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The “Do you still believe in the virus?” Conspiracy edition

The “Do you still believe in the virus?” Conspiracy edition
By Weekly Focus (beta archive) • Issue #3 • View online
This newsletter was part of the beta version of n-ost’s Weekly Focus and originally published on September 16, 2020. 

Dear cross-border friends,
In the 19th century, people believed in “railway madness”; the high speed of train travel was thought to cause insanity. Every change, especially if they remind us that the future is uncertain, leads to anxiety. In such cases, conspiracy theories are a ready-made solution. No wonder, therefore, that they have also resurfaced together with the coronavirus pandemic, which, according to some, has been a) created by Bill Gates, b) will be spread by 5G technology, and c) does not exist.
Protests against the “plandemic” are raging throughout Europe with the goal of becoming part of mainstream public debate much to the delight of daring populists both in the east and west of the continent. Why are so many Europeans refusing to put their faith in science? Are COVID-19 conspiracy theories any different in Russia, Germany or Serbia? And who are the self-proclaimed experts who have taken over social media?
🇩🇪 Forget about Chemnitz, conspirators are organising in rich Stuttgart
(Photo: Querdenken 711/Facebook)
(Photo: Querdenken 711/Facebook)
On the last weekend of August, a few thousand anti-mask protesters gathered in Berlin. Some of them told me that they were fed up with the pharma industry, modern medicine and the German government’s corona response, while others (the so-called “Reichsbürger”) were waving the far-right black-white-red flag of the German Reich that had ceased to exist in 1918; and a few carried the symbols and colors of QAnon – a partly antisemitic conspiracy myth that was founded two years ago on the American imageboard website 4Chan.
When new fringe protest groups appear in the German political spotlight, they often seem to be the strongest in formerly communist eastern Germany, the former GDR. The German far-right parties NPD and AfD are both strongest here. When trying to explain this phenomenon, experts often stress the heritage of the previous system and the hardships of economic transition: life in the GDR, living through the fall of the wall, and afterwards – lagging behind in wages, quality of life and infrastructure.
Interestingly, all these old explanations do not work when it comes to the new anti-mask groups. The strongest among them is a movement called “Querdenken 711” that was founded in Stuttgart – a prosperous city in one of the country’s most economically successful regions. So far, I haven’t figured out what has made the Stuttgarters so angry. But it’s clear that in this case we won’t be able to explain away their rage with economic inequalities.
Jan Vollmer reports for the German tech magazine t3n about technology and society.
Jan Vollmer reports for the German tech magazine t3n about technology and society.
🇷🇸 Number of the week
In Serbia, public trust has been irreversibly eroded. Since the very beginning of the crisis, Serbian citizens have been exchanging articles about Bill Gates and 5G. But their suspicions were also fuelled by officials who made jokes about “the most ridiculous virus in the history of mankind” and “the lion gene that protects Serbs from the corona”.
One event especially added to this distrust. During the first months of the crisis in Serbia, 632 people who had tested positive died. This was more than twice as many as the officially announced number of 244, as the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) uncovered. During their investigation, the reporters found serious discrepancies in the numbers, including 388 unreported deaths.
At first, state officials blamed BIRN for “[spreading] fake news, misinformation, and politicking”. Serbian PM Ana Brnabic responded that if you suffer from COVID-19 and get hit by a bus while heading to a hospital, you count as a victim of COVID-19.
Switching from jokes to dramatic warnings, state officials created a sense of confusion that ended in a widespread sense of mistrust. Public debate is now open to every alternative explanation. After all, in the end, why should we even care? “Our genes” are our vaccine.
Sanja Kljajić is a Serbian freelance journalist from Novi Sad. In 2016, Sanja quit her job with the Serbian TV channel RTV in protest against growing censorship. For her courage she was honoured by the Serbian Journalists Association.
Sanja Kljajić is a Serbian freelance journalist from Novi Sad. In 2016, Sanja quit her job with the Serbian TV channel RTV in protest against growing censorship. For her courage she was honoured by the Serbian Journalists Association.
🇷🇺 1 question to... Ilya Yablokov
Ilya Yablokov is a historian, media expert and author of the book “Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World”. He is a lecturer at the University of Leeds. (Photo: Ilya Yablokov)
Ilya Yablokov is a historian, media expert and author of the book “Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World”. He is a lecturer at the University of Leeds. (Photo: Ilya Yablokov)
Mr. Yablokov, is the perception of COVID-19 conspiracy theories different in Russia than in other European countries?
“In Russia, conspiracy theories are traditionally formed around the image of the West as the “main enemy”. Some elements of the global conspiracy theory constructions are changed to correspond to the internal situation in Russian society. 
For example: the conspiracy theory of the “New World Order” which is wildly popular in the US and Europe. This theory appeared in Russia in the early 90s and gradually began to transform into a conspiracy theory that a global government had been created to destroy Russia and its identity.
