The owner of my Airbnb in the Bavarian Alps was a lovely man. He picked me up from the train station, even though we’d never met. When we arrived at the flat, there were four types of local beer waiting for me. He even invited me to drinks with his wife that evening.
Over drinks was when I learned they were COVID-19 deniers. They thought the virus was a hoax. They refused to get vaccinated, and as a result they had not traveled in three years. In this part of Germany, near the Austrian border, numerous CEOs have vacation homes, including pharmaceutical executives. My host knew many of them personally.
“These pharma companies invested 500 million Euros every year,” he said. “Then, conveniently, there was a virus where the government had to pay them for a vaccine?” he asked rhetorically. His wife laughed as she dragged on a cigarette. “Suddenly, once there was a vaccine … poof! No more coronavirus!”
The United States and Europe have been fighting disinformation for the better part of a decade; yet when one travels across Europe today, evidence suggests that we are not winning. Conspiracies and disinformation are everywhere.
My Bavarian hosts were among the nearly 25% of Germans who have never been vaccinated against the coronavirus. In Bulgaria, according to the World Health Organization, only 2 million people have been fully vaccinated out of a country of 6.8 million – a nearly 70% non-vaccination rate. Next door in North Macedonia, the non-vaccination rate hovers near 60%. “They thought it was a hoax,” I was told by a resident of Skopje, the North Macedonian capital. Local doctors were among the conspiracy theorists; many refused to vaccinate their patients. One hears similar stories in Belgium and France where the vaccination rates are 80%. In Hungary, they are 67%; in Serbia it is below 40%.
Pandemic skepticism is not the only conspiracy theory gaining traction in Europe. In Bulgaria, where I spent nearly a week, cigarette smokers believe the warning labels are EU propaganda. In North Macedonia, where I also spent a week, there is a prevalent belief that Jews and Israelis are manipulating the global banking system. In Georgia, where I spent three days, and which has formally applied for EU membership, 40% of the population believe that Joseph Stalin – an atheist who imprisoned or executed religious leaders – was a secret Christian and a patron of the church. In Germany, where I spent a week, politicians and public intellectuals have stated on record that Ukraine is not a real country and owes its existence to Russia. At various points in my trip, I heard that Beyonce is a member of the intelligentsia; that the Earth is flat; and that the Chinese yuan was set to become the world’s default currency.
What unites these conspiracy theories is Russia. While some such as flat-Earthers and secret Jewish cabals are centuries old and did not originate with the Kremlin, today each can be traced back, in part, to Russian disinformation efforts that purposefully sow doubt and suspicion in institutions, and that intentionally distort the historical record to advance present-day goals. Those goals include weakening the European Union, weakening NATO, stoking ethnic tensions, stoking antisemitism, souring local populations on their governments that have ties to the United States or Europe, and justifying territorial claims based on prior borders. Ukraine is a prime example, but one can see the playbook being repeated in Georgia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Hungary. One American diplomat I met described it to me as “information warfare.”
This is why the U.S. Department of State recently sent me to six European countries in five weeks as part of a government-funded speaking tour. Because my book and research examine how historical information circulates on the web, the State Department felt my insights might be useful to diplomats, scholars, and civil society on the front lines of these narratives. In each country I visited, I was repeatedly asked what could be done to confront the conspiracy theories growing online.
If there was a single magic bullet, it would have been fired already. But there is not, in part because falsified information taps into geopolitical fears and economic anxieties that are quite real. It was unclear where the jobs were, I was told repeatedly, and the jobs that did exist had less security and fewer benefits. In North Macedonia, 35% of young people are unemployed, and those with jobs often have no health insurance. Students in multiple countries wondered aloud whether they would find employment and worry that what they learned as freshmen will be obsolete when they graduate. Older Europeans admitted they were holding on to their positions, salaries, and pensions as long as they could, creating additional barriers for young people to enter the workforce.
