Classifying conspiracy theories as “fake news” might seem straightforward and commonsensical. However, what we have noticed in 2023 is that conspiracy theories are spreading further and burrowing deeper into society as a whole. There are spreading counterintuitive perceptions and potential misunderstandings in terms of economics, healthcare, technology, and even in religion, and conspiracy theories are becoming par for the course in this confusing landscape, creating increasing risks and challenges around the world.
Across the 156 fact-checks Black Dot Research conducted to date in 2023, about one-third focused on debunking conspiracy theories on topics such as vaccination, digitalisation, and even sustainability.
In this report, we will explore the developing role of conspiracy theories across the global risk landscape by looking at the more prominent conspiracy theories of 2023, why this form of misinformation is taking root in Singapore and the region, as well as the possible agenda behind disinformation through conspiracies.
Reshaping the battlefield – conspiring to weaponise wartime narratives
From October to December 2023, about 30% of fact-checks produced by Black Dot Research were based on the growing conflict in the Middle East in the wake of the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas. We have also seen that the galvanizing power of these conspiracy theories extends beyond the geographical boundaries of the war. Israel-based social media threat intelligence company Cyabra found over 40,000 fake profiles shared content on social media platforms in early October, generating more than 371,000 engagements and achieving a potential reach across 531 million profiles in two days.
Conspiracy theories were planted by both sides of the conflict, largely to elicit sympathy and support. There have been accusations that the propagation of half-truths has been used to stir up a sense of empathy from the international community for Israel. At the same time, there has also been a rise to prominence of the term “Pallywood”, a label used to describe the alleged manipulation of footage and social media posts to exaggerate the scale of Palestinian casualties in the conflict. This notion of a conspiracy to fabricate the severity of the conflict highlights not only the sense of distrust between both sides, but also the importance placed on controlling the global narratives of the conflict.
For the Palestinians, spreading misinformation or disinformation serves to elicit a sense of sympathy, and by extension empathy, for their plight in the years leading up to the attack and subsequent Gaza invasion. One of the more prominent examples was fake news surrounding the bombing of a Greek Orthodox Church in Palestine (before its actual bombing subsequently), which was perhaps used to show that the conflict affected all Palestinians, not just the Arab or Muslim population, in an effort to garner a more sympathetic stance from the global community.
By all accounts, conspiracy theories were weaponised to drive home the sense of injustice from both sides of the war.
Grasping for control – misinformation and disinformation about supranational organisations
Among the conspiracy theories that warranted fact-checks by Black Dot Research in 2023, about 10% centred around the role of supranational organisations, like the World Economic Forum (WEF), the United Nations (UN), and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In November 2023, some netizens on social media claimed that the UN and the Bill Gates Foundation were working together to create a means of digital identification to control populations, through the UN’s “Digital Public Infrastructure” project.
A couple of days later, the UN’s role in the digital landscape was called into question again, as UNESCO’s “Guidelines for the Governance of Digital Platforms” was considered an effort by the organisation to regulate all online content – when in fact, it was a framework to ensure that the checks and balances in place to tackle disinformation and hate speech online are in line with international human rights law.
Both of these elements of “fake news” share a similar starting point—a developing globalist ‘New World Order’ conspiracy, or a growing sentiment that a group of elite figures are trying to implement a totalitarian one-world government. Bill Gates is often depicted as a prominent member of this group of elites and the UN, the WEF, and the WHO are seen as vehicles for them to gain control over the world population.
A common topic across the claims centered around the ‘New World Order’ conspiracy is the idea that a group of elites are developing mechanisms to surveil the global population and control the mainstream media. To combat this, there is a need for advocates (or in this case, conspiracists) to become the alternative voices so that the “truth” can emerge.
For example, a conspiracy theory linked to the ‘New World Order’ that has been gaining traction revolves around COVID-19 vaccination as a means to depopulate the world, increase mortality rates, and decrease birth rates. Citing the “Club of Rome: Limits to Growth” theory that was published in the 1970s, conspiracists feel that the elites will use resource scarcity as a rationale to reduce the global population so that elites can “colonise” the world. This conspiracy has been heavily circulated in anti-vax circles and seeks to rationalise why the vaccine was developed and rolled out to the public so quickly.
A recent claim that has circulated locally was that Singapore has “won the depopulation race”—experiencing the most excess mortality globally after the pandemic – garnered a significant number of views and shares on social media. The post featured a screenshot of a table that depicts Singapore at the top of a ranking of “excess mortality”.
However, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that excess mortality is an estimation rather than a certain statistic and the presentation of the data of excess deaths as a ranking across countries was misleading, therefore rendering the claim false. This exemplifies how false claims involving scientific information and/or data could be easily spread due to a lack of deeper and clear understanding.
Why do people still believe in conspiracies, even when they have more access to information than ever before? Perhaps it is because they no longer feel that they can trust the media, or their governments, to tell them the truth. A study from Edelman in 2023 showed that the world is becoming increasingly polarised with 46% of over 32,000 respondents feeling that their governments were a source of false or misleading information, and 42% of the respondents feeling that their media was not a reliable source of trustworthy information.
As such, there is a need for independent sources that individuals feel they can trust to combat fake news. At Black Dot Research, we aim to cultivate a broad-based culture of fact-checking by ensuring that the steps taken to fact-check claims and information are clearly expressed. This enables our audience to see that they too can verify information that they come across, instead of having to rely on others. In tandem with responsible governments and credible mainstream media and journalism, this can potentially create a society that is more resilient and protected from the worst effects of fake news and disinformation.