Communicating COVID-19. Everyday Life, Digital Capitalism, and Conspiracy Theories in Pandemic Times.

Fuchs, Christian. 2021. Communicating COVID-19. Everyday Life, Digital Capitalism, and Conspiracy Theories in Pandemic Times. SocietyNow Series. Bingley: Emerald. ISBN 9781801177238. 336 pages.

Date of publication: 6 September 2021

Order: Emerald (30% discount on purchase via Emerald, enter code EMERALD30 at checkout), Amazon UK, Amazon.com, Indiebound, Book Depository
Sample Chapter: Chapter 1: Pandemic Times (PDF)
Request a review copy

German publication in print (“Verschwörungstheorien in der Pandemie. Wie über COVID-19 im Internet kommuniziert wird”, UVK/utb)

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has changed the way we live and communicate. The phases of lockdown brought about by the pandemic fundamentally changed the way we work, lead our everyday lives, and how we communicate, resulting in Internet platforms becoming more important than ever before. Communicating COVID-19 explores the impact of these changes on society and the way we communicate, and the effect this has had on the spread of misinformation.

Critical communication and Internet scholar Christian Fuchs analyses the changes of everyday communication in the COVID-19 crisis and how misinformation has spread online throughout the pandemic. He explores the foundations and rapid spread of conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination discourse on the Internet, paying particular attention to the vast amount of COVID-19 conspiracy theories about Bill Gates. He also interrogates Internet users’ reactions to these COVID-19 conspiracy theories as well as how Donald Trump communicated about COVID-19 on Twitter during the final year of his Presidency.

Communicating COVID-19 is an essential work for anyone seeking to understand the role of digital technologies, changes in communication and the Internet, and the spread of conspiracy theories in the context of COVID-19.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction: Pandemic Times
Chapter 2. Everyday Life and Everyday Communication in Coronavirus Capitalism
Chapter 3. Conspiracy Theories as Ideology
Chapter 4. Bill Gates Conspiracy Theories as Ideology in the Context of the COVID-19 Crisis
Chapter 5. Users’ Reactions to COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories on Social Media
Chapter 6. Donald Trump and COVID-19 on Twitter
Chapter 7. Conclusion: Digital Communication in Pandemic Times and Commontopia as the Potential Future of Communication and Society

Background

This book is a contribution to the analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic on society. It takes a sociological and communication studies approach for analysing the following question: How have society and the ways we communicate changed in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis?

This main question was broken down into a series of sub-questions. There is one chapter in this book dedicated to each sub-question:

Chapter 2: How have everyday life and everyday communication changed in the COVID-19 crisis? How has capitalism shape everyday life and everyday communication during this crisis? 

Chapter 3: What is a conspiracy theory? How do conspiracy theories matter in the context of the COVID-19 crisis?

Chapter 4: How do COVID-19 conspiracy theories about Bill Gates work?

Chapter 5: How do Internet users react to COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread on social media?

Chapter 6: How has Donald Trump communicated about COVID-19 on Twitter? How have conspiracy theories influenced his Twitter communication about COVID-19?

The book is organised in the form of seven chapters. The introduction sets out the societal context of the study. Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 address the mentioned questions. Chapter 7 draws conclusions for the future of communication and society.

In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic crisis that emerged from the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) this virus causes shook the world. The virus originated in bats and was most likely transmitted to humans by the pangolin (Andersen et al. 2020), a subdomain of the mammal clade of Ferae to which besides the pangolin also carnivorans (e.g. dogs, bears, cats, big cats) belong. The virus first appeared in December 2019 on a food market in Wuhan, the capital of the Chinese province of Hubei and spread worldwide.

The 21st century has thus far been a century of multiple crises. At its start, 9/11 in 2001 created a political crisis that set off a vicious cycle of terror and war. In 2008, a new world economic crisis unfolded that had its origin in the systematic crisis-proneness of capitalism and the financialisation of the economy since the 1970s as response to falling profit rates. Many governments bailed out failing banks and corporations, which increased national debt so that they implemented austerity measures, from which workers and the poor suffered. In 2015, a humanitarian refugee crisis emerged in Europe that has been the consequence of war, natural disasters, and global inequalities. Following the world economic crisis, in a significant number of countries right-wing authoritarian political leaders came to power or strengthened their share of the vote, including Donald Trump in the USA. A crisis of democracy unfolded. In 2020, COVID-19 hit the world and created a simultaneous health crisis, economic crisis, political crisis, cultural crisis, moral crisis, and global crisis.

In order to prevent the pandemic getting out of control, many governments introduced lockdowns so that at times most people had to stay at home and all but absolutely essential shops and institutions had to stay closed. The result was a politically created economic crisis in the context of a major global health crisis. In 2020, the global gross domestic product shrunk according to estimations by 4.4 percent (data source: IMF World Economic Outlook, October 2020). At the political level, governments had to increase national debt in order to guarantee the survival of humans during lockdown phases. At the political and cultural level, difficult debates emerged about what sectors of society should remain opened or should be closed during COVID-19 waves. These debates affected realms such as education (schools, nurseries, universities), arts and culture, tourism, and gastronomy. In some countries, hospitals’ intensive care units reached their limits, which required that society and those taking decisions on medical ethics formulated guidelines in order to decide who should and who should not get an intensive care bed when there is a shortage. Social distancing increased feelings of loneliness and depression. At the level of ideology, COVID-19 conspiracy theory movements emerged that question the existence of the pandemic, the need for countervailing measures (social distancing, wearing masks, lockdown) and spread anti-vaccination propaganda. In turn, the danger emerged that fewer people get vaccinated against COVID-19 and that the health crisis is prolonged.

Capitalism is not the direct cause of SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 conspiracy theories construct such a direct link by claiming that Bill Gates and pharmaceutical companies have secretly engineered the virus in order to make profits from vaccines. We will analyse such crude economistic ideology as part of this book. Such conspiracy theories have been appropriated and advanced by the far-right and the anti-vaccination movement. Capitalism is not the direct cause, but a context of COVID-19. Capitalist society has acted as context in several respects, namely: agricultural capitalism; the global spread of SARS-COV-2; points of change; governance; ideology; globalisation and de-globalisation; class relations in pandemic times; vaccine capitalism and vaccine nationalism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about phases of lockdown that have changed the way humans work, lead their everyday lives, and how they communicate. Internet platforms have played an important role in this context. One aspect of Communicating COVID-19 is the analysis of changes everyday life and everyday communication have been undergoing. Times of deep crises create fears, risks, uncertainties, and changes. Crisis-ridden societies are therefore prone to the emergence of ideologies and conspiracy theories that instrumentalise such situations. In the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, right-wing ideology has joined together with conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination ideology for creating distinct COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Communicating COVID-19analyses how COVID-19 conspiracy theories have been communicated, received, spread, and contested on social media. This book shows that times of deep crisis are not just times of social change, but also times where communication and communication technologies matter in the production, dissemination, and challenge of ideologies.