Health New Media Res > Volume 6(2); 2022 > Article
Chinaguh, Adeosun, and Adejumobi: A discourse appraisal of conspiracy perceptions about COVID-19 and its vaccine in Nigeria’s social media space

Abstract

As COVID-19 ravaged the world, its management was undercut by conspiracy perceptions that construct different versions of reality about the pandemic. This has hugely attracted scholarly attention in several fields but discourse analysis. This study was thus motivated to investigate the discursive constructions of conspiracies, the interpretive repertoires, expressed feelings, and enacted social actions. Data were sourced from posts and comments on Coronavirus and the vaccines on Twitter, Facebook, and Nairaland social media platforms, and subjected to discourse analysis.
Three conspiracy perceptions were identified: COVID-19 as fraud, COVID-19 vaccine (COVAX) as a depopulation plan, and COVAX as associated with the 5G network. These were constructed in COVAX conspiracy discourse through these interpretive repertoires: reference, evaluative devices, time clauses, and intensifiers under lexicogrammar; and inclusive/exclusive distinctions, argumentation, historical allusion, rhetorical question, and narratorial trope under rhetorical strategies. These enacted the social actions of disputing, alleging, justifying, denouncing, and prognosticating, which worked up the negative emotions of dissatisfaction, apprehension, anger, insecurity, and disinclination expressed in terse textual voices that suppress the official COVAX narrative and endorse the alternative views.

Introduction

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious respiratory disease that belongs to a large family of viruses. It is caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus strain, and was provisionally named 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCov), or known to some people as human coronavirus 2019 (HCoV-19 or hCoV-19) (WHO, n. d.; United States CDC, 2020; Anderson et al, 2020; Wong et al, 2021). It was first identified in Wuhan, China, and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11th March 2020. It is spread as respiratory droplets or smaller aerosols through coughing, sneezing, talking, or breathing by an infected person. People then get infected by breathing in the virus or touching contaminated surfaces before making contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth with the same hands.
The virus has spread to 230 countries and territories with more than 530 million confirmed cases and over six million deaths across the globe (Worldometer, 2022). The impact on all aspects of human life is unprecedented in the modern world: besides the huge loss of human lives in quick succession, the virus has disrupted and even halted at different times social and economic activities within and among countries; and it has been estimated that the global economy would lose $4 trillion dollars due to the impact of the virus (UNWTO, 2021). To curtail the spread, governments all over the world have adopted different non-pharmaceutical measures, like safe distancing, mask-wearing and hand washing, and avoiding crowded spaces and lockdowns. As the world prepared to end the pandemic, vaccines were being developed to quicken the restoration of normalcy.
Vaccines are known to provide immunity against target diseases and prevent illness. They are biological agents that are similar to the microorganisms causing the disease and made to kill the microbes. They are regarded as safe and effective ways to eradicate infectious diseases (Orenstein et al, 1985; Ellenburg and Chen, 1997). COVID-19 vaccines were developed to build immunity against COVID-19 and prevent being infected by the virus, or in some cases avert getting seriously ill or dying on account of it. The vaccines also prevent spreading the virus to others, especially those at greater risk of severe illness, and as more people get vaccinated it adds to the community of people who have protection against COVID-19 - which contributes to herd immunity and neutralizes the further spread of the disease. This knowledge is perhaps what drives many countries to charge their citizens to get vaccinated, and some have gone a step further by enacting vaccine mandates. However, these efforts are undercut by enormous misinformation and conspiracy perceptions about the existence of COVID-19 and the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
Conspiracy perceptions are views that oppose mainstream consensus about an event or situation. These views negatively regard the supporting explanations as being without sufficient evidence, based on prejudice. Some gain traction from deep-seated suspicion against the government and the elite (Wood, 2017). One such example is the range of conspiracy claims being put forward in the public sphere, especially on social media, to dispute the existence of COVID-19 and express doubts about the efficacy of the vaccines and the danger they allegedly pose. These perceptions have spread widely through social media, which provided the only social contact possible during the restriction and lockdown exercise across countries. The global reach afforded by these online spaces means such misinformation can extend to an enormous range of recipients that may passively support the claims due in part to existing biases and religious beliefs. Thus, this can largely impact vaccine acceptance and the capability of countries to end the pandemic; and it underscores the significance of research on the effect of conspiracy perceptions about COVID-19 and the vaccines.
Several attempts have been made to explore the subject from mainly nonlinguistic fields, like medical science, psychology, communication arts, and other science and social science fields. Available linguistic studies have centered on the COVID-19 phenomenon with a focus on language use during the pandemic. One such study is by Wild (2020), which carried out a corpus analysis of the language of COVID-19 and came up with findings on the frequent occurrence of the words coronavirus and COVID-19. Similar work to this is Asif et al (2021), which analyses the neologisms related to COVID-19, and reveals how the outbreak of COVID-19 socially and culturally influenced words. However, these research works did not critically appraise the conspiracy discourse of the COVID-19 pandemic and its vaccines. Therefore, this study is set to fill this knowledge gap by examining the language used in conspiracy claims about COVID-19 and the vaccines on social media, in order to identify the discursive constructions and interpersonal meanings as correlates of the psychological categories in anti-COVID-19 and vaccination digital discourses.
This study is guided by these research questions:
  • i. What are the conspiracy claims on COVID-19 and vaccines within the Nigerian social media space?

