COVID-19 rumours in historical context

Lead Research Organisation: University of London
Department Name: Inst of Historical Research


The COVID-19 outbreak has been accompanied by a pandemic of rumour and disinformation in the UK. Rumours about the origins of the virus, shortages, fake cures and government conspiracies are being spread by well-meaning people who want to make sense of the outbreak, as well as by criminals and hostile foreign governments. These rumours have the potential to cost lives, not least by undermining public confidence in any forthcoming vaccine. Despite the apparent novelty of 'fake news' and its circulation online, there is little that is new about these rumours, all of which have historical precedents. Yet policy-makers know little about how and why similar rumours have spread in the past, how previous governments have responded to them, and how successful these efforts were.

At a point in history where rumours about COVID-19 present an unprecedented health challenge, this project will deploy a novel longitudinal study of relevant historical rumours and government efforts to address them in order to assist policy-makers. It will track rumours circulating in the UK relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and any vaccination programme as they develop and compare them to historical precedents. A report, published in collaboration with History & Policy, as well as two closed workshops with policy-makers and scholars drawn from other disciplines, will seek to inform UK government strategies for dealing with mis- and disinformation and influence the tone and content of public information campaigns in order to minimise the harmful impact of 'fake news' and maximise uptake of any future vaccine.


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