People walk past a giant portrait of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II at Spitfields Market, London, on September 16, 2022
Washington (AFP) – The death of Queen Elizabeth II has revealed a blueprint for how misinformation around major news events can thrive, with bad actors exploiting to attract attention and create confusion.
As Britain mourned its longest reign, social media users shared digitally altered photos and other misleading content, blaming her death at 96 on causes other than old age — including the Covid-19 and Hillary Clinton vaccines.
But the disinformation tactics deployed after the September 8 Buckingham Palace announcement were essentially old tricks remade to fit the current story and make the lies stick in people’s minds.
Similar false claims have spread after other big stories, like Russia’s war on Ukraine and Jeffrey Epstein’s death, with the QAnon conspiracy movement showing its hand as well.
Familiarity leads to increased credibility,” said Gordon Pennicock, a behavioral scientist at the University of Regina in Canada.
– Old tactics –
Warning signs of misinformation emerged once the Queen was under medical supervision, when Twitter accounts disguised fraudulent news outlets and posted false updates on her condition.
The pace accelerated as soon as the palace announced her death.
“People around the world were aware of and affected by the Queen’s death, giving disinformation providers an almost unlimited range of false narratives to choose from,” said Dan Yvonne of the nonprofit News Literacy Project (NLP).
Among the deluge: A months-old video of dancers outside Buckingham Palace has been passed on as an Irish celebration of death. A fake social media post purporting to show former US President Donald Trump claiming that the Queen awarded him a knighthood. A photo manipulated made it look like Meghan Markle is wearing a T-shirt that says “The Queen Is Dead”.
Some have blamed the Queen’s death on the Covid-19 shots – a claim made by anti-vaccine advocates about known people who have died, including actress Betty White and comedian Bob Saget.
Others cited Clinton as the culprit, alleging that the Queen declared before her death that she had political dirt on the former US presidential candidate and Secretary of State.
This artificial statement has been attributed to other world leaders. It’s a long-running meme that exploits a conspiracy theory about the Clintons’ murder of political opponents.
“When big events happen, people in different communities, particularly activists, try to see if there’s an angle for them there,” said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Informed Publics (CIP).
“For an anti-vaccine activist, they’re figuring out whether deaths can be linked to vaccines. For [New World Order] conspiracy theorists, they might be mapping out a Clinton or Epstein.”
QAnon supporters wrapped up the Queen’s death in their beliefs about a gang of child sex traffickers, putting forward a range of unfounded allegations and hailing the event as evidence of the legitimacy of their movement.
“The royal family, given Prince Andrew’s intense connections with Jeffrey Epstein, has always been fodder for the QAnon crowd,” said Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral researcher at CIP.
One of the videos popular in QAnon circles, which some supporters claimed showed a naked boy escaping from Buckingham Palace, was actually an old ad for a fictional TV show.
But it spread on TikTok, and it’s one of several QAnon-adjacent novels to hit the mainstream.
In the week after the queen’s death, media intelligence firm Zignal Labs tracked more than 76,000 references to the late king that referred to Epstein and his partner, Ghislaine Maxwell – both convicted of sex crimes – on social media, websites, radio and traditional media.
Accounts linking the Queen to child sexual abuse, Clinton and vaccinations have been mentioned 42,000 times, 8,000 and 7,000 times, respectively.
– Avoid misinformation –
Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, who studies why people believe such theories, said the news circulating about the Queen – and her global impact – explains some of the appeal of conspiracy theories about her death.
“Accepting mundane explanations for such a major event may be less convincing or attractive,” she said.
But there are ways to resist the fall in false information.
Media literacy organizations, including NLP and CIP, recommend reviewing online publications against reliable sources of information and pausing before participating.
“Even a few moments of thought can make a big difference,” Pennycock said.