging from January 2021 – October 2022) - covering the period of the trial of the people charged with the murder to the moment when two of them admitted to the murder.
In order to reach a wider audience, Mercieca employs both Maltese and English, often posting the same article/commentary in both languages (simonmercieca.com, 31.01.2021) [In an article posted on his website, Mercieca explains that he also publishes in English in order to increase his target audience and that he hopes his articles to be reported by foreign media as he claims they are apolitical]. It is also important to note that often Mercieca combines elements from international and national conspiracy theories together (e.g. references to free masons and George Soros when referring to the Caruana Galizia case).
Although Simon Mercieca is the owner of the website, some of the COVID-19 articles are published by another author, namely Marica Micallef [Marica Micallef is identified as a former English Lecturer at MCAST]. However, given the fact that these are published on the same platform bearing the name of Mercieca and using the same style of writing, we believe the two could be analyzed together.
Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination
The main narratives promoted surrounding the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia are that the person charged as being the mastermind for the murder, namely Yorgen Fenech was not guilty and that her family (mainly her son Matthew Caruana Galizia, but also her husband Peter Caruana Galizia) and other unnamed individuals (e.g. Free masons) were accomplices to the murder (simonmercieca.com, 27.05.2022). In order to bring arguments in support of these narratives, Mercieca refers to excerpts taken from media articles and testimonies published as part of the court proceedings, which he then proceeds to interpret. Furthermore, he often also refers to messages received by readers, who wish to stay anonymous.
These messages often contain praise for the content published and provide further arguments/information in support of Mercieca’s own arguments.
To support the narrative of Yorgen Fenech’s innocence, Mercieca accuses the police, the prosecution and the journalist’s family of intentional hiding and destroying evidence, namely a laptop she owned and whose contents would have cleared Fenech. He also makes various accusations about the journalist’s family and other people involved in the trial, specifically targeting controversial topics that would appeal to the Maltese public (e.g. their misuse of funds/taxes, not speaking Maltese well and supporting pro-abortion views – this in reference to her son, Matthew Caruana Galizia). Moreover, his accusations also expanded to the journalist herself, including one in which he alluded that she was being financed and controlled by the George Soros foundation (simonmercieca.com, 16.04.2021).
While Mercieca does not go as far as to directly accuse anyone of a crime, he employs a variety of techniques which achieve the same purposes indirectly, such as the often use of rhetoric questions, unfinished sentences and ‘pretend’ anonymization of individuals. He also portrays himself as a defender of truth and neutral commentator, who is unfairly treated and accused as a result of his reporting (e,g, being unjustly treated by the Maltese courts, having his website hacked).
One of the main narratives related to the COVID-19 pandemic put forth by Mercieca is that the COVID-19 vaccines are very harmful, causing serious illnesses (simonmercieca.com, 07.02.2022) or even leading to death. Other supporting narratives are that ventilators caused the death of intubated patients or that many people did not actually receive a vaccine but a saline solution.
When it comes to the source of the pandemic, it is important to note that he promotes various conflicting narratives, that range from the fact that the virus was intentionally released by a Chinese laboratory to it being an intentional plan of governments/intelligence agencies/pharmaceutical companies to stop population growth/reset the economy/make profit. He also argued in his posts that the virus is not as deadly/contagious as it has been described by health authorities, as well as a numerous number of other fake news dealing with the efficiency of the measures adopted and the treatment provided by hospitals.
He brings in support of his arguments a number of posts from various Maltese Facebook groups, where people comment on potential side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines (e.g., a group for mothers where a user links the vaccine with miscarriages). In addition to these he also quotes a Facebook posts and text messages by local medical practitioners (simonmercieca.com, 24.12.2021) as well as international media sources, which promote the various narratives.
While the narrative seems to be more coherent when it comes to the effect of the vaccines and the measures adopted to limit the spread of the virus, when it comes to the causes of the pandemic and the very nature and effect of the virus, there seems to be no main narrative; on the contrary, Mercieca seems to simply promote any conspiracy theory he comes across, even if it is contrary to previous content he had published on his website (simonmercieca.com, 21.01.2021, 08.01.2021).