Dissatisfaction with existing systems and how they’re functioning – or not functioning – could be felt everywhere. Students worry that they won’t be able to build careers, buy homes, or save money. Families feel threatened by skyrocketing inflation. The primary emotion seems to be frustration. Voters are frustrated by government policies that felt out of touch with their needs. Bureaucrats are frustrated by the fractious state of EU politics; academics are frustrated with the paralysis and precarity of academia. My German Airbnb host was frustrated that he and his wife worked full-time and managed multiple Airbnb units and yet they still just barely got by. Nearly everyone I spoke to felt overwhelmed, anxious, or unstable.
Amid personal precarity, people also worry that public infrastructure is crumbling. In Belgium and in Germany, public transit is not as reliable as it once was, I was told, the trains always delayed and growing worse. Health insurance and public pensions, though still far better than the United States, are growing more tenuous. With a massive influx of immigration had come a perceived loss of community; neighbors you used to know replaced by strangers. With LGBTQ+ rights had come a perceived loss of Christian values (in Sofia, Bulgaria, it was common to see “Stop LGBT virus” graffiti). And everywhere there was a lament over loss of land. In Belgium, Flemish nationalists claim to want their own country with its own borders. In Georgia, a taxi driver expressed animosity toward the borders of Georgia being infringed by Turkish, Armenian, Azeri, and Abkhazi influences. “They took our land,” he told me. Hungarians still lament the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 that ceded two-thirds of its former territory to other countries. Bulgarians eye North Macedonian land claiming it belongs to greater Bulgaria. North Macedonia eyes land in Greece claiming that it is Macedonian. I was told that when the North Macedonian border was drawn, some residents woke up to find their backyards were now in Albania.
With uncertainty, anxiety, and conflict comes a temptation to believe that a small group must be thriving while the majority suffers. Conspiracy theories offer tidy explanations for who is to blame. For some, it is “the global elites.” For others, it is the “pharma companies” or “the Jews,” or “the West.” Russian narratives exploit these sentiments and portray each of these groups as the parties pulling the strings behind the scenes. For everything that has been taken away, there must be someone responsible for taking it.
That someone else who is thriving needn’t be a real person in the present; it can also be an imaginary figure from the past. Amid profound feelings of loss, and staring into a cloudy, uncertain future, the past and its nostalgic fantasies of “how it used to be” are gaining more and more power in Europe. In the mythical past, you always had a job, you could always take vacations, the trains ran on time, and you could leave your doors unlocked. Throughout the Balkans there is a growing sense of “Yugo-nostalgia,” that life was better under the Tito dictatorship.
“People had jobs, they had money, and they could go to Italy and buy nice jeans,” I was told in North Macedonia. In Germany, there is a sense that life was better under the GDR dictatorship because everyone knew their neighbors (never mind that those neighbors might have been spying on you). In Georgia, there is a growing sense that life was better under Stalin. In Bulgaria, a belief that life was better under the Iron Curtain. One cannot travel through Europe today without being overwhelmed by nostalgic longings for prior eras. So much of contemporary European life is narrated in the past tense.
This nostalgia for the past has been directly exploited by Russian narratives. Particularly in the Balkans, Russian narratives stress an imagined pan-Slavic identity that unites southeastern Europe with Moscow under a shared, illusory common identity rooted in the past. These narratives are enhanced by social media platforms. Facebook has evolved over time to privilege nostalgia, historical emotions being a central component of the newsfeed. When combined with older demographics who use the platform, and nationalist politicians who traffic in nostalgic versions of history, it creates a powerful social phenomenon. It is no coincidence that countries that heavily use Facebook such as Bulgaria, Georgia, and North Macedonia have also seen a shift toward nostalgia-based authoritarianism, exploited by their governments who, themselves, have increasing political or economic ties to the Kremlin.
In North Macedonia, Facebook’s prevalence among older Macedonians has been complemented by TikTok and Instagram among the youth. Young Macedonians are massively addicted to social media, which are rife with conspiracy theories. One parent in North Macedonia told me her daughter was hopelessly addicted to TikTok. A Bulgarian parent living in Skopje told me that social media had taught his son to hate all Turkish people because of what the Ottomans did to the Bulgarians more than 100 years ago. In Germany, my Airbnb host lamented that broadcast media had become too sanitized for his liking; the conspiratorial and angry content he wanted was on YouTube.
