London (CNN)At a recent Saturday protest outside London's Stratford train station -- comprised of bindi-wearing hippies, conspiracy theorists in balaclavas, and middle-aged men in waterproof jackets -- a protester with the grassroots, anti-lockdown group StandUpX yelled into a megaphone.
2020's alternative universe is not going away
"The vaccine is there to make you infertile... that vaccine is just going to make them able to control you," they shouted.
Listening to the dangerously false spiel was 24-year-old Rebekah, who we are only identifying by her first name. A survivor of domestic abuse, Rebekah said she was living in a Manchester safe house when the first UK-wide lockdown began in March. "If I was still living at home [with her abuser] in lockdown, I probably would have died," she told CNN.
But Rebekah's concerns about the crushing social and economic effects of pandemic restrictions took a conspiratorial turn after she read an Instagram post that she said made her question "information shared by the media." She researched the matter online, churning up information that, while not supported by facts, nonetheless backed up her growing suspicions.
Many conspiracy theories have found legs during the pandemic, and one of the first ones that Rebekah found was the widely debunked claim that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was profiting from coronavirus vaccines.
There's no evidence Gates or his foundation will profit from the Covid-19 vaccines, according to PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking operation.
In recent weeks, Rebekah says she has attended numerous anti-lockdown protests with her two children, while sharing conspiracy-laden posts about the pandemic to her 11,000 followers on Instagram. "We have to trust it [the vaccine] ... knowing that they [Gates and the pharmaceutical companies] won't get in trouble if any of us die," she said as she handed her daughter a lollipop.
While it might seem easy to pass off the 80-strong rally as a fringe event, Rebekah's journey to the protest frontlines is a microcosm of how online misinformation has allowed fantastical conspiracies to find a bigger audience.
The World Health Organization (WHO) "realized if people think Covid-19 is a hoax they will not only go outside and flout rules," said Anna-Sophie Harling, the Europe managing director of internet trust tool NewsGuard, which flags anti-vaccination misinformation for the UN agency, among other projects. "But it's hard to convince people to take a vaccine for something they don't think exists or don't think is a problem," she told CNN.
In 2021, experts fear this alternative, fact-free universe will fuel hesitancy in taking the vaccine, a vital weapon in the fight against the virus. "To beat Covid-19, we also need to defeat the parallel pandemic of mistrust that has consistently hindered our collective response to this disease," Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, warned in a virtual briefing to the UN Correspondents Association on November 30.
The first sign of a problem began as lockdowns shuttered large swathes of the planet in the spring.
A study by the University of Oxford found that thousands of coronavirus misinformation videos, including the "Plandemic" clip that falsely claimed Covid-19 was created in a lab for profit, were shared 20 million times on social media between October 2019 and June 2020.
Around the same time, QAnon, a dangerous online cult that believes US President Donald Trump is secretly fighting to bring down a cabal of pedophiles, also found a wider audience in Europe. A CNN investigation reviewed Facebook pages and groups related to the QAnon conspiracy based outside the US and found at least 12.8 million interactions between the beginning of the year and the last week of September.
As the months wore on, libertarian debates against mask-wearing and lockdowns began to intersect more strongly with conspiracy theories. An August march against Covid-19 restrictions in Germany's capital Berlin ended with protestors storming the steps of the Reichstag. Among the crowd were QAnon supporters toting the conspiracy group's insignia, as well as demonstrators waving imperial banners, a flag now deployed by the far right as the swastika is banned in Germany.
Anetta Kahane, founder of the anti-racism group the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, watched the march from her Berlin apartment's window in horror. She told CNN it looked like disparate groups of conspiracists, neo-nazis, anti-vaxxers and esoterics appeared to have overcome their political differences. "It is against liberalism, against globalised society, against science, against intellectuals, against multiculturalism and all the [trappings of] modern society," she said at the time.
Louise Creffield and Vince Dunmall, the founders of one anti-lockdown group, Save Our Rights UK, told CNN their focus was legislation, not conspiracies -- insisting that lockdowns and mask mandates are illegal and undemocratic.
The group's founders have, however, expressed anti-vaccination sentiments and knowingly co-organized marches with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists like Piers Corbyn -- brother of former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Piers Corbyn is a climate change denier who proselytizes online about Covid-19 being a "fake virus," despite all the evidence to the contrary.
CNN has reached out to Corbyn for comment.
The group's Facebook page has posted videos featuring anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, who popularized the false idea that a shape-shifting lizard-like species exerts control over human society by garnering political power to manipulate the world. Considered one of the most notorious conspiracists in the UK, Icke now claims the pandemic was entirely planned. "We really do stand at the cusp between any kind type of freedom and a fascism that would make even the Nazis wince because of its technological nature," he said in Save Our Rights UK's video interview with him, which clocked nearly a quarter of a million
Nearly two months later, they posted an interview with Desmond Swayne, a ruling Conservative Party lawmaker, who is opposed to lockdowns. Save Our Rights UK's co-founder, Dunmall said: "Look, David Icke may be someone who is talking out of turn in respect to a lot of what a lot of people think. But we've had a combination of Mr. Desmond Swayne coming on and saying what he's got to say." "You know, it's freedom of speech, and it's a human right to have your opinions. Just because you don't agree with it doesn't mean you're not entitled to it," he told CNN.
"The interview with SOR [Save Our Rights UK] was exclusively about lockdown and coercion," Swayne told CNN in an email. "Whilst I would never countenance compulsory or coerced vaccination, I am an enthusiast for vaccination," he added.
The issue is not freedom of speech; the real problem is that professional conspiracy theorists like Icke have exploited world events to make a living, says Daniel Allington, a senior lecturer at King's College London and an expert on conspiracy beliefs.
When asked to comment on whether he exploited world events for financial gain, Icke declined to comment.
The government's Covid-19 restrictions contained aspects of scenarios that conspiracy theorists had been predicting for years, Allington said.