  • ii. How are the discourses on these conspiracies constructed in Nigeria’s social media space?

  • iii. Which are the social actions enacted during these conspiracy constructions?

  • iv. In what ways are psychological categories presented in selected digital discourses?

  • v. How does the anti-COVID-19 vaccination messaging on social media influence vaccine acceptance and public health in Nigeria?

The study will espouse the communicative effect of conspiracy perceptions on pandemic management efforts, detailing the public health implications of these health communicative behaviors. It will articulate the conspiracy perceptions that are circulated in Nigeria’s social media space, explore how the discourses on these conspiracies are constructed in the digital space in Nigeria, and, in particular, identify how this digital health communicative behavior impacts vaccine acceptance in the country. Through the instrumentality of discursive psychology and appraisal resources, the social actions and psychological categories that are produced by these social media engagements are described to deepen the understanding of interpersonal meanings in anti-COVID-19 and vaccination discourses.

Literature Review

Empirical review is undertaken around four themes: language use during the COVID-19 pandemic, the pragmatics of coronavirus communications, the metaphor of COVID-19, and conspiracy discourse about COVID-19.

Language Use during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Asif et al (2021) examine the neologisms or coinages that are related to COVID-19. As coronavirus dominates the global discourse, the paper notes that new terms and phrases that are related to the disease are daily introduced - as indicative of the dynamic nature of human language. This has seen the exponential rise in the usage of a single word and the sustained discourse about coronavirus and its inconceivable impact on the world. Lexicographically, it has led to the further growth of language as new terms emerge. The coinage is generated based on the interests and needs of the conversational situation - which is the COVID-19 outbreak. The study identifies the emergence of two new portmanteau words - covidiot and covidient. Covidiot combines “COVID-19” and “idiot” to refer to persons violating COVID-19 directives and guidelines; while covidient combines “COVID-19” and “obedient” to denote individuals’ compliance with the order. The study concludes that all word-formation process types were not fully involved in the creation of neologisms in the context of the pandemic. However, the paper did not incorporate vaccine discourse.
Similarly, Wild (2020) presents a corpus analysis of the language of COVID-19, focusing on words and phrases that increased in use in the context of coronavirus between December 2019 and March 2020 - from a corpus of eight billion words of web-based news content. Most of the words in the corpus are found to have increased in frequency. These include the shortened forms corona, covid, rone, and rona. However, the abbreviations nCoV and 2019-nCoV are noted to have peaked in February 2020 and, became less common, afterward. The most striking change noted by the article is the increase in the use of words like coronavirus and COVID-19. Precisely, in March 2020, Coronavirus was found to topple the most frequently used noun in the English language, time.

Pragmatics of COVID-19 Communications

Two research works are reviewed on the pragmatics of pandemic communications, which range from government official briefings to social media interactions among the generality of users. The first reviewed literature is by Al-azzawi and Hessein (2020), which examines the pragmatic acts in the instructions delivered by the United States’ Centre for Disease Control and Prevention Control (CDC). Advising is the dominant pragmatic act in the CDC instructions about coronavirus, and its perlocution is to caution the people against the virus and get them to protect themselves against it. The next pragmatic act is co-opting, which is meant to provide support to persons living with the virus and eliminate stigmatization, among others. As clearly observed, this is a study in pragmatics and not in critical discourse.
Ajayi and Akinrinlola’s (2021) work investigates the pragma-multimodal functions of COVID-19 memes in the Nigerian context. It combines pragmatic and multimodal functions to trace and describe the textual and activity parts of selected memes. The pragmatic and multimodal variables are combined to negotiate meaning for effective health communication. For example, the meaning in the pract of warning is deepened by symbols like color. The other practs are criticizing, condemning and rebuking, labeling and accusing, and sermonizing; and they have semiotic resources like images of prominent religious figures and postures of the participants to depict socio-political and religious realities within Nigeria. The paper concludes that sensitization memes constitute part of medical communication and reflects how language functions as social behavior and action. This paper is an extensive study of meaning negotiation but does not address vaccine-related conspiracies.

