13 June 2022

Right-wing populism and alternative media, conspiracy theories, racism and mistrust of science and politics. That there is widespread mistrust of society’s institutions is news to nobody – but it has been brought to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic. The big question is “Why?” – why are people increasingly mistrustful?

Celina Ortega Soto and Stefan Jonsson. Anna Nilsen

It is January 2022. For two years, the world has been wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic. In Stockholm and Gothenburg, thousands gather to demonstrate against restrictions, pandemic legislation and vaccine passports. They are the largest demonstrations of their kind thus far in Sweden. Several demonstrations have already been held in other European countries. Photo credit Sten-Åke Stenberg

They vary in nature from country to country, but they have several common features, according to researchers who have studied COVID and vaccine critical movements in Croatia, Serbia, Germany, Austria and Sweden. The differences between the movements lie in their political and social composition. In some countries, such as Austria and parts of Germany, it is the organised right-wing populist parties that take the lead. In Sweden, it’s somewhat different.

“Here we can see that people with different backgrounds have come together – all the way from the left to the extreme right, and with different conspiracy theories. It’s interesting that people with different backgrounds get behind one and the same message”, says Celina Ortega Soto. She is a PhD student at Linköping University, and has studied the Swedish demonstrations, both online and through fieldwork. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

The demonstrators’ message is the same across all countries. Democracy and freedom are central concepts, as are person-centred politics and a mistrust of politicians, the media and science. Furthermore, all the demonstrations involve conspiracy theories and spiritualism.

However, ideas and movements like this are nothing new. But they have manifested themselves in new ways, and become clearer than before. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst, researchers believe.

“You could say that the COVID demonstrators have sprung from an extant culture of mistrust and rejection”, says Stefan Jonsson, professor at the Institute for research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO).

He leads the Swedish research group in which Celina Ortega Soto and Anders Neergaard participate. They are a part of a larger international project with universities from Croatia, Serbia, Sweden, Germany and Austria. The project is financed by the Volkswagen Foundation.

Cultures of rejection

In all of these countries, the researchers are focussing on what has formed these cultures, which they call “cultures of rejection”. Questions of “why?” are central: Why is there a tendency for people to be increasingly unaccepting and to reject things? Why are right-wing populism and authoritarian groups thriving? Which political and social factors contribute to this development?

Because the cultures of rejection became even clearer during the COVID-19 pandemic, the project has largely focussed on movements related to COVID and vaccine scepticism. But to understand why these cultures have emerged, the researchers have also studied people’s daily lives and living conditions. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

“We want to know what it is about our way of living, our way of working, our free time, our forms of living and interacting, that makes us people more and more liable to reject what we don’t like, what is different to us”, says Stefan Jonsson.

A feeling of powerlessness

The researchers have interviewed people who worked in the retail and logistics sectors in each of the project’s five countries. And they have seen a pattern. This is a sector which has gone through big changes in the last few years. Digitalisation and the pandemic have involved changed working and employment conditions, which in turn have led to another kind of existence for many people.

“This is not as prominent in Sweden as in other countries, but even here we can see that people lead a more hectic and anxious existence. Many have more to do, at the same time as increasing numbers of people are in temporary employment. Older people feel that things were better before”, says Celina Ortega Soto.

In general, there is a feeling of powerlessness.

“Many of those we have talked to feel that they don’t have a say in anything. That they have lost control over their lives”, says Stefan Jonsson.

The pandemic has led to people’s feelings of loss of control becoming even stronger. The restrictions and isolation have had a direct effect on people’s lives. People feel that politics is more unpredictable, because experts and researchers have gained more political power. Many feel that social media has been censured and that free speech is under threat.

People have a tendency to try and find scapegoats when they feel powerless, previous research shows. Such scapegoats are often established social institutions, but also some ideologies such as feminism, or certain groups, such as migrants.

When Celina Ortega Soto has studied Facebook groups, she witnessed – prior to the intensification of pandemic-related discussions – a resistance to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Swedish government and the EU.

Consequenses for democracy

Movements like these do not die out, but instead often move on to other questions. They do this exactly because there are cultures of rejection in society, according to the researchers. And cultures take a long time to create and change. The question is what happens now. How will COVID-19 and vaccine sceptical movements develop? Will we see similar patterns in connection to the war in Ukraine?

“It is actually good that people are engaged politically. That’s exactly what democracy is built on, of course. But when political engagement is based on a culture of mistrust and rejection, the consequences are negative for democracy”, says Stefan Jonsson. 


Translated by Martin Mirko


Footnote: This article was published in LiU magazine #2 2022


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