Investigations
Coronabetogingen (Brecht en Jan Jagers)

An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Knack, PagellaPolitica/Facta, AFP, Correctiv, Demagog, Ellinika Hoaxes, Maldita, The Journal – FactCheck, VerificaRTVE. The analysis was conducted also using the tool Truly Media

This article is the English translation of the original Hoe coronasceptici foto’s van mensenmassa’s misbruiken, published on Knack the 26th of October 2021.

Fake photos of alleged coronavirus-related protests travel across Europe on social media. To advance their agenda, coronasceptics often use photos of mass events to illustrate “mass coronavirus protests”. Often the images are actually old images of demonstrations or celebrations unrelated to the coronavirus. This is demonstrated by a research carried out by Knack – a Belgian weekly magazine in Dutch – in collaboration with several fact-checkers from across all Europe.

Old photos in false new context

Sunday 3 October 2021, a drizzly day in Amsterdam. A helicopter with a camera flies above the Dutch capital, to film a protest against vaccines and anticoronavirus measures. The website blckbx.tv, which provides a forum for anti-vaccine activists, uses the helicopter to “show from above how many people are there because this is often minimised”, says the blckbx.tv presenter in a YouTube video.

The discussion about how many demonstrators were at the protests against coronavirus-related measures and vaccines often gets very heated online. A month earlier, when a similar protest took place in Amsterdam, the claim circulated on Facebook that “250.000 demonstrators” were present. Dutch police estimated the actual number at 20.000.

Research by Knack, in collaboration with the network of fact-checking organizations of the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), shows that false visual contents are used in the online perception war about the extent of corona protests. Corona sceptics use old photos – mostly of big crowds in various events – that have nothing to do with corona protests to illustrate “mass corona protest”.

Nine recognised fact-checking organisations from twelve European countries detected this phenomenon.

Strikingly, the disinformation cases tend to be cross-national, in which a photo from one country appears as disinformation in another country. For example, a 2016 video of football supporters in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik was posted on Facebook by an Italian user as images “from France on August 7, 2021”. That day there were actual protests in France against the introduction of the corona passport. But the images from Iceland, posted by an Italian, have nothing to do with that.

In this example, as in 46 others discovered by European fact-checkers, real images were removed from their original context and given a new false caption.

On the interactive map (Map 1), 22 examples of such disinformation are represented, especially the ones that went viral in Europe. By clicking the flag, a false or misleading image of a coronavirus-related protest circulating in Europe will appear and a window will open: the country in blue is the country where the video or photo was taken, while the countries in red are the ones in which the false information about that photo or video is circulating. By clicking on the photo, a fact-check written by a fact-checking organization from one of the red countries will appear.

Example: by clicking on the Swiss flag (the country where the photo of a techno festival in Zurich was originally taken), three arrows pointing to Italy, Spain and Bulgaria will appear (the countries where the image circulated with a false caption describing a nonexisting context). By clicking on the photo or map, a fact-check by Proveri, the Bulgarian department of AFP will become accessible. Fact-checks from Italy and Spain on the same case of disinformation are not directly accessible from the map, but are included in this list.

The map was made by our Italian fellow fact-checkers from Pagella Politica.

In several European countries, people are protesting against corona-related measures or vaccination campaigns, but the size of those protests is smaller than images with false captions on social media would have you believe.

For example, after the first coronavirus wave in Germany, on 1 August 2020, demonstrators in Berlin came to the streets against the restrictive measures and celebrated the “end of the pandemic”. The police estimated 17.000 to 20.000 participants. It was suggested online that actually “many hundred thousands” up to “3,5 million people” participated in the protest.

With scientific insights and photo analysis, journalists from the German fact-checking organization Correctiv showed that those wild estimates were impossible. A maximum of 173.600 people could be present at the location, provided the demonstrators were really close together (and images from that day show large gaps in the procession). Therefore, in reality there were a lot less people than what was claimed online.

The perception among corona skeptics was different, and photos of crowds appeared on social media. However, as fact-checks showed, those turned out to be old photos from the Love Parade techno festival at the same location in 2001. According to the police at the time, the Love Parade brought together 800.000 people.

On the left, the corona protest on August 1, 2020 in Berlin (estimated 20.000 participants). On the right, the Love Parade techno festival on July 21, 2001 (estimated 800.000 participants). Move the line in the middle to compare the images.