Metaphor and COVID-19

Semino (2020) examines the metaphoric description of COVID-19 in the news articles corpus. The pandemic is presented as a war, which situates the virus as an “enemy” and an “alien invader” to be “beaten”. The paper was motivated by the criticisms of the use of military language to describe coronavirus, regarding such as dangerous and irresponsible. It explains most conventional metaphors as drawing from embodied expressions, and aggressive military powers as the most extreme instances of opponents. The author, nevertheless, thinks war metaphors can be counterproductive as in the case of cancer where battle metaphors are said to increase fatalism, The paper argues that fire metaphors can be used in place of war metaphors as the former conveys danger and urgency, different phases of the pandemic, explain measures of reducing the contagion, and outline post-pandemic futures. Nevertheless, this work, which has rhetorical and cognitive motivations like the current study, excludes the discourse on covid conspiracies.
Kozlova (2021) investigates the cognitive metaphors of COVID-19 in business news articles. The paper selected 125 metaphoric representations of the coronavirus pandemic from The Financial Times articles online between February 2020 and January 2021, using covid-related lexical devices with figurative signification. The findings reveal the use of military metaphors like “the epidemic as a common foe” that influence communication about the virus in the news report. The events that relate to the disease outbreak are represented as an armed conflict, pressure, or the use of force with words like “battle” and “fight”, while efforts made to contend with the pandemic are interpreted as “shooting from a gun”. Preventive measures are perceived as actions that the law demands. The use of military metaphor thus reinforces the perception of war against the common aggressor. These metaphors are manifested through linguistic means that determine expressivity typical of news discourse. However, the thematic focus of the study is not within the scope of the current study.

Critical Discourse Study of COVID-19

Al-Mwzaiji (2021) is a critical study of accusations between the United States and China about the origin of the pandemic. The paper starts by identifying the controversial nature of the origin of the disease and creates a political discourse from these allegations; while subjecting them to critical study to argue out the materiality. Al-Mwzaiji (2021) identifies three laboratory origin theories to be a leak of the virus from a laboratory in Wuhan, China; covid is a biological weapon; it was imported to China by the US military.
The paper states that the essence of a scientific inquiry about the virus’s origin is to come up with an objective outcome, but these countries have gone ahead to politically spin the origin with post-truths. A US senator, Tom Cotton, and President Donald Trump alleged that the virus originated in China. The senator doubted the link between the virus and the food market in Wuhan, where the first cases were recorded: the first notion presents that many of the first cases did not record any contact with the food market; while the second premise is about China’s human infectious diseases lab sited miles away from the market. President Trump supported this argument by establishing a link between the virus outbreak and the lab. In response, a Chinese ambassador, Cui Tiankai, refutes the allegation and redirects it as emanating from a lab in the US. Another Chinese personality, Lijian Zhao, further counter-alleges that the US army imported the virus to Wuhan in China.
The paper contends that diverse discursive strategies like mental and contextual models, semantic choices, modality, presupposition, and hedges were adopted to manipulate existing knowledge on the origin of the virus in order to divert attention from a medical emergency to international politics. However, this study is restricted to the power play and did not include the conspiracy perceptions about the vaccines; neither did it tease out the evaluative resources that reify the impact of the conspiracies on the populace.
Osisanwo (2021) is another study on COVID-19 from a critical discourse perspective, and it explores the discourse representation of the virus in selected newspaper editorials of major newspapers in the world. Osisanwo’s work investigated the kind of representations that these newspapers engaged to influence the opinions of their readers on the COVID-19 pandemic. Newspapers were purposively selected from four countries and continents: New York Times (USA, North America), China Daily (China, Asia), The Punch (Nigeria, Africa), and The Guardian (UK, Europe). The editorials were subjected to critical discourse analysis to derive the discourse representations of coronavirus. The paper identified ten representations, with outbreak, pandemic, and economic cankerworm as the most represented. These representations combine to give a negative depiction of COVID-19 (Osisanwo, 2021).
Also identified in the study are six discourse strategies (like demonizing, criminalizing, and call to action); twelve ideological discourse structures (like authority, negative-other presentation, number game, and norm-expression); and various participant representations and roles for different actors. The paper concludes that the negative portraiture of coronavirus as demonstrated through the discourse devices contributes toward awareness creation about the negative and harmful effects of the virus. The article, like the current study, deployed critical discourse tools; however, it paid attention to COVID-19 representation in mainstream news media, while this research harnesses the discursive psychology and appraisal resources in social media posts on conspiracies about the virus.
On their part, Mu, Zhao, and Yang (2021) provide a critical discourse perspective to the scholarship on the pandemic. The article examines how New York Times news reports about COVID-19 cases reveal China’s media ideology and image. Fairclough’s CDA three-dimensional framework - description, interpretation, and explanation - was used for the analysis. One aspect of the description dimension, vocabulary, was engaged, emphasizing keyword and concordance analyses. Using keyword analysis, the paper identifies the keywords about people and place as having a large proportion and reveals the relative degree of fairness of The New York Times when referring to someone. Also, using concordance analysis, the paper picks out two-node words “China” and “Covid” to reveal relative objective coverage of cases and negative tagging of China - a finding the article regards as a mixed attitude by the media agency. This work similarly adopts a critical approach to exploring the pandemic, but its focus is not on conspiracy claims about the virus.

Method

The research methodology for this study is the set of procedures undertaken to its goal and answer the research questions. These procedures are the sampling technique/ data collection method and the method for data analysis/ analytical framework.

