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8 Things This Infiltrator Learnt Inside Malta’s COVID-19 Conspiracy Community

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Mark*, a mental health professional in Malta, infiltrated the country’s COVID-19 conspiracy community, inserting himself in more than 12 groups in Malta and abroad.

Here are his eight main takeaways from his three months in the ‘parallel pandemic’:

1. The network is vaster and more hidden from the public eye than you realise

Mark counted around 100,000 actively contributing participants in the conspiracy groups he joined – but none of them were on Facebook. They were on hidden, invitation-only messaging networks, like Telegram, Signal, Viber and Threema.

“Malta only has around 950 members, but there is real rallying behind each individual user,” he said.

The users escape Facebook’s policies against false information in an environment that can’t be controlled and gives them the space for mutual support and interaction.

2. Algorithms are to blame

Unfortunately, networks are geared to feed users more of the same – and human nature dictates that fear and anger draw more eyes in.

“I noticed in the past that algorithms can be swayed, but it takes consistent effort over a period of months to do so. Once successful, you can simply exist in another world.”

The conspiracists wonder: “how are other people not seeing this? It’s so obvious, out there, and in your face”.

“But it is simply a computer simulation feeding you content and slowly eroding and warping your worldview,” Mark said.

And the fallacy Facebook, for instance, is creating, is that everyone is controlled by algorithms and confirmation bias. “Even seasoned researchers can fall victim to algorithms.”

“The vast majority of conspiracy theorists would disperse if large corporations were to stop their search algorithms for a month,” he claims.

3. Psychological biases, with a dark undertone, are alive and well

And we have our own human nature to thank for that.

“Our minds are naturally designed to seek the path of least resistance, a trait which served the survival of our species well… Until our access to information multiplied a thousand-fold and exceeded our cognitive capacity to make sense of it all.”

The more echo chambers crystalise and move themselves away from the public eye, the more we see cognitive biases roar their heads.

“Time and time again I would see – ‘I have this theory, can somebody confirm it..?’ ‘Can someone find X Y Z research to prove this idea I have’. Usually, such confirmations would come from a heavily edited video of various scientists, or from research that was questionable due to the small size of their sample groups and their author’s history.”

Immediate connections are the greatest culprit of what we take to be true, Mark said. “Which doesn’t mean it’s true. It only means that a group of individuals around you believe the same thing.”

4. The amount of information is overwhelming

Today, there is more content produced than there ever has been in human history. “By the time you would’ve dismantled most of the sources as bad research, misconstrued arguments, or simple falsehood, the more things get thrown at you,” Mark said.

He noticed that if one single person tried to challenge or dispute facts, they would find themselves in a hurricane of sources that simply overcome the capacity of anyone to refute.

“Antibody-dependent enhancement happened for the RSV vaccine? Surely then the dozen or so vaccines against COVID-19 will all do the same.”

“Vaccines wane? Surely, they are there to make us more vulnerable to COVID-19. Let the depopulation commence!”

“Medical authorities walked back on some of their previous claims? Surely, they are all lying to beat us all into submission.”

5. ‘Conspiracy theorist’ does not represent a single type of person

Through private conversations, Mark found that there was a vast variety in personalities.

“For most people, the key vulnerability can be traced back way before the pandemic. Many people go into this with unresolved trauma from their pasts especially incidents involving scuffles with authorities.”

The pandemic would then cause them constant, ongoing pain and anger, for which they needed an outlet.

“Others suffered abrupt and profound disillusionment with their profession – think of medical professionals, nurses, therapists, pharmacists being thrown in the deep end without any framework for them to understand the bigger context.”

“Internationally, I noticed that societies which already had low levels of trust in their governments tended to be more vulnerable to this undercurrent. In Malta, we were largely spared because the pandemic never manifested itself in its ugliest shapes, and while our politics isn’t exactly stellar, we were never pushed to the extremes other countries have had to suffer.”

6. People share the same psychological biases – and pain

Mark also noticed there was real pain within each individual, as people suffered genuine losses.

“One woman in the Maltese groups had lost half her income since the beginning of the pandemic. Then her friend was deported due to Malta’s policy for TCN visas, then she had limited contact with her family because they were scared of the virus.”

This woman never suffered from COVID-19 itself, but she was suffering from the pain which was inflicted by restrictions.

Others were lamenting losses of friendships where their support networks could no longer endorse the conspiratorial thinking anymore. “At the core of it all, there is a source of suffering, which is never verbalised but ever-present.”

7. The amount of foreign influence is concerning

“Being in groups in Malta, I had a hard time understanding I was truly in Malta. There is a pipeline of information, which allows an almost uninterrupted flow from the US.”

“We should all be worried that one single source drives so much of the content spreading across the world. We’ve repeatedly seen how pushing false narratives destabilised and delivered disastrous results with Brexit and the 2015 migrant crisis.”

A misconstruction of the truth usually requires a truth to begin with, which is what makes misinformation so dangerous to doubtful minds, Mark said.

8. There is an extremist undercurrent

“I will absolutely not say that everyone I saw there was radicalised,” Mark said. “However, the ‘othering’ of vaccinated people, combined with the tremendous pain, fear and frustration people experience on a daily basis, can throw the most resilient of us under an insurmountable amount of pressure.”

Mark sensed that members felt relieved when they joined groups, as they are finally surrounded by people who “understand”. “One person told me she finally understood what it’s like to have power and knowledge which others don’t have.”

Whether it’s pain from being isolated from their community or feeling thrown under the bus by their peers who chose to get vaccinated, they are not on the same wavelength.

“Relationship breakdowns are a real thing and they cause pain everywhere, multiplying the anger at the ‘real’ culprit – the government and big pharmacy.”

Radicalisation comes in when people experienced rejection, creating a chasm between the “ugly, stupid or indifferent” world outside, and the warm reassurance of like-minded people.

And on top of that, there is also a lack of tolerance to ambiguity. “There is very limited space for ‘maybe’ in this world, which rings very close to other radicalised networks where only the inner circle holds the absolute truth.”

“Although in Malta I couldn’t tell of serious security risks rising, the level of anger is reaching new heights as the months are wearing on. Any spikes in hospitalisations, any new measures will be met with heightened resistance and would serve to further push the small cluster of people currently struggling even further away.”

“The government should hold no mistaken beliefs. Any move in an attempt to create restrictions based on vaccination status will further the already deep mental and emotional isolation.”

*The source’s name has been changed to protect the individual’s anonymity

What do you think about Malta’s conspiracy community?

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Belle dives deep into seas and stories. She’s passionate about mental health, environmental sustainability and social justice. When she’s not out and about with her dog, she’s more than happy to hear from you on Instagram @belledejong or at [email protected]

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