Marju Himma: Why listen to anti-mask protesters?

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Anti-mask protest meeting. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Ideas of participants of a recent anti-mask protest are worth listening to as they hide clues in terms of why a part of people believe misinformation "from the internet" or why some only join because they are tired of restrictions, Marju Himma finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

In most cases, people come into contact with misinformation through the press. Such a conclusion is drawn from a scientific paper published in spring. This does not mean that the press publishes fake news, merely that it also covers them.

Journalists verify facts and check for misinformation, refute it or sometimes find facts to support what was originally construed as false. This is how a lot of people learn of false information in the first place. Therefore, the press does not spread fake news, while it is a way for people to become aware of it.

False information takes many different forms that makes it difficult to recognize for the ordinary person. Especially in a situation where this information is available in great quantities and its source is no longer clear of discernible.

Things were simpler during the mass communication age, roughly 40-50 years ago – information came from the newspaper, radio or television. While information still seems to be coming from the TV in today's age of information from the many to the many, it is often based on what someone saw, heard of said on the internet. This phenomenon of "from the internet" has been bothering me for some time.

Look it up on the internet – it has everything

I excitedly tuned in to coverage of a protest meeting against the obligation to wear a mask in public this Friday. The protesters included several people who claimed that the virus exists in everyone's body and is only used to keep the masses in check. The claim that it is a secret plan of major countries and corporations of culling the global population at the expense of the weak was also thrown around.

Asked where their information was from, several people suggested looking it up on the internet – it has everything. I was reminded of several elderly loved ones suggesting I look things up on the internet. It seems that "there on the internet" requires a little explanation.

The internet can be compared to people talking on the street. Some are talking to themselves, some with a partner, while yet others are addressing the masses. The internet is such a street. Is everything one hears in the street true? It is not.

It is the same with the internet. A protester readily admitted trusting strange foreigners appearing on YouTube over Estonian doctors when asked the question after throwing around claims that sounded like conspiracy theories.

True, people are free to choose who or what to believe and how to act. Down to attending protest meetings where the risk of catching a disease of passing it on is considerable.

Conspiracy theory instead of thriller

A master's thesis was defended at the University of Tartu this spring in which the author studied reasons people read the Telegram alternative magazine. It covers a host of claims "from the internet" the truthfulness of which is often difficult if not impossible to determine.

Telegram's readers include a lot of people from many different backgrounds. Women, men, young people and old, educated and somewhat less educated. One very interesting group of people read the magazine because it offers exciting alternative treatments. Conspiracy theories offered by the website would be fit for a thriller or a criminal novel. The only difference is that conspiracy theories stand closer to real life than exciting fiction does.

Searching for excitement cannot be held against people, it does not need to be ridiculed and at the end of the day, it is up to the individual to decide where they get their kicks, so long as they do not harm themselves or others in the process.

Protest as a result of a drought of explanations

By the way, the master's thesis also revealed that Telegram's readers scan it for explanations they cannot find in the press. I was once again reminded of it watching the Friday protest. There were more than a few people who had not showed up to protest against wearing a mask but simply to express their weariness and tedium with restrictions, rules, requirements, contradictory information and lack of clarity.

One lady explained that she cannot understand why she has been forced to live in the conditions of all these restrictions for so long and why there seems to be no end to them. Why? And I completely understand her and many others who answered the journalist's questions. Their answers reflected the fact that restrictions have not been sufficiently explained – why in a particular location, why so extensive and following which considerations.

I do not have the answers either.

Happening at the same time as the protest meeting was a conference on the coronavirus in Tartu where professor Irja Lutsar criticized the press for demanding black and white explanations and answers but also emphasized that people need to be told why certain decisions are made. Perhaps the decision-makers – whether politicians or officials – could add an explanation to address all of the aforementioned aspects when introducing the next measure.

People who have been exhausted by restrictions are very receptive to all manner of "simple explanations" and calls inciting hatred, whether they hail from the press, alternative media or "from the internet."

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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