Surprisingly, there are no specific Russian conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. After first appearing in the US, theories about 5G or Bill Gates became part of the global discourse. My hypothesis is that all humanity has found itself in the same situation and few people understand what is happening. That is why COVID-19 conspiracy theories are easy to translate between cultural contexts.”
Nikita Kuzmin is an and editor at rugrad.eu in Kaliningrad with a focus on regional politics and economics. He is an experienced investigative journalists and cross-border practicioner.
Nikita Kuzmin is an and editor at rugrad.eu in Kaliningrad with a focus on regional politics and economics. He is an experienced investigative journalists and cross-border practicioner.
🇭🇺 If experts don’t speak up, the fake experts will win
"I still believe that the fear of the virus and that following crazy conspiracy theories feeding on ignorance are due to the isolation of the sciences. I really hope that the present generation of scientists is going to ease this." (Source: facebook.com/gabor.kemenesi)
"I still believe that the fear of the virus and that following crazy conspiracy theories feeding on ignorance are due to the isolation of the sciences. I really hope that the present generation of scientists is going to ease this." (Source: facebook.com/gabor.kemenesi)
We do know that fake news spreads six times faster than truth, so those who get the facts right have to take action, especially in such hard times. Scientists need to climb down from their ivory tower and tell us what they know (and what they don’t) in such a way that everyone can understand them. And this is exactly what a virologist from Pécs, Hungary did in February.
Local politicians were still downplaying the threat when Gábor Kemenesi, an expert on zoonotic diseases, started to speak out on Facebook in an authentic and straightforward way. He posts about the latest research in a simple style and also reflects on current topics from the news media. His presentations often go viral. Thanks to his expertise and willingness to communicate openly, Gábor Kemenesi has become a popular figure in the media.
His team of virologists has an official Facebook page but it is still important that he writes posts on his private page too, as the texts there are more opinionated. This is where the truth shines through that, unlike some of his colleagues’ statements, his posts aren’t influenced by the government’s agenda.
Ervin Gűth, is a freelance journalist, editor and translator who works for print magazines and online news outlets, while covering a variety of topics from politics to gastronomy. He is also an editor at the independent regional online portal szabadpecs.hu.
Ervin Gűth, is a freelance journalist, editor and translator who works for print magazines and online news outlets, while covering a variety of topics from politics to gastronomy. He is also an editor at the independent regional online portal szabadpecs.hu.
5 conspiracy theorists you'd rather not know about
1. Branimir Nestorović: a lung doctor with a lion gene
(Photo from TanJug/YouTube)
(Photo from TanJug/YouTube)
Nestorović used to be a well-known and respected lung specialist. But now he has become publicly known for saying that the coronavirus is “the most ridiculous virus in the history of mankind” and that the “lion gene is protecting Serbs from the corona”. In his numerous interviews, Nestorovic has spread conspiracy theories such as the one about Nikola Tesla’s secret time-machine project that fell into the hands of Trump’s uncle. Surprisingly, he is also an official member of the Serbian COVID-19 Crisis Response Team.
2. Victoria Bonya: what the CIA doesn’t want to say but publishes on its website anyway
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Bonya is a Russian TV presenter, actress and model with 7.5 million followers on Instagram. She recently stated that patients in the United States are not suffering from the coronavirus, but rather “from the radiation they receive from 5G communication.” In the same video she claimed that the US authorities are going to install chips in humans around the world. When answering journalists’ questions, Bonya presented a “document” on her mobile phone that she allegedly found on the CIA website to confirm her words. The document was not shown anywhere else.
3. György Gődény: pharmacologist, bodybuilder and president of a fake party
(Photo from YouTube.com/Nutriversum)
(Photo from YouTube.com/Nutriversum)
Pharmacologist and bodybuilder Dr Gődény has the biggest Facebook following among Hungarian COVID-19 sceptics, but he is already building his own database. People handing over their sensitive data to him usually don’t know that this dietary supplement king already has a record of abusing personal data – in order to access public money for his fake party.
4. Atilla Hildmann or “Avocadolf”
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A few months ago, it was still “funny” to sign up to Attila Hildmann’s Telegram channel and to observe him fantasizing about being a revolutionist fighting a regime. But it quickly stopped being funny: the vegan chef and cookbook author has somehow turned into a full-blown Telegram Nazi, calling for the death of German politicians. The creepiest thing about it is that in the meantime his Telegram channel has gathered some 82,000 subscribers.
5. Ivan Komarenko: disco polo against the masks
Ivan Komarenko - Kity i mity OFFICIAL 2020
Ivan Komarenko - Kity i mity OFFICIAL 2020
Disco polo is something between Russian pop and Balkan turbofolk – a dance music genre popular at Polish weddings and aunties’ birthday parties. Ivan Komarenko, a Russian singer long based in Poland, has recently recorded a disco polo song titled “Bullshit and myths”in which he denies the existence of the coronavirus and opposes the restrictions. The musician has become the face of Polish protest against the “plandemic”.
Kaja Puto, this week's coordinating editor
Kaja Puto, this week's coordinating editor
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