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.