The Project

Welcome to the AHRC funded research project: Covid Rumours in Historical Context.

The Covid-19 outbreak has been accompanied by a global pandemic of rumour and disinformation. Rumours about the origins of the virus, shortages, fake cures and government conspiracies are being spread both by well-meaning people who want to make sense of the outbreak, as well as by criminals and hostile foreign governments actively seeking to do harm. These rumours have the potential to cost lives, not least by undermining public confidence in the current vaccination programme. Despite the apparent novelty of ‘fake news’ and its online circulation via social media platforms, there is little that is new about these rumours, all of which have their historical precedents. Yet policymakers 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 in which rumours about Covid-19 present an unprecedented challenge to public health, this project will deploy a novel longitudinal study of relevant historical rumours and government efforts to address them, in order to assist policymakers. It will track rumours circulating in the UK relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccination programme 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 the vaccine and other public health measures.