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LONDON – UK frontline workers who have been applauded on their doorsteps in the first weeks of the pandemic are now facing a torrent of polarization and misinformation.
Exhausted doctors, teachers and other workers say they feel incredibly demoralized after reading social media posts insisting Covid-19 is a hoax or overkill. And it has had serious real-world consequences in recent weeks, with protesters picketing hospitals and abusing healthcare workers.
Some researchers say the polarization between Brits who are sucked in by these ideas and those who are not is becoming more and more extreme – and in turn more like the United States.
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“In the UK we can look at the US and take this as a harbinger of the direction of things if we are not careful enough,” said Sander van der Linden, professor of social psychology in the company at the University of Cambridge.
This spiraling “infodemic” – as the World Health Organization calls it – comes as the UK faces a surge in coronavirus cases, forcing the country into its third national lockdown and pushing its beloved state-funded national health service nearly breaking point.
To date, the country has recorded more than 80,000 deaths from coronavirus, one of the highest per capita rates in the world.
Conspiracy theories are far from new here, and Britain has grappled with coronavirus-related misinformation since the start of the pandemic. But now, “the polarization has become more intense and looks more like the United States,” van der Linden said.
American attitudes towards the coronavirus have long been divided along partisan lines, with liberals more likely to support masks and lockdowns and conservatives saying they want to put the economy first. A YouGov poll in May suggested that Republican voters were more likely than Democrats to believe in several conspiracy theories about Covid-19.
This hasn’t always been the case in Britain, and support for masks and other lockdowns here stay very high.
But van der Linden says that research he has conducted in recent months suggests that the British are also increasingly divided along political lines. For example, those who identify as on the left are more likely to agree that vaccines are safe than those on the right.
The content of disinformation in Britain has traditionally been much less extreme than in the United States
Anti-lockdown protests have hit Europe throughout the past year, and in the UK dozens of 5G cell towers have come under attack by those who believe they are somehow linked to the spread of the virus.
However, this winter has brought what looks like a sea change. A number of UK hospitals have reported that people have been given access to their buildings, filming empty hallways in hopes of exposing the ‘hoax’ that they were being invaded by coronavirus patients.
On New Years Eve, a group of anti-vaccine activists gathered outside St. Thomas Hospital in central London and shouted “Covid is a hoax” at doctors and nurses leaving the building.
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Dr Rachel Clarke, a palliative care specialist at an Oxfordshire hospital, said the public’s treatment of NHS workers has changed dramatically since last year.
The first wave “was tough, but knowing the community was behind you was so wonderful for morale,” she told NBC News. “But now the applause is long gone and instead you come home to abuse if you dare to talk about Covid-19 on social media.”
Being faced with this torrent of disinformation is extremely disheartening for people like Russell Sears, a high school teacher in the English county of Norfolk, north-east London.
Sears, 43, has considered quitting her job several times during the pandemic. Like many in his profession, he is angry that the government has not done more to protect staff, frustrated that it has been slow to close schools even as the virus has ravaged the country, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing millions of others to stay at home.
One thing that kept him alive was the new respect for frontline workers that the pandemic seemed to instill in Britain. But while Britons once gathered for the ritualistic applause at the door of “key workers” at 8 p.m. every Thursday night, Sears says many of those who applaud are now peddling fake news.
“Seeing it all fly made me wonder, should I just hit the eject button and leave the UK and go somewhere that doesn’t have these crazy conspiracy theories? Sears, who is known as “Siv” to her friends, said. “At least then, I wouldn’t feel like other people’s attitudes put me at risk.”
It comes at a time when Britain is struggling with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks on the planet. The country has been hit by the double whammy of a new variant of the rapidly spreading virus and, according to critics, the government’s repeated incompetence and reluctance to take the necessary steps to stop it.
In addition to reacting too slowly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of favoring personal contacts of Cabinet ministers when awarding lucrative healthcare procurement contracts. In the eyes of many, Johnson is also guilty of hypocrisy, berating people for following the rules but then failing to fire his top adviser who appeared to be blatantly breaking them.
This perceived mismanagement has led to an “erosion of trust” which has allowed disinformation to flourish, according to Maria Kyriakidou, senior lecturer at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University.
Regular polls from King’s College London and Ipsos Mori show how its support broke down during the pandemic, with just 38% of those polled saying in November that they trusted the UK government to some extent, down from 69% in April.
“It is this lack of confidence that I fear cannot then be militarized by anti-vaccines and Covid deniers,” Kyriakidou said.
Bad as things are, Britain and Europe “are just hanging on to the sensitive central ground” of disinformation, according to Damian Tambini, a leading policy researcher in the media and communications department at the London School of Economics. “There is a crisis going on – but it’s not as bad as in the United States”
Part of the reason is that these places have “completely different traditions of free speech,” he said.
While conspiracy theories can easily spread on social media and right-wing news sites, the fact that television and radio in Britain are heavily regulated by the government has meant that disinformation has historically not been could not gain a footing so easily on this side of the pond, Tambini believes.
These favorable transatlantic comparisons are of little comfort to UK frontline workers.
Alice Salvini, 27, a high school science teacher in the English county of Derbyshire, says the proliferation of such ideas has added to her anxiety over the virus.
“I was going into a work environment, teaching 100 kids a day and not knowing how many families of those kids believed in this stuff, taking absolutely no precautions and doing whatever they wanted”, a- she declared. “I was driving to work and going to the parking lot and just felt like I couldn’t get out of the car. Then I started having panic attacks at school.”
In the fall, her doctor allowed her to take time off work for mental health reasons. And a month later, she quit.
“It’s a very dangerous message that people are spreading because they basically say don’t worry, it doesn’t matter, do whatever you want,” she said. “And that’s kind of a problem.”