"They are spraying the coronavirus". Of conspiracy rumors in social networks and their political uses in Mexico.1

Receipt: July 31, 2022

Acceptance: November 22, 2022


In this article we examine a rumor that claimed that governmental sanitization measures against the coronavirus are actually strategies to infect the population and eliminate it. This rumor circulated in various regions of Mexico, generating multiple community protests. This study separates itself from an approach that condemns rumor and conspiracy theories for being false, and takes into account that these phenomena help provide an understanding of what is considered plausible or not in a certain context. We present the versions that circulated in San Antonio de la Cal, Oaxaca, as well as narrative elements that confer plausibility and implausibility. The study is based primarily on an analysis of conversations generated on Facebook and personal interviews. It shows that the rumor was connected to conspiracy narratives and local accounts that discussed a lack of confidence in the authorities. Furthermore, its political use by groups opposing the authorities is examined