Sampling Procedure/Method for Data Collection

The purposive sampling technique was adopted for this study. Data were sourced from posts and comments on Coronavirus and the vaccines on Twitter, Facebook, and Nairaland social media platforms between 2020 and 2021, which marked the period for the COVID-19 pandemic and intensive vaccination campaign. Conspiracy perceptions were rife at this period, as the Nigerian government, like its counterparts around the world, stepped up pandemic management efforts. The Federal Government of Nigeria set up the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, which worked with the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, to oversee and coordinate Nigeria’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The anti-coronavirus policies of the Task Force were received differently, generating conspiracy claims about the virus and vaccine among some Nigerians on social media.

Method for Data Analysis/Analytical Framework

A qualitative method for data analysis was adopted, as data were subjected to discourse analysis, aided by Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter’s discursive psychology, complemented by James Martin and Peter White’s appraisal theory, as the theoretical framework (Edwards & Potter, 1992; Martin & White, 2005). The framework analyses the language used in purveying conspiracy claims about COVID-19 and vaccines. Conspiracies have psychological dimensions that interplay with how they are conceived, spread, and accepted. These psychological structures are manifested by the cognitive and affective engagement that characterize how these conspiracies are communicated to a target audience. What this implies is a transdisciplinary enterprise that cuts across disciplines in social science and humanities as demonstrated in discursive psychology (DP, henceforth). DP has been differently termed discursive social psychology (Potter & Edwards, 2001) and discourse analysis in social psychology (Wood and Kroger, 2000). It was introduced with the publication of the book Discourse and Social Psychology by Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell in 1987, which first describes how discourse analysis replicates performative psychology. It was, however, coined and popularized by Edwards and Potter (1992).
The major dimensions of DP are its naturalistic approach and action orientation. The former marks its interest in natural talk or “untamed” materials, with analytical merits regarding their cognitive potential. This type of material can be found on social media, which provides access to “truly unforced natural language” (Seitz, 2016: 8) - and where data for this study will be selected. The second dimension focuses on social action as performed by text and talk, rather than its necessitation by cognition. In that wise, discourse is not treated as dependent on cognitive objects and processes, but as an arena for action where cognitive elements are constructed and oriented (Potter and Wiggins, 2007).
Added to these dimensions are two theoretical principles. One is that discourse is both constructed and constructive. It is constructed as it fashions particular versions of reality through linguistic items that serve as building blocks. DP is also constructive as the constructed versions of the world are a product of talk and not its precursor. The second principle is that discourse is situated within a given sequential environment and institutional setting. These principles are applied to the analysis of the claims in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and the vaccine to determine how the discourse is constructed through its interpretative repertoires, the psychological products of these constructions, and the actions that are enacted as a result. DP is complemented by appraisal theory to hone the cognitive resources and the interpersonal meaning expressed in social media engagements.
The appraisal framework started as an extension of the interpersonal metafunction of Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics. It was developed to expand existing works on evaluation, commitment, certainty, and knowledge, and to examine how the textual voice is positioned with other voices and positions in discourse (Martin, and White, 2005). The theory presents language as a set of resources, with evaluative value, that is related to utterance function and negotiation (Martin, 1992; Martin and Rose, 2007). These resources are comprehensively and descriptively systematized to construe social experience and deepen the understanding of interpersonal meaning. The theory is located in discourse semantics, which categorizes interpersonal meanings constituted in lexicogrammar. The appraisal system complements the traditional interpersonal meaning of grammar as articulated by mood and modality (Martin, 2014).
The framework is grouped into three components: Attitude, Engagement, and Graduation.

Attitude

Attitude regards feelings as a system of meanings that trifurcate into three semantic sub-categories: Affect, Judgment, and Appreciation. The last two can be summed up as opinion which institutionalizes Affect as either a proposal or proposition.

Affect

Affect is an appraisal resource that caters to the expression of emotions, either positive or negative. It accordingly has polar sub-types: happiness/unhappiness, security/insecurity, and satisfaction/dissatisfaction. Under affect, feelings can be realized as an emotional surge that is paralinguistically manifested or internally experienced. It can also be constructed as a reaction to some emotional triggers; likewise, it can be graded based on the intensity of its expressivity as with the words “like” (low emotion), “love” (median), and “adore” (high) (Martin and White, 2005). Affect is inscribed if it is explicitly expressed or evoked if it is implicitly conveyed.

Judgment

In order to Judgment attempts to control behavior, guided by social norms. It is thus an attempt to institutionalize behavior.

Appreciation

Appreciation is concerned with aesthetics and the valuation of phenomena. This resource is used to provide an evaluation in terms of how one reacts to things (reaction or affection), composes them (perception: to reflect balance or complexity), and values them (whether they are worthwhile) (Martin and White, 2005).