Figure 5 Example of message posted by Mercieca
The same lack of consistency can also be observed when it comes to different topics. For example, in spite of continuously attacking journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family (including accusing her of not being a real/good journalist), Mercieca uses her to support his arguments against the COVID-19 measures, arguing that she would have investigated and attacked the government’s actions had she been alive at the time (simonmercieca.com, 05.01.2022).
The method employed in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic is the same as for the Caruana Galizia assassination, namely open sentences, rhetoric questions, followed by personal interpretations of articles published in local and/or international media.
The impact of his writing on the views of the Maltese population is difficult to be assessed, however his position as university lecturer has led to a debate on academic freedom and free speech, whereby the University argued that the website was a private initiative and Mercieca was rightfully employing his right to freedom of expression.
This being said, Malta has 89.7% of its population fully vaccinated (Ourworldindata.com), which seems to indicate that at least in what concerns the fake news related to COVID-19 the impact has been minimal.
A well-known case, widely covered by Spanish news outlets and fact-checking organizations, of a Spanish influencer spreading disinformation is the case of Natalia Prego Cancelo (nataliaprego.com), one of the main promoters of the negationist movement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain. Before the pandemic, Natalia Prego, a family doctor in Pontevedra (Galicia) a town in the northwest of the country, was already engaged within alt-health circles. Her messages began to be shared on WhatsApp on March 16, 2020, two days after the government decreed the lockdown in Spain. Prego was responsible for one of the first viral WhatsApp audios disseminated during the pandemic. This audio, which was fact-checked by Maldita Foundation, questioned the seriousness of the coronavirus "based on objective clinical facts", according to her and warned of the "emotional and psychological manipulation" linked to the virus.
Prego’s disinformation activity included different channels: WhatsApp, YouTube, Rumble, Telegram, her personal official website and participation in TV shows. Her messages crossed borders, being disseminated as far as European and Latin America countries with a notorious impact through social media accounts.
Doctors for the truth and negationist protests
In June 2020, Prego and Doctor Ángel Ruiz Valdepeñas, set up the organization “Doctors for the truth” in Spain (Médicos por la Verdad), following the model of its German matrix, that had led to some protests and unrest during the 2020 spring and summer, together with other COVID-19 negationist collectives, including far-right groups and parties. Since July 2020 and under this brand, Prego has promoted different protests in Madrid and other towns along the Spanish territories with thousands of protesters without masks supporting Prego´s claims. These acts were supported by members of "doctors for truth" in Germany – whose origin dates back to April 2020. During the next months, Prego travelled around other countries (the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Poland) representing the brand and participating in different events.
Figure 6 Top Mentions “médicos por la verdad” by country
Claims and statements
In September 2020, Prego launched her own YouTube channel which records the activity of her group and their claims. A video on the low efficacy of the PCR tests was the most viewed.
From the all the material received by fact-checking organizations (the Spanish Maldita and Newtral and the Colombian Chequeado) the following main false claims can be summarized:
» Asymptomatic people cannot transmit the virus;
» Masks are not effective in stopping the spread of the virus causing the disease;
» The virus is not more dangerous than the flu;
» Severe COVID-19 symptoms are linked to the flu vaccine;
» The efficacy and safety of vaccines are questioned;
» Lockdowns prevent reaching herd immunity, the only solution to curb COVID-19.
Supporters and international activity
Around doctor Prego's initiative other collectives have joined and added the brand and tagline “For the Truth”. This is the case of collectives such as “journalists for the truth” or “biologists for the truth”, that were also identified as disseminators of mis-/disinformation on COVID-19. Within the international supporters of this narrative that can be identified, we found Doctor Richard Urso from Texas, a well-known negationist, and some other medical practitioners from Argentine, El Salvador, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Poland, Italy, Netherlands, Belgic, Sweden and Switzerland.
Prego’s influence within Spain has been used by the Spanish mainstream far-right and some TV broadcasters associated with these ideologies.
