One would like to think that one has nothing to do with the other – but the reality is different. The social psychologist and specialist in conspiracy ideologies Pia Lamberty explains why critics of the corona measures in the Ukraine war like to argue for Russia.
FOCUS Online: Some time ago you explained here the extent to which corona protests are driven by conspiracy stories. Your research platform CeMAS has recently been in the media again. This time it’s about parallels between anti-vaccination and Putin sympathizers. Do I understand that correctly: the conspiracy thinking has remained, only the topic has changed?
Pia Lamberty: Our team, which includes data specialists, psychologists and social scientists, closely monitors the channels of the conspiracy ideology and right-wing extremists, such as the lateral thinkers. For example, Telegram groups are searched for new developments and narratives.
And it actually shows that the well-known names from the scene, the “Attila Hildmanns of this world”, mostly have a very one-sided positioning that downplays Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. We wanted to understand this more precisely and commissioned a representative survey. What about the pro-Putin positioning in society as a whole? Who are the so-called Putin understanders?
What was the result of the survey?
Lamberty: Among those who say they would take part in the protests against the Corona measures, almost 60% agree with conspiracy stories surrounding the Russian war of aggression. The same value can be seen in people who are not vaccinated against Corona. We also see very high approval ratings among Afd voters.
So you assume it’s the same group? I’m sorry, I don’t understand. The corona vaccination and the war in Ukraine are two completely different topics? Lamberty: Yes and no. Ultimately, it seems to confirm what we, what a whole range of experts have been saying for a long time: the protests against the Corona measures were never really about Corona. The whole thing was and is a projection screen. Yes, the themes are different, but the pattern behind them is similar. Of course, I don’t want to equate the pandemic with a war of aggression.
What is striking about the corresponding protests, however, is that they railed against “those up there”. Or against democracy itself. There is a shift towards authoritarian figures. Trump, for example, has long been glorified in these circles. At the same time, the USA is a classic enemy image. Anti-Americanism and a romanticization of Russia, we encounter both again and again.
Already in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, we saw these tendencies in the so-called “peace vigils”. Russia was not seen as the aggressor. The enemy was NATO and the West. Or, if you think about it further: liberal values. That’s what it’s ultimately about.
Pia Lamberty is Managing Director of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS) in Berlin. She researches conspiracy ideologies, anti-Semitism and disinformation. In 2020 she published the book “Fake Facts – How conspiracy theories determine our thinking” together with the network activist Katharina Nocun.
But isn’t this view quite extreme? After all, not everyone who expresses understanding for Russia’s position wants to abolish democracy, right?
Lambert: Of course not. If you are alluding to the peace movement: Of course there are many people who do not believe in conspiracy stories. At the same time, however, we always have certain overlaps here: I do see a certain affinity for a good-evil attitude, which can be a gateway. I emphasize: This attitude can be a gateway. She doesn’t have to.
And what about the Attila Hildmanns of this world, as you say? Do they want to abolish democracy?
Lamberty: You have to differentiate between people who are politically active and those who jump on the bandwagon and usually react impulsively. If we take a closer look, we find destabilization tendencies in the former, up to the point of wanting to introduce other forms of society. I really wouldn’t want to downplay that.
Let’s not forget: in the last year alone, five people were murdered out of this political milieu. In all cases, Corona played a role as a topic. Ultimately, of course, it was never really about Corona.
Rather? What drives these people and all those who are now taking a pro-Putin position?
Lamberty: Where the political actors who organize the protests, for example, are concerned with power, with political reasons and certainly also with money, we find a psychological phenomenon in the crowd. People then think: I know what’s going on. I’ve seen through all of this. I am the one who sees the truth.
That’s how these people tick. Contrasted with all the supposed sleep sheep who follow the government, one might add. And I would define a third group. These are not hard conspiracy ideologues, but those who bring corresponding positions into society and normalize them there. For me, Sahra Wagenknecht is such a door opener.
She is a smart woman, has a certain reach, but has repeatedly made false statements about the pandemic and downplayed Russia’s aggression. There were always positions that were scientifically untenable. There has to be a hook.
Sandra Maischberger recently did this on her show. Sahra Wagenknecht claimed that there were terrible war crimes on both sides, both on the Russian and on the Ukrainian side. She was then asked to specify the war crimes on the Ukrainian side. In doing so, she faltered.
Lamberty: It’s good when journalists do their work thoroughly at this point! As a society, we are facing an enormous challenge. What is information and what is disinformation? I find myself consuming media more slowly since the start of the Ukraine war. I pay very close attention to where information comes from and whether there are disclaimers. Could the information be validated?
What is reliable knowledge, what is opinion? We should realize that in times of war, information is always uncertain at first. But that doesn’t mean it stays that way. It is very important that we don’t just look once, but at least twice or even three times and hear what’s new from the local journalists.
Isn’t it better to say here or there: it’s all too complicated for me now, I don’t understand it anymore. Ergo: I have no opinion on this?
Lamberty: That’s fine in the short term, but it’s also problematic in the long term. It cannot be that everything is somehow arbitrary. Constructive debates need a certain understanding of reality. Much can and should be discussed, but some basic principles simply need to be established. In general, it would do us good as a society if we were more focused on solutions.
Example Corona: You may not have to discuss how good the vaccination is on every talk show. Especially not if those present have no technical expertise and at the same time the vast majority of the experts agree on this question. On the other hand, what we should definitely be discussing are questions like: What can a good democracy look like in times of Corona? But something else is happening right now. Strong right-wing populism threatens the space for debate. And it must not be destroyed under any circumstances.
What can help to protect this space?
Lamberty: Allow for uncertainties. stay respectful set limits. And above all: stop and examine yourself.