Graduation

This sub-system is concerned with lowering or raising the value of attitude. It is projected by the appraisal resources of Force and Focus. Force articulates graduation by adjusting the strength of evaluative language, either by intensification or quantification of meaning. Focus grades based on the prototypical nature of the category of boundaries to create core or peripheral types.

Engagement

Engagement negotiates sources of attitudes and classifies discourse in terms of its monoglossic or heteroglossic orientation depending on speakers’ recognition of alternative views. This appraisal sub-system conveys the social dialogic perspective of the framework with engagement elements like projection, modality, and polarity that “position one opinion in relation to another - by quoting or reporting, acknowledging a possibility, denying, countering, affirming, and so on” (Martin, 2003: 174). This agrees with Bahktin (1986) and (Volosinov, 1973, 1995) that all verbal forms of communication are by nature dialogic given that they are uttered with an anticipation of a response from readers or listeners, either imagined or real. These intersubjective positions are framed as dialogically contractive or dialogically expansive, which can be distinguished in terms of the difference that exists between stating a fact and offering an opinion. This is evident in communicative events where speakers make claims about “some observable, verifiable state of affairs in the experiential world” (White, 2003: 264) in order to reduce the possibility of dissenting views. This epistemic aspect of the theory will benefit the analysis of conspiracy claims in assessing the authors’ commitment to truthfulness.

Perceptions

The analytical framework is presented in Figure 1 above, and it illustrates COVID-19 and Vaccine Conspiracy Discourse as constitutive of lexicogrammatical units and rhetorical strategies as interpretive repertoires that are reflected in the constructions of the conspiracy discourse. This is anchored in the central box, labeled “Cov & Vax Conspiracy Discourse”. The abbreviations Cov, Vax, and Consp, stand for COVID-19, vaccine, and conspiracy, respectively. A double-headed arrow connects the Cov & Vax Conspiracy Discourse (COVAX Discourse, for short) and Cov & Vax Repertoires (COVAX Conspiracies, for short), which depicts the discourse as both constructed and constructive. The arrow pointing away from the COVAX discourse to the COVAX conspiracies indexes the constructive nature of COVAX discourse, constructing some alternative versions of the official narrative about COVID-19 and vaccines. On the other hand, the arrow pointing down to the COVAX discourse indicates its constructed character as the COVAX conspiracies are projected as the products of the discourse.
COVAX discourse also provides the arena for some social actions to be enacted - as indicated by the arrow pointing to the left, from the discourse space. The cognitive products of the COVAX discourse are highlighted below that same space and, aided by the resources in the appraisal theory, these psychological outputs are systematically ordered to deepen the understanding of the interpersonal meaning expressed. Concurrently, these enacted social actions by the discourse amplify the COVAX conspiracy repertoires and the psychological categories of attitude, engagement, and graduation, as marked by the two arrows linking the boxes of social actions, COVAX conspiracies, and the cognitive tokens.

Results

Three conspiracy repertoires are evident in the data: COVID-19 as fraud, COVID-19 deaths as associated with the 5G network, and COVID-19 vaccine as a depopulation plan. These are constructed through interpretive repertoires, constituted by lexicogrammatical units and rhetorical strategies. The identified lexicogrammatical categories are reference, evaluatives, time clauses, and intensifiers; while the rhetorical strategies are clusivity, argumentation, rhetorical question, historical allusion, and narratorial trope. The psychological products of these constructions are amplified through the interpersonal resources of attitude, engagement, and graduation. The actions that are enacted by these conspiracy constructions are denouncing, disputing, justifying, alleging, and prognosticating.

COVID-19 as a Fraud

One dominant conspiracy that emerged with the advent of COVID-19 is the perception of the virus as a fraud. This view ranges from total disbelief about the existence of the virus to mistrust of its spread and management. Thus, the virus has informally been regarded as a scam, also tagged a scamdemic - a neologism formed by blending the words “scam” and “pandemic”. Coronavirus is further perceived as a fraud through referring words like “lie”, and more informally as “yahoo format”, “cashing out” and “dishing out figures” - drawing on Nigerian slang usage - as exemplified in texts 1-4.
  • (1) The scam they want to use to force the vaccines on us. Before you quote me, tell me why people that have been vaccinated twice still die of COVID-19.

  • (2) Dr. Chikwe and his NCDC officials are cashing out from this saga. They will continue dishing out figures till God knows when. You will never see an admitted or recovered COVID-19 survivor in any hospital in Nigeria.

  • (3) COVID-19 is a “yahoo” format brought by the Western world to deceive people while they were making money in trillions of dollars.

  • (4) … the virus is a lie. Whatever people have to say, they should say the truth. A professor has said it was a lie…. Ask (the) United States President, Donald Trump. They are just unveiling the Coronavirus that was written in a book 39 years ago. How many graves of Coronavirus victims have you seen and how many of the victims have you seen in hospitals?