Response from the Medical Community
In February 2021, the Illustrious Official College of Physicians of Pontevedra (Collegio Official de Medicos de Pontevedra, 12.02.2021), released a communiqué announcing that the Prego´s case was being evaluated by a deontological commission and refused Doctor Prego´s claims. The Commission said, Prego "calls into question the different measures of the health authorities to face the health alert situation we are experiencing due to Covid-19 (use of masks, home confinement, etc.)".
In conclusion, the Covid-19 pandemic gave influencers, especially those usually involved in spreading conspiracy theories, an opportunity to disseminate their messages to a wider audience and to increase their following. By taking up the usual conspiracy theories relating to the virus and combining them with the "personal brand" of conspiracy theory, some influencers were able to create a potent cocktail of disinformation.
The cases presented highlight the way influencers can affect community cohesion by spreading disinformation and undermining the legitimacy of measures adopted by the authorities. By denying the dangers of COVID-19 and by proposing alternative solutions, outside the sphere of the official medical discourse, several influencers in the three countries analysed have contributed to increased polarization and weakening of community resilience.
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13. Simon Mercieca, 07.02.2022 https://simonmercieca.com/2022/02/07/women-are-asking-whether-there-was-a-rise-in-miscarriages-and-if-this-rise-was-linked-to-the-covid-19-jabs/, accessed 11.10.2022
14. Simon Mercieca, 07.02.2022 https://simonmercieca.com/2022/02/07/women-are-asking-whether-there-was-a-rise-in-miscarriages-and-if-this-rise-was-linked-to-the-covid-19-jabs/, accessed 11.10.2022
15. Simon Mercieca, 08.01.2021, https://simonmercieca.com/2021/01/08/questions-to-ponder-on-during-covid-19-scam-part-1/, accessed 11.10.2022
16. Simon Mercieca, 16.04.2021, https://simonmercieca.com/2021/04/16/was-daphne-caruana-galizia-being-paid-by-george-soros-open-society-foundation-and-is-the-dcg-foundation-also-receiving-funds-today/, accessed 11.10.2022
17. Simon Mercieca, 16.04.2021, https://simonmercieca.com/2021/04/16/was-daphne-caruana-galizia-being-paid-by-george-soros-open-society-foundation-and-is-the-dcg-foundation-also-receiving-funds-today/, accessed 11.10.2022
18. Simon Mercieca, 21.01.2021 https://simonmercieca.com/2021/01/21/more-questions-to-ponder-on-during-covid-19-scam-part-2/, accessed 11.10.2022
19. Simon Mercieca, 21.01.2021 https://simonmercieca.com/2021/01/21/more-questions-to-ponder-on-during-covid-19-scam-part-2/, accessed 11.10.2022
20. Simon Mercieca, 24.12.2021 https://simonmercieca.com/2021/12/24/a-family-doctor-admits-having-seen-patients-suffering-from-sides-effects-of-the-covid-19-vaccine, accessed 11.10.2022
21. Simon Mercieca, 24.12.2021, https://simonmercieca.com/2021/12/24/a-family-doctor-admits-having-seen-patients-suffering-from-sides-effects-of-the-covid-19-vaccine/, accessed 11.10.2022
22. Simon Mercieca, 27.05.2021 https://simonmercieca.com/2021/05/27/why-is-manuel-delia-occupy-justice-and-repubblica-silent-about-the-involvement-of-freemasons-in-the-killing-of-daphne-caruana-galizia, accessed 11.10.2022
23. Simon Mercieca, 27.05.2021, https://simonmercieca.com/2021/05/27/why-is-manuel-delia-occupy-justice-and-repubblica-silent-about-the-involvement-of-freemasons-in-the-killing-of-daphne-caruana-galizia/, accessed 11.10.2022
24. Simon Mercieca, 31.01.2021, https://simonmercieca.com/2021/01/31/daphne-caruana-galizias-brigade-tried-to-hack-my-website-in-an-attempt-to-stop-me-from-continuing-to-publish, accessed 11.10.2022