BBK Magazine 41

200th Anniversary Edition

Tackling Online Covid Scepticism

Dr Robert Topinka, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies

Despite widespread compliance with lockdown measures and high vaccine uptake in the UK, the public health response to Covid-19 also sparked resistance, with many online communities rejecting mainstream consensus. New research from Birkbeck suggests a more effective approach to countering false information about Covid-19, having found that current efforts can unintentionally spread misinformation further.

The fight against ‘misinformation’ must begin by engaging with everyday people and their digital lives”

Dr Robert Topinka, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, describes the Covid-19 pandemic as having shifted the thinking of a large and highly engaged online audience: “Covid scepticism has become a focal point for influencers and audiences who see themselves on a journey of personal discovery toward better physical and mental health,” Robert explains. “This pursuit begins with rejecting public health advice. For these audiences, the coordinated public health response to Covid-19 is a prime example of people setting aside their own opinions and conforming to mainstream thinking.”

Post-pandemic, Covid scepticism continues to persist and grow online. Robert is concerned about the impact this is having on society, public health and political polarisation. He is interested in why audiences connect with Covid scepticism and how right-wing extremists try to draw in Covid sceptics: “The fight against ‘misinformation’ must begin by engaging with everyday people and their digital lives. Obscure and extremist ideas thrive in our current media environment. Never have so few private corporations exerted such consolidated control over television, radio and print.

“Yet despite this consolidation, TikTokers, YouTubers and podcasters can attract audiences in the millions almost entirely outside of mainstream awareness. Covid sceptics view the ‘misinformation’ label as a badge of honour, and if they’re banned from social media platforms, or if fact-checkers debunk their claims, they use the attention to build an audience for reactionary, anti-science content on alternative platforms. Solutions such as simply banning users from social media platforms or correcting false claims are not enough. We now need to be asking why people connect with misinformation on such an emotional level.”

As part of his research, Robert is scrutinising social media data and tracking key terms on message boards: “A great deal of our news is filtered through social media. One of the issues with this is that social platforms make money from advertising, so they want to show advertisers active user engagement. As a result, platforms prioritise engagement over other concerns, and emotionally charged or controversial content attracts the most engagement. This is concerning as this dialogue isn’t typically how we communicate in-person, and can lead to more extreme, embellished content leading the conversation on different issues.”

Robert is determined to help address and offer a better explanation of these pressing issues. He has planned a workshop series with local communities across the UK to discuss misinformation, how it affects people in their everyday lives and how organisations can help communities deal with it.