These lexical items are used to enact the social actions of disputing, justifying, and alleging. By designating COVID-19 as a “lie”, the speaker in text 4 disagrees with the conventional position that the virus is real, and performs the social action of disputing. By labeling it as a “scam” and “yahoo format”, the government and the Western world are accused of fraud, and so the social action of alleging is carried out. The use of the phrase “yahoo format” is synonymous with wire fraud in Nigeria’s local parlance, and the alleged perpetrators have popularly been called “yahoo boys”. The alleging act is inscribed by directly accusing a Nigerian government agency, Nigeria Centre for Disease and Control (NCDC), and its Director-General, Dr. Chikwe, of “cashing out” from the pandemic while “dishing out” or fabricating figures. The Western countries are not spared, as they are also targeted by the alleging act as bringing COVID-19 through deception for financial gains.
The two acts (of disputing and alleging) are reinforced through the rhetorical strategies of argumentation, rhetorical question, and clusivity. The disputation is justified by the supporting argument in text 4, which is rhetorically affirmed by the rhetorical question “How many graves of Coronavirus victims have you seen and how many of the victims have you seen in hospitals?” The argument plays up existing uncertainties and privacy surrounding the origin and management of the virus. Ethical considerations like patients’ health record protection and regard for confidentiality are important to safeguard against stigmatization; however, they seem to have deepened secrecy in the management of the pandemic - which might have undermined public health awareness. In the second act, an attempt is made to prove the allegation in text 1 with the supporting argument that those vaccinated against the virus still died. The argument is couched as a rhetorical question, which is posed to pre-emptively counter any possible opposition to the authorial stance. The authorial posture further inclines the audience towards the two acts (disputing and alleging) by invoking the rhetoric of clusivity. This is reflected in the language, with the pronouns “they” and “us” indexing the distinction between the government (alongside the Western world) and the people. On the one hand, the government, indexed with the exclusive “they”, is disputed as lying, and alleged to be making up a virus for financial gains, “deceiving” the people about its existence and “forcing” the vaccines on them. On the other hand, the citizens, represented by the inclusive “us”, are positioned as being lied to, deceived, and forced to take the vaccines.
Consequently, the speakers’ negative emotions of disbelief, dissatisfaction, insecurity, and disinclination are worked up in the repertoire as evident in texts 1-4. For instance, the feeling of disbelief is constructed in text 4 with the perception of Coronavirus as a lie. The entire repertoire is also laden with dissatisfaction with the conventional claim about the virus - that it is real - and the alleged attempt to profit from it. Another emotional tendency is insecurity, which echoes people’s concerns about trust in government and Western countries, and safety consciousness about their health that COVID-19 vaccines might imperil - as expressed in text 1 that “people that have been vaccinated twice still die of COVID-19”. These feelings appear to have engineered a consequential emotional reaction, a disinclination toward the vaccines. Thus, the government’s behavior, in enforcing measures to control the virus’ spread and mandating people to take the vaccine, is judged negatively as unacceptable and condemnable; similarly, the virus is regarded as a fraudulent scheme, while its vaccines are perceived as profiteering, ineffective and harmful. This explains why the pandemic management effort has attracted such evaluatives as a “scam”, “lie”, “yahoo format”, “cashing out”, “deceiving” and “dishing out figures”, which show intensified judgment, a pithy textual voice and the suppression of the official narrative in the authors’ dialogistic positioning - all manifesting the posters’ increased personal investment in the conspiracy claim.

COVID-19 as Associated with 5G Network

5G network is the fifth generation of wireless network technology with faster speed and connectivity. It is conceived in this repertoire to produce more radiation that could cause harm to humans. The deployment of the technology coincided with the onset of the Coronavirus, so the correlation was linked to the causation of the pandemic. This conspiracy was so rife in 2020 that it led to many arson attacks on telecom masts in many European countries, like Belgium, Croatia, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, and the United Kingdom (Rogers, 2020; Turner, 2020). Texts 5-7 provide instances of the construction.
  • (5)… the virus is a lie. Whatever people have to say, they should say the truth. A professor has said it was a lie…. Ask (the) United States President, Donald Trump. They are just unveiling the Coronavirus that was written in a book 39 years ago. How many graves of Coronavirus victims have you seen and how many of the victims have you seen in hospitals?

  • (6) 5G technology is evil. 5G technology is a killer. 5G technology is what is now is now helping to mobilize flu that comes in form of Coronavirus. And this is also helping to kill the immune system. So those with weaker immune system, those with underlying medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension, respiratory problems, and cancerous problems, are easily consumed by the reactions of this 5G technology and they die. We can stop this killing if we can globally stop the mobilization of the 5G technology.

    • a. 5G is evil, kindly take it away from Nigeria. Let’s remain as we were because we don’t need it.

    • b. Hmmm, that explains why we only have (a) few cases in Africa.

