NEWS
11/02/2020 17:46 EST

How Movies Like COVID-19 Thriller 'Songbird' Can Fuel Conspiracy Theories

The film’s trailer references the idea of COVID-19 concentration camps, a debunked conspiracy theory.

Since the “Songbird”  trailer was released last week, the new pandemic thriller movie  has been widely panned. The film, which was developed, produced and shot since the pandemic began, has been called exploitative, “COVID fanfiction,” and something “absolutely nobody asked for” as the virus continues to ravage countries around the world. 

Depicting a fictional future four years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the star-studded film pulls out all the disaster movies tropes, from a shaggy KJ Apa shouting “I’m immune” to an oncoming wave of police officers, to governments forcing people into coronavirus “quarantine camps.”

But could a movie like this also fuel online misinformation and hoaxes about the pandemic? 

The film’s trailer acknowledges many ideas that have become calling cards for anti-maskers and COVID-19 online misinformation, from the threat of “big government” to the aforementioned “quarantine camps.” The latter were the subject of a recent widespread hoax started by an Ontario MPP that suggested the federal government was creating quarantine camps and forcing Canadians into them — this has been totally debunked and is definitely not happening, for the record. 

STXFilms/YouTube
KJ Apa is pictured in a still from the trailer for "Songbird."

But could a fear-mongering film filled with conspiracy calling cards help those conspiracy theories spread? According to online misinformation experts, it’s complicated.

Simon Fraser University professor Ahmed Al-Rawi is an expert in online misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. He says fictional media can influence online movements.

“This will take time, you know, looking at the short and long term effects of a movie is not easy. We need to just wait and see,” he told HuffPost Canada. 

Al-Rawi said some recent films have directly influenced online movements and perceptions of real-world events. 

WATCH: How my mum fell for conspiracy theories. Story continues below. 

 

“There is evidence that some movies made a few years ago have a direct influence on people’s perceptions,” he said.

“Joker,” released last year, was widely criticized for its potential to embolden a certain section of the alt-right or even inspiring mass shooters. “American Sniper,” Al-Rawi says, spurred anti-Muslim sentiments.

“‘The Day After Tomorrow’ did have an impact on the way we look at climate change,” he said.  “So they do have an impact. But of course it’s really difficult to measure that, especially when it comes to quantifying the impact like how many people will be impacted by a movie after watching it. No one knows.”

Al-Rawi said that as more COVID-19 fictional media like movies and TV shows continue to get produced while the pandemic is still happening, the chances increase that images or ideas could be appropriated as online misinformation by conspiracy theorists.

“For example they take certain images, they turn them into memes and, you know, disseminate them,” he said. “So it could be used to serve their own purposes and their own agenda.”

Al-Rawi said the COVID-19 pandemic is primed for misinformation and conspiracy theories because of how much we didn’t know at the start, and how much confusion there was. He said a mistrust in public health authorities or governments comes from the initial flip-flopping on issues like masks. 

This will take time, you know, looking at the short and long term effects of a movie is not easy. We need to just wait and see.Simon Fraser University professor Ahmed Al-Rawi

“These communities, they thrive on these contradictions, and they build on it to show that ‘oh the government doesn’t really know what is happening and they are conspiring against the people’ and so on,” he said.

Al-Rawi says we must be vigilant and not share online misinformation, even to make fun of it because that still spreads it to new people. He also said social media companies like Twitter and Facebook must be even more vigilant, and governments must be prepared to ensure social media companies are vigilant about online misinformation.

“We’re talking about health issues, public health issues, and endangering people’s lives — I think we need to do something about it,” he said.