The Power of Narratives – part 2: NODES’ Strategic Mapping to Better Understand COVID-19 Disinformation
A woman speaks to a pharmacy employee before getting a COVID-19 vaccine jab in Ajaccio (Corsica), on October 5, 2023, during a new vaccination campaign. (Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

The Power of Narratives – part 2: NODES’ Strategic Mapping to Better Understand COVID-19 Disinformation

We introduced in the first part of this report (on climate change) that psychologists and fact-checkers have different understandings of the concept of ‘narrative’.

For fact-checkers, a narrative is a broad message underlying multiple specific claims.

For linguists and semioticians, a narrative is a very fundamental story that humans use to explain the underlying structure of the oftentimes-messy world around them. How a particular piece of information fits into an existing-held narrative is a strong predictor of whether the information will be accepted or rejected (Schmid W. (2010) Narratology An Introduction, De Gruyter. Prince Gerald (1982), Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative, Mouton Publishers).

In addition to the discourse around climate change, the Narratives Observatory Combatting Disinformation in Europe Systemically (NODES) project also looked at which narratives circulated around COVID-19.

The narrative landscape on COVID-19

Figure 1. Chart showing six narratives found in a large corpus of newspaper articles, blog posts, and social media posts. The first axis is constructed around the tension between collectivism (the need to protect the weakest) and individualism (the need to protect individual freedom). The second axis revolves around the tension between belief in the necessity of top-down regulation and belief in the efficacy of bottom-up initiatives.

Below, we explore the six significant narratives that were identified in the NODES project from contemporary COVID-19 debates. 

  1. Yearning for Stabilization: This narrative perceives COVID-19 as a critical threat, highlighting the failure of governments and institutions due to perceived inefficiency or greed. It emphasizes a need for security and stability while fostering a sense of distrust towards current leadership and systems, characterized by chaos, mismanagement, and irresponsibility.
  2. Top-down Stabilization: Here, the narrative views COVID-19 with high seriousness but trusts in institutions to shield society from the virus and ensuing chaos. It values order, security, and governmental control, advocating for a structured response through rules and assistance programs to restore calm and stability.
  3. Bottom-up Solidarity: This perspective sees COVID-19 as a severe challenge to humanity, urging grassroots solidarity and responsible behavior as key responses. It promotes values of empathy, cooperation, and community action, emphasizing the threat posed by selfishness and indifference.
  4. We Need to Resist the COVID Dystopia: Contrasting with others, this narrative downplays the severity of COVID-19, arguing it’s exaggerated to restrict freedoms under the guise of health and safety. It emphasizes individual freedom and criticizes the dominance of experts and corporations, warning against authoritarian measures and questioning the safety of vaccines.
  5. Raw Explanation: Focusing purely on the virus’s mechanics without human context, this narrative provides a detached view, mixing factual information with unverified claims. It challenges readers to separate reliable data from speculation, presenting the pandemic’s dynamics without clear guidelines.
  6. The World Has Changed: Acknowledging COVID-19 as a transformative force, this narrative identifies enduring global shifts such as remote working, reduced travel, and educational changes. It differentiates these alterations from temporary changes, considering them as lasting impacts or ‘megatrends’. 

The intersection of narratives and disinformation

As a reminder, NODES’ map of narratives doesn’t intend to determine their veracity but aims to simply categorize the different strands of discourse on the topic.

As with climate, however, dis- or misinformation is more prevalent in association with some narratives than others. We offer a deep-dive into the two narratives with the highest density of dis – or misinformation: ‘We need to resist the COVID-19 Dystopia’ and ‘Yearning for Stabilization’.

We need to resist the COVID-19 Dystopia

The narrative “We need to resist the COVID-19 Dystopia” has been widely utilized by malicious actors during the pandemic. The claims feeding this narrative often downplay the severity of COVID-19, dismissing it as either fake or grossly exaggerated, and portrays it as a pretext used to curtail freedoms under the guise of expert and corporate overreach. In more extreme cases, some claim that preventive measures, such as vaccines, are a highly detrimental conspiracy.

An example of misinformation feeding this narrative is the claim made by Andrew Tate on a British television show, which quickly gained popularity on social media platforms. Tate stated, “They changed the definition of vaccine in the dictionary so they can continue to inject us with this pointless poison.” However, the definition of a vaccine evolved to reflect the scientific progress represented by COVID-19 mRNA vaccines and to more accurately describe the process that leads to disease protection, not as a cover-up for the vaccines’ imperfect protection. More importantly, science has shown these vaccines saved millions of lives worldwide and are definitely not a “poison”.

Figure 2. Screenshot of a video of Andrew Tate’s interview on the Piers Morgan Uncensored TV show.

Overall, Tate’s claim acts as a specific instance that exemplifies and supports the “We Need to Resist the COVID Dystopia” narrative by using themes of resistance to public health policy and governments, while highlighting perceived threats to personal freedoms and health. The YouTube video of the interview, published on the channel of the TV show, was viewed 11 million times in six months.