“Here you can see how a false context has been knowingly created” emphasises Nathalie Van Raemdonck, who, as a doctoral student at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, is investigating online disinformation. “People who then further share the images often do so because of ignorance. But the impact is not less harmful. Research shows that people often believe what friends and families share — people who know and trust them. This is how the fire spreads.”

An incorrect caption seems harmless, but it is not, according to Van Raemdonck: “The majority illusion that is created is harmful, because it blurs reality. The protest seems massive on social media, while mainstream media barely report about it, precisely because it is small-scale. When those false-context photos circulate widely, they cast doubts on established sources such as the media and police. That is bad, because it creates a parallel ‘reality’ and erodes trust between people and in institutions.”

Herd mentality

Then why do people share these kinds of posts? Researcher in experimental psychology Timothy Desmet (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) sees three ‘mistakes’ in our brain as an explanation: confirmation bias, laziness and herd mentality.

Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes confirmation bias in his acclaimed book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). It is the cognitive bias that causes us to interpret information to align them with our current opinion or belief patterns.

That we prefer confirmation, rather than being open to the contrary opinion or belief, seems irrational. But it is an important mechanism, Kahneman writes. Confirmation biases help to make quick decisions, and reduce the uneasiness that comes with living with conflicting ideas.

“If you already believe that there are many people against the vaccine, and you see such an image, your brain is automatically biased to believe that image and that caption,” says Desmet.

A second factor, linked to the previous one, is that our brains are lazy. “Due to the excess of information that we have to constantly deal with, we don’t assess everything equally critically. Experimental research shows that people under time pressure are more likely to believe false claims than when they are asked to dwell on the message,” says Desmet. “People often decide within a second to share a photo, without thinking.”

The third explanation lies in another strong impulse. “The social norm or herd spirit”, explains Desmet. “In the literature: the bandwagon effect. People find it important that their behavior follows the social norm and therefore often imitate other people’s behaviour. The fact that we want to belong to the group makes evolutionary sense, because it is much safer to move together than alone. People who now feel isolated in their critique of some policy, and who see social media posts from masses of apparently like-minded people, will be inclined to share those posts. It confirms that they are not a small minority but, on the contrary, that they belong to a large group of upcoming change creators.”

These three factors – confirmation bias, laziness, herd mentality – are strongly intertwined, emphasizes Desmet. “In both directions, by the way: both for and against opponents of, say, vaccination. The confirmation bias and laziness ensure that you quickly share uncritically what fits your opinion. Because people in the same camp react to it and empower you socially, you are even more inclined to share such a message next time than you already were before.”

Framing

Responding to the herd spirit goes to the heart of politics and propaganda, says professor and politologist Peter Van Aelst (University of Antwerp). “Smart politicians celebrate their victories in a café that is slightly too small: images of many people crowded in a small space radiate success. So much success that not even everyone could enter, is the message.”

Everyone engages in framing, emphasizes Van Aelst. Every story violates reality in some way, because whoever tells a story is forced to make decisions: you choose words, images, and perspectives. Politicians, corona sceptics, academics or journalists, no one escapes it. If reporters want to emphasize the low turnout of a demonstration, they film at the back of the demonstration where there are gaps. If the image report is “big turnout!”, they will film in front and you will also get that impression.”

Is that wrong? Pol Deltour, national secretary of the Flemish Association for Journalists, adds some nuances: “Of course (image) journalists also frame. The big difference with propagandists, however, is that journalists are aware of this because of their independent role and professional ethics. In order to report as independently as possible, they try to transcend their personal perceptions, angles and preferences. Hence the importance of constant consultation in an editorial office: it helps to objectify the news. But of course, even the best journalist or editor never quite succeeds. And in the end that’s a good thing, because otherwise we would get quite a bit of uniformity in the news coverage.”

Both Van Aelst and Deltour emphasize that framing is not a black-and-white story, but a continuum. They both place disinformation about corona protests on social media at the far end of the spectrum. “They work with a fraudulent, manipulative context”, says Van Aelst. Deltour emphasizes again the difference with journalistic professional ethics: “If a journalist uses archival material, he must clearly state it. Especially if that image was taken in one context and is now being used in another. If that does not happen, later correction is needed.”