5G technology is denounced with the explicit evaluatives “evil”, “a killer”, “Coronavirus (flu) mobiliser”, “a radio poison”, and allegedly the government’s pretext for Coronavirus deceit. The first-three evaluative devices are tagged to the 5G network in text 6 backed by the argumentative narrative that the network “helps to kill the immune system” and poses an even greater danger to those with weaker immune systems that have pre-existing health conditions - like diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. The evaluatives also imply an allegation against the government as an “evil doer”, “killer” and “deceiver” for installing an “evil” technological device that “poisons” and “weakens the immune system” of their citizens against COVID-19, and wrongly associating the deaths to the virus. By this construction, the actions of denouncing and alleging are performed through the grammatical term of evaluatives and rhetorical strategies of argumentation and narratorial trope. Another visible action is prognosticating, heralded by time clauses that associate the time of deaths from the 5G network to future time events of people “dropping dead” and the government “blaming it on Covid”.
The psychological states displayed in these talks and texts are the authors’ feelings of anger, dissatisfaction, apprehension and insecurity, based on their versions of thoughts and orientation - which may be political or religious. In particular, the speaker in text 6 is a politician in Nigeria’s major political party, the People’s Democratic Party, and his posturing may have been colored by his political affiliation. Anger and dissatisfaction are evident with the depiction of the virus as “evil” and “killer” in successive terse (simple) declarative sentences in text 6. Apprehension is heightened in the comment in 6a to the post in 6, which also implicates the insecurity the speakers feel towards the virus - leading to the appeal “kindly take it away from Nigeria”. Given such feelings, the textual voice strongly assesses the government’s conduct as reprehensible and proposes the stoppage of the technology’s installation. The value position being advanced is that 5G is not needed - as comment 6a acknowledges the view of post 6. This disposition manifests the speakers/writers’ entrenched subjectivity toward the repertoire as further evident with the assertiveness of the evaluative devices and the terse textual voice.

COVID-19 Vaccine as a De-population Plan

This conspiracy claim may have stemmed from the widely circulated opinion that Bill Gates, George Soros, and the big pharmaceutical corporations are intent on using COVID-19 vaccines (COVAX) to depopulate the world. It is claimed that the vaccine can alter the DNA permanently to dangerous ends and cause females to be infertile. This perception, nonetheless, predates the covid era. The antivaccine movement blamed vaccines as the cause of some diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s (Doutsmohammadi & Cherry, 2020; Iannelli, 2021). Texts 7-10 provide instances of this repertoire.
  • (7) Vaccines are being produced in less than one year of COVID-19. There is no vaccine yet for HIV, malaria, cancer, headache, and for several other diseases that are killing us. They want to use the (COVID-19) vaccines to introduce the disease that will kill you and us. God forbid.

    • a. All I know, me and my family will never take the so-called vaccine

    • b. We should be careful wallahi

    • c. … the NPHCDA needs to address this asap.

  • (8) It’s time for African leaders to think differently. Think wisely. How do you expect that those who throughout history - throughout history - have despised you, throughout history, as you know, how can they produce vaccines to save your lives? Are you okay?

  • (9) It’s Only animals and mad people will take the devilish vaccine. @WHO and @NCDCgov are working for China and bill Gates, and the conspiracy theory of covid 19 to depopulate the world through vaccination. Our rulers are not patriotic, so be careful don’t risk your life and take it.

  • (10) I cannot take this vaccine now until I have children. I have read a lot of stories about the vaccine and how it works. I am still not convinced about the whole drama.

COVAX is negatively perceived as a conspiracy scheme for population control while engaging in the social acts of alleging and justifying. These acts are rhetorically positioned as arguments that advance this conspiracy opinion while creating a distinction between the government and the people on one hand and the Western countries and Africa on the other hand through clusivity. Text 7 picks out the short duration for COVAX creation - “less than one year” - and why other killer diseases, like HIV, malaria, and cancer, are yet to get their vaccines. On average, vaccine production takes longer than five years, the fastest being the mumps vaccine that was created in four years before COVAX broke the record. It has, however, been explained that COVAX was produced in such a short time because it got massive funding and collaboration, and built on decades of research on the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) viruses (Moore and Wilson, 2021). Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that text 7 is a statement of a sitting governor in Nigeria - Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State - who at different times had criticized the national government’s response strategy against the virus. Drawing on clusivity, he dissociated himself from the government he is ironically part of and shares a political party with by designating them as “They”, and he associated with the people as co-victims, collectivizing them with him as “you and us”. There is a more polarizing distinction in text 9 as another speaker reprimands African leaders for trusting the vaccines made by Western leaders: he qualifies the attitude of the latter to the former with the evaluative verb “despise”. Thus, other evaluatives are engaged to characterize African (particularly, Nigerian) leaders’ acceptance of COVAX as “not okay” and “not patriotic”.
Fear, anger, dissatisfaction, insecurity, and disinclination are some of the apparent emotions in these expressions. There is palpable fear in the rhetorical acts in texts 7 and 8, which were spoken by influential political and religious figures. Reference to the unusual speed for COVAX creation and the status of the speaker of text 7 in government fuels apprehension as evident in the reactions in 7a-c - leading to an instant rejection of the vaccines and an invitation of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) to urgently address the allegation. The historical allusion is articulated with emphasis on the time adverbial “throughout history”, the negative interrogative “Are you okay?” in text 8, and the (evaluative) pejoratives in text 9 labeling COVAX as “devilish” and those willing to take it as “animals” depict the voicing of anger and dissatisfaction towards the vaccine. It similarly exposes their feeling of insecurity as underscored in the modulation of disinclination in texts 7a and 10 “me and my family will not take the vaccine” and “I cannot take this vaccine now until I have children”. The expression of these feelings marks the hysteria that greeted the introduction of COVAX to Nigeria and how the government’s adoption of the vaccine was popularly negatively judged - attracting criticism from a sitting governor.