A second example of misinformation is a fictional story that was posted as news on Facebook on March 1, 2020, and had been viewed more than 2.3 million times in less than a month. It stated, “There is no ‘coronavirus’. The Chinese were secretly working on a biological agent that was supposed to make protesters docile and obedient.” Yet, this text is actually entirely fictional, as it originates from a piece of fictional literature posted in a Reddit community for horror story writers in February 2020.  The claim embodies values central to the narrative, such as individual freedom, and the defense against a totalitarian figure.

Figure 3. Screenshot of a Facebook post spreading the fictional story and labeling it as a real revelation.

A third example is a video that allegedly showed people “preparing body bags for the evening news clip during the pandemic”; the footage was accompanied by the comment, “they are preparing dead Rona bodies for the news. One is still smoking.” “Rona” is a colloquial term for the coronavirus. This video implied that COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic were fabricated and that COVID-19 mortality was exaggerated by the media. 

Figure 4.  Screenshot of a Twitter/X post misrepresenting a scene from a music video. “Rona” is a colloquial term for the coronavirus.

However, the video was actually filmed as part of the music video for a song and COVID-19 caused an estimated 14 million excess deaths worldwide from 2020 to 2021 according to the World Health Organization. Claims like this one, suggesting a covert agenda and complicit media, again exhibit features of the narrative, including the portrayal of top-down policies as part of an evil agenda. 

Yearning for Stabilization

The narrative “Yearning for Stabilization” has also been utilized for dis- or misinformation during the pandemic. This narrative treats COVID-19 as a serious threat, however it focuses on critiques of government, institutions, elites, or big companies for their ineffectiveness, sluggishness, or greed. Just like the first narrative presented above, it has a strong element of distrust in the government or elites. 

An example of misinformation feeding this narrative is a series of two articles published by the New York Post, which claimed that “Tragically, the data also suggests lockdowns didn’t do much to help save lives throughout the pandemic, while it’s clear that they sent millions to the unemployment line”; and “ample scientific evidence points to the fact that lockdowns did not save lives.” In reality, scientific evidence demonstrates that lockdowns helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 and saved lives.

Figure 5.  Screenshot of a New York Post article misinterpreting a study on lockdowns’ efficiency, as of May 2021. This article and its headline have since been corrected by the New York Post.  

Here, the misleading claims are clearly feeding the narrative that governments dangerously mismanaged the pandemic, both in terms of their economic and public health policies. This is further illustrated by various claims alleging government misconduct in refusal to authorize hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), presented as a supposed COVID-19 treatment.

One such claim appeared in an article published by The Gateway Pundit (an outlet repeatedly found to propagate misinformation), falsely stating, “The FDA hid the evidence that HCQ was effective in the early treatment of the disease. Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of this lie. The CDC-FDA officials promoted the questionable experimental vaccines instead, and this helped Big Pharma make billions.” 

Figure 6.  Screenshot of a Gateway Pundit article falsely claiming that U.S. authorities hid evidence of effective COVID-19 treatments.

Here, the idea of government and corporate greed recurs, which is the core of this narrative. However, contrary to what is claimed, there are no large clinical trials concluding on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as an early COVID-19 treatment. Smaller clinical trials also found that early treatment with HCQ did not provide significant benefits to patients compared to a placebo.

Lastly, misinformation within this narrative frequently includes false or misleading stories that allege governmental mistakes and errors have tragically cost lives. 

For instance, Elon Musk misleadingly stated online, “I said ‘What I’m hearing from Wuhan is that they made a big mistake in putting people on intubated ventilators for an extended period’. This is actually what is damaging the lungs, not Covid. It’s the treatment, the cure is worse than the disease.” However, ventilators are only used on patients who are the most ill. As such, patients on ventilators have a greater risk of dying compared to those who aren’t. 

Claiming that ventilators caused COVID-19 patients to die because a great number of patients on ventilators die conflates correlation with causation. Ventilators have saved lives, and many patients who would otherwise have died survived thanks to their use in adequate circumstances.

Figure 7.  Screenshot of a Twitter/X post featuring an interview of Musk where he falsely claims that ventilators were actually responsible for COVID-19 deaths instead of the virus.


As with climate change, looking at dis- or misinformation about COVID-19 through the lens of the narratives that underlie them opens a new avenue for tackling falsehoods. 

Dis- or misinformation spreaders craft their messages using narratives. Audiences may accept these falsehoods not because they believe they are factual, but because they support their own narratives, fitting within their constructed world stories. Thus, when fact-checkers publish articles verifying new dis- or misinformation, they must anticipate that the audience’s narrative will dictate whether the evidence presented is considered correct or incorrect.

The implications for fact-checkers of such narrative capabilities are important, and a deeper conversation is needed on how they might further explain the spread of dis- or misinformation in the years to come amid increasing societal polarization.