France

Our research shows that 9 out of 22 images with false context examined come from France. For example, a photo of football supporters partying on the boulevards of Paris after Les Bleus won the 2018 World Cup was shared as a “corona protest”, from Ireland to the Balkans and from Poland to Spain. A photo of a 1991 mass protest in Moscow against the government of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was put as a ‘corona protest’ by a French conspiracy site, after which that version went viral on social media as “the real 4th wave”.

Why does France seem to be so often involved in this kind of disinformation? Van Aelst and colleagues conducted surveys in six countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States – to find out who is sharing incorrect information and what is going on in the background. Their experimental study, soon to be published in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, shows that, after Americans, the French are most likely to interact with questionable or misleading messages about the coronavirus. 29 percent of French respondents appeared to be inclined to like, share or comment on such messages, compared to 23 percent Belgians or 16 percent Swiss. “There is clearly a fertile ground in France,” says Van Aelst. “Vaccine scepticism has also been on the rise in recent years”.

Another explanation is that the real protests against the corona passport (pass sanitaire) actually mobilized people in France. There have been protests in several French cities for sixteen Saturdays in a row since July 17. On October 23, according to the French Ministry of the Interior, there were a total of 40,000 demonstrators across France. There was an outlier on August 7, with an estimated 273,000 attendees, Le Monde reports. France has 68 million inhabitants.

Cleaning up the polluted debate

Van Raemdonck sees a role for fact-checkers to “clean up the polluted debate”. They should not only refute what is actually wrong and reflect the original context of images, says Van Raemdonck. “But also make explicit what is going on, as a counterbalance to the evil narrative ‘Look what the media are hiding from us’. Was there a corona protest? And if so, how many people were there?”

If we look at how big the coronavirus protest is in Europe, we find an estimate in the Eurobarometer — a representative survey of Europeans in the EU. Figures published in September show that ten percent do not want COVID-19 vaccine. Six out of a hundred Europeans think that the restrictive measures to contain the coronavirus were “not at all justified”. Ten percent said that they were “not at all satisfied” with the coronavirus measures in their region.

One in ten therefore seems to be a reasonable estimate of who is really not at ease with the corona measures. However, as moral philosopher Brecht Decoene recently argued in De Morgen, it is remarkable that corona protest is one of the rare topics in which people from different ideas and backgrounds are united. “Right-wing libertarians do not want to be curtailed in their freedom: masks and lockdowns and shop closures are at odds with their ideology,” said Decoene, author of the book Suspicion between fact and fiction (2016) about conspiracy theories. “Left spirituals have a hard time with the vaccines because foreign substances would disturb the natural balance, other progressives point to the large amount of money that some companies try to earn with those vaccines.” Decoene values ​​corona protest in the somewhat provocative image of a ‘Nazi hippie’. “Protesters of the far-right Pegida walked hand in hand with hippies, esotericists and spiritualists,” he says, referring to the demonstration against corona measures in Berlin last year, about which photos of the Love Parade are falsely circulating. This fusion of left and right forms the recipe for the “ideal conspiracy theory. Because the more people feel addressed, the more successful it becomes.”

Self-checking

The spread by a small minority of false content on social media in order to be perceived as a mass movement is something that can be fought. If you see a photo on social media, check whether the caption is correct. This can usually be done easily with a reverse search: you download the image and enter it on search sites like images.google.com. Thus you can often find out the original context yourself with a few mouse clicks. This prevents you from forwarding something that is not correct, and also enables you to help others with it.

Or you can inform yourself through the media. Take for example the Dutch protest on October 3, where blckbx.tv rented a helicopter. “Major protest march against corona policy in Amsterdam”, reported the Dutch public broadcaster NOS. Like the alternative media channel blckbx.tv TV, NOS reported the police figures about 25.000 attendees, and the public broadcaster showed a photograph of a human mass on a square.

A real news photo.

Due to the rain, the helicopter of blckbx.tv only got into the air late. The images showed the end of the parade, with large gaps in the flow of people and therefore apparently not the desired massive turnout. As a thumbnail for their live broadcast on YouTube, blckbx.tv used a photo of an anti-racism demonstration in the context of Black Lives Matter.

We asked blckbx.tv about this, but so far there was no answer.

Jan Jagers & Brecht Castel​​

*Fact-checking organizations that contributed to this analysis: Knack, PagellaPolitica/Facta, AFP, Correctiv, Demagog, Ellinika Hoaxes, Maldita, The Journal – FactCheck, VerificaRTVE

Photo by Ludovic Marin – AFP