One common refrain out of Brussels has been to aggressively regulate social media. But for all its culpabilities, social media are not solitary actors. They exist within a complex, hybrid media environment wherein Russian-language television and radio stations also have influence. In countries such as Bulgaria, Russian oligarchs, and pro-Russian politicians have captured many major media outlets, amplifying Kremlin narratives. The same is true in Hungary, where Viktor Orban has methodically placed loyalists in charge of media and academia to amplify government-sanctioned messaging that is often sympathetic to Moscow. Some countries such as Poland have banned Russian-owned or Russian-sympathetic media from operating. North Macedonia has, too, although that hasn’t stopped Russian narratives from entering. Many now come from Serbian media that are broadcast into Skopje; others come from the pulpits of Russian Orthodox churches. In Georgia, weekly magazines now feature large pro-Stalin photo spreads.
All of these narratives work to bolster anti-democratic demagogues. A strongman at the helm promises continuity amid so much instability. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been prime minister or president of Turkey for 20 years. Viktor Orban has held power in Hungary for 13 years and counting. The right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has held power in Serbia since 2012. Far-right nationalists are seeing gains in Flanders, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, and Northern Ireland, while already being strong in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia. As their numbers grow in the European Parliament, they will be able to make more illiberal demands from the broader European Union.
Why should this matter to the United States? Firstly, as allies with shared economic and military goals, it is in our strategic interest that the European Union thrive and succeed. It is also in America’s moral interest that citizens around the world enjoy freedom and democracy and understand how sacred it is. Autocracy is never the answer to instability and precarity; it only leads to greater degradations of individual freedoms, dignity and human rights.
To counter disinformation, then, is not solely about regulating platforms or creating debunking videos. It entails articulating a set of values. It includes ensuring functioning institutions that are free of corruption and are responsive to the needs of their people. Voters need to see and feel democratic institutions working for them in their daily lives. Citizens need stable jobs, stable economies, pensions, unions, retirement plans, and universal health insurance. Public utilities need to be affordable, invested in, and maintained, staffed by dedicated employees who earn a living wage, and not privatized to boost profits. Governments and corporations must not worship at the altar of disruptive technologies, but invest in the adaptability of their populations to cope with seismic changes through future skills training and media literacy.
Importantly, countering disinformation includes investing in accurate and honest history, a commodity that is scarce on social media and which autocrats such as Orban and Putin purposefully undermine. In our obsession with science, technology, engineering, and math, we defund accurate and honest history at our peril. Support for historical scholarship is being eroded in both the United States and Europe; on both continents there are barely any jobs for those with history degrees, and history programs that once had hundreds of students have been reduced to two or three dozen. Nostalgia erases the worst parts of dictatorships; the study of history restores them only if there are any historians left.
The forces at work in Europe are warning signs for the United States. The more we let our historical literacy erode, the greater susceptibility we have to fantastical visions of the past that, in reality, never occurred. The more our institutions become corrupted and hijacked by the wealthiest and most powerful, the more fertile it becomes for conspiracy theories that create easy scapegoats for complex phenomena. The desire for cohesion plays into the populist playbook. In a world that faces such complexity, simple plain-language explanations become very powerful. The challenge before the public and private sectors is to be committed to shared prosperity and security that makes life better for individuals across the socio-economic spectrum.
Such forces are already here in the United States, on conspiratorial YouTube channels with millions of subscribers, and in the major political parties where anti-vaxxers compete for major party nominations. In the past, oceans have kept malign foreign influences from reaching America’s shores. But these waves comprise a different type of warfare, one that has already washed up on our beaches. If we are not careful, they will erode the very sand beneath our feet.
This article has been reprinted on the SCI website with the author’s permission. It is also posted on the Real Clear Politics website at bit.ly/3rEfqAk.