LONDON – British frontline workers who received applause at the door in the early weeks of the pandemic are now facing a burst of polarization and misinformation.
Exhausted doctors, teachers and other workers said they felt very discouraged after reading the insistent social media posts Covid-19 is a hoax or an exaggeration. And it has had serious real-world consequences in recent weeks, with demonstrators besieging hospitals and hurling abuse at health care staff.
Some researchers say the polarization between Britons who were drawn to these ideas and those who did not become more extreme – and in turn more like the United States.
“In the UK, we can look at the US and take it as a warning sign of where things are going if we are not careful enough,” said Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology in societies at Cambridge University.
This spiral “infodemic” – as the World Health Organization calls it – came as Britain was dealing with a spike in coronavirus cases, forcing it to step in third national lockdown and pushing the beloved publicly funded National Health Service close to breaking point.
To date, the country has recorded more than 80,000 deaths from the coronavirus, one of the highest per capita rates in the world.
Conspiracy theories are far from new here, and the UK has been grappling with misinformation regarding the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. But now “the polarization has become more intense, and more US-like,” said van der Linden.
America’s stance on the coronavirus has long been divided along partisan lines, with liberals more likely to support masks and lockdown measures and conservatives saying they want to prioritize the economy. YouGov poll in May suggested that Republican voters were more likely than Democrats to believe some conspiracy theories about Covid-19.
That’s not always the case in the UK, and support for masks and other lockdown measures here remains very high.
But van der Linden said that research he’s been doing in the last few months shows that the British people are also increasingly divided along political lines. For example, those who identify as left-wingers are more likely to accept that the vaccine is safe than those on the right.
‘Covid is a hoax’
The tenor misinformation in the UK has traditionally been more extreme than in the US
However, this winter has brought what feels like a sea change. A number of British hospitals reported that people had gained access to their buildings, filming corridors that happened to be empty in the hopes of exposing a “hoax” that they were inundated with coronavirus patients.
On New Year’s Eve, a group of anti-vaccine campaigners gathered outside St. Petersburg Hospital. Thomas was in central London and chanted “Covid is a hoax” at the doctors and nurses leaving the building.
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Dr. Rachel Clarke, a specialist in palliative care at a hospital in Oxfordshire, said the public’s treatment of NHS workers had changed dramatically since last year.
The first wave was “tough, but knowing the community is behind you is tremendous for morale,” he told NBC News. “But now, the applause is long gone and you are coming home to harass yourself if you dare to talk about Covid-19 on social media.”
Dealing with this torrent of misinformation is very disappointing to people like Russell Sears, a high school teacher in the UK area of Norfolk, northeast London.
Sears, 43, has considered quitting her job several times during the pandemic. Like many in his profession, he is angry that the government is not doing more to protect staff, frustrated by the slow pace of school closures even as the virus spreads across the country, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing millions more to stay at home.
One thing that is keeping it afloat is the newfound respect for front-line workers that the pandemic in Britain seems to be instilling. But while the British once gathered to ritual applause at the door for “key workers” at 8 p.m. every Thursday night, Sears said many of those clapping now peddle fake news.
“Seeing all that flying makes me ask: Should I press the eject button and leave England and go somewhere that doesn’t have this crazy conspiracy theory?” Sears, known as “Siv” to friends, said. “At the very least, I wouldn’t feel like someone else’s attitude put me at risk.”
‘Erosion of trust’
This comes at a time when Britain is buckling under one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks on the planet. The country has been hit with a double blow a new, fast-spreading variant of the virus and, according to critics, repeated inadequacies of government and hesitation to take the necessary action to stop it.
As well as reacting too slowly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of supporting the personal contacts of Cabinet ministers when awarding lucrative healthcare procurement contracts. In the eyes of many, Johnson was also guilty of hypocrisy, berating people for following the rules but then failed to fire his chief adviser who appeared to be flagrantly violating it.
This mishandling has led to an “erosion of trust” that has allowed misinformation to flourish, according to Maria Kyriakidou, senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture.
Regular polls by King’s College London and Ipsos Mori show how support has stopped during the pandemic, with only 38 percent of respondents saying in November they trusted the British government to some extent, down from 69 percent in April.
“This lack of trust is what I fear could be used as a weapon by anti-vaxxers and Covid-deniers,” said Kyriakidou.
As bad as the situation may be, Britain and Europe are “just sticking to a reasonable limelight” on misinformation, according to Damian Tambini, a policy analyst at the London School of Economics’ department of media and communications. “There’s a crisis going on – but it’s not as bad as in the US”
Part of the reason is that these places have “very different traditions of free speech,” he said.
While conspiracy theories can spread easily on social media and right-wing news sites, the fact that TV and radio in the UK are tightly regulated by the government means that historically misinformation cannot gain such an easy foothold on this side. pond, Tambini is sure.
This favorable transatlantic comparison brought no comfort to frontline British workers.
Alice Salvini, 27, a high school science teacher in the Derbyshire region of England, said the development of these ideas is adding to her anxiety around the virus.
“I go to the work environment, teach 100 kids every day and don’t know how many families of these children believe this, take absolutely no precautions and do whatever they want,” he said. “I was driving to work and I was going to the car park and I felt like I couldn’t get out of the car. Then I started having panic attacks at school.”
In the fall, his doctors allowed him to take time off from work for mental health reasons. And a month later, he resigned.
“That is a very dangerous message that is being spread by people, because they are basically saying: Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t matter, do what you want,” he said. “And that’s kind of a problem.”
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