Discussion

This paper set out to appraise the use of language in COVID-19 and COVAX conspiracy perceptions on social media vis-à-vis their discursive constructions and interpersonal meanings, noting the negative effect of these conspiracies on the government’s pandemic management efforts. The study identified three Cov and Vax conspiracy perceptions: COVID-19 as fraud, COVAX as a depopulation plan, and COVAX as associated with the 5G network. These were constructed in Cov and Vax conspiracy discourse through these interpretive repertoires: reference, evaluatives, time clauses, and intensifiers under lexicogrammar; and clusivity, argumentation, historical allusion, rhetorical question, and narratorial trope under rhetorical strategies. These enacted the social actions of disputing the existence of Covid; alleging the virus as a fraud; justifying the allegation; denouncing the 5G network; and prognosticating the imminent deaths associated with the 5G technology. These worked up the negative emotions of dissatisfaction, apprehension, anger, insecurity, and disinclination; and intensified negative judgment of the government’s behavior in enforcing the virus control measures, which were expressed in terse textual voices that suppress the official COVAX narrative and endorse the alternative views.
The conspiracies gained traction by the status of their purveyors and backers, some of whom were highly placed political and religious actors whose positions tend to have officialized the misinformation. Thus, this had the effect of increasing the apprehension and disinclination among potential Vax takers who might have read these posts or listened to these statements on social media, and, as a result, further fueled vaccine hesitancy. These health communicative behaviors and their attendant public health implications have been echoed in many studies, especially nonlinguistic works like Wilson and Wiysonge (2020) that found social media engagement as influencing perceptions about vaccine safety, and Puri et al (2020) that also affirmed the huge influence of anti-vaccination messaging on social media on vaccine acceptance and public health. This was evident in the early response of many Nigerians to COVAX. When the vaccination campaign started in April 2021 in Nigeria, only 1.2 million took the vaccine; the figure grew by 3 million in August 2021 before the roll-out of the second phase; by April 2022, 38.4 million had been vaccinated. This could mean there was some level of disbelief toward COVAX initially, and may not be unconnected to the misinformation spread about COVID-19 and the vaccines.
Theoretically, the study has exemplified how the psychological implications of social media talk and text are managed with respect to a “care” motivated act of health information sharing to purportedly protect fellow citizens in the digital community against their government and the Western world, alleged to be concocting a virus scheme for financial and other gains. Grounded in discursive psychology, different psychological states are embodied in several social actions that are engaged to disrupt vaccination policies and efforts in the country. This, theoretically and practically, points to the performativity of social media language and its social capacity to construct alternate realities. As averred by Solon (2014), misleading information can gain credibility if they are disseminated widely. The integration of an appraisal framework to amplify these psychological categories provides a theoretical anchor for the study with eclectic and transdisciplinary intercourse across the fields of discourse analysis and social psychology. Therefore, through the instrumentality of discursive psychology and appraisal resources, social actions and psychological categories that are produced by social media engagements deepen the understanding of interpersonal meanings in anti-COVID-19 and vaccination discourses.

Conclusion

The Nigerian social media space, as in other climes, provided an avenue for unsubstantiated information about COVAX to be widely propagated, which seemed to diminish government pandemic efforts. This study highlighted some of these widely circulated conspiracy claims and examined how they were constructed and driven through the interpretive repertoires (of lexicogrammar and rhetorical strategies) generated by the COVAX discourses, as well as their social actions and cognitive outputs. This research further explains how the anti-COVID-19-vaccination messaging on social media has influenced vaccine acceptance, and the public health implication, in Nigeria, which indicates the general need by the government and all stakeholders to proactively engage the digital discourse postures of social media users, especially when they seem to undermine public health safety efforts.

Limitations of the Study

This study has some limitations. First, it is limited to examining COVAX conspiracy perceptions through the prism of discourse analysis, particularly discursive psychology, and appraisal system. It is, thus, a qualitative study, which adopted an interpretive design, and it is therefore not an experimental showcase of demonstrating media effect. It relied on social media data, which similarly provides access to “truly unforced natural language” (Seitz, 2016: 8). It, thus, could not account for the gestural and other paralinguistic cues in physical interactions.

Figure 1.
A Discursive Psychology/Appraisal Framework of COVID-19 Conspiracy Perceptions
hnmr-6-2-270f1.jpg

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