When online narratives enter the physical world blog header

2020 was many things – including the year we saw many instances of volatile narratives jump from online communications to the physical world, with significant consequences. Cell towers were set ablaze in the wake of conspiracy theories about 5G. Narratives related to vaccines led to the destruction of COVID-19 vaccine doses. 

2021 started on much of the same note, with tensions driven by months of debunked narratives about last November’s election resulting in an insurrection at the US Capitol. And as last week’s GameStop frenzy showed, it’s not always conspiracy theories that drive these jumps off the screen – any kind of narrative that spreads widely enough online can eventually spill over into real life. Against this backdrop, it’s clear that narrative-borne threats aren’t going away anytime soon, and that they’ll continue to have real-life consequences unless businesses can get ahead of them.

Learn more in our on-demand Town Hall: Protecting Your Business from Disinformation and Other Narrative-Borne Threats.

In this newsletter, we used the Zignal platform to provide a closer look at how media intelligence can help you better understand narrative-borne threats – and identify them before they jump from the screen to the physical world.

Zignal data has figured prominently into coverage of recent events in outlets including the New York Times, CNN, the Associated Press, and others. Head to our press page for the full repository of coverage, and check out our Mis- and Disinformation Resource Center for more information on the various types of narrative-borne threats.

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A Riot at the US Capitol

2020 saw the spread of myriad narratives about election fraud, particularly in the months after the presidential election concluded. Then, on January 6, as Congress was certifying the votes from the Electoral College, the tensions caused by those narratives came to a head, with rioters breaking into the US Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification. 

We used Zignal media intelligence to look at how narratives about election fraud played out online between the election and the riot. 

Here are several top narratives about election fraud, by mentions.

Mentions of election fraud narratives

Mentions of election fraud narratives, Nov. 9 – Jan. 25.

Importantly, our intelligence shows that while most election fraud narratives settled to a lower level of mentions starting around mid-November, some began to surge again ahead of the Electoral College certification.

Graph of election fraud narrative leading up to Jan 6

Just three days before the Capitol riot, an election fraud narrative saw its highest mentions count in two months.

As specific narratives around election fraud continued, the week leading up to January 6 also saw a surge in more combative narratives hinting at calls to action. In particular, the hashtag #FightForTrump saw nearly 300,000 mentions in the first week of January – thanks in part to amplification by high-profile figures such as Michael Flynn and Marjorie Taylor Greene – and peaked on January 2, just four days before the riot.

See how Zignal contributed to key news coverage of the Capitol riot in this blog post.

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Vaccine Trouble at a Wisconsin Pharmacy

As the pandemic raged through 2020, efforts to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine became a major lightning rod for narrative-borne threats. These narratives circulated online before spilling over into the physical world just before the end of the year, when a pharmacist in Wisconsin intentionally spoiled hundreds of doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 jab just as the rollout of the vaccine was kicking into gear. 

His motive? A belief in the conspiracy theory that the COVID vaccine was designed to alter recipients’ DNA.

Zignal media intelligence shows mentions of the “vaccines change DNA” narrative starting to surge last November, around the time efficacy data around the vaccines was released, and peaking just before the actions of the Wisconsin pharmacist.

Mentions of "vaccines change DNA" narrative

Mentions of the “vaccines change DNA” narrative spiked ahead of the incident in Wisconsin.

Zignal contributed to news coverage of vaccine narratives as the vaccine rollout began. Here’s an example.

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An Attack on 5G Cell Towers

While COVID-19 vaccines have attracted a significant amount of attention over the last few months, conspiracy theories and other narratives related to the virus itself have been circulating – and having real-world impacts – since the inception of the pandemic. Many of these narratives spilled over into areas that had seemingly little to do with COVID-19 at all. One example: 5G technology. 

In January 2020, a social media post speculated about a connection between the technology and the virus. From there, mentions of the “5G causes COVID-19” narrative surged and spiked for months, until finally, by May, subscribers to the narrative had burned down dozens of cell towers in the UK, and subjected numerous people who worked in 5G technology to physical and verbal attacks.

Mentions of the “5G causes COVID-19” narrative during the first half of 2020.

Mentions of the “5G causes COVID-19” narrative during the first half of 2020.

We explored the 5G issue and much more in our most recent Town Hall. Watch the recording here.

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Reading the Writing on the Wall

While 2020 is over, narrative-borne threats aren’t going away. While nobody can predict what will happen this year, tracking the growth and spread of specific narratives can go a long way toward identifying which voices are the most influential, where they’re finding an audience, and what kind of response is necessary to prevent events like the ones discussed in this blog post.

Get in touch to learn how you can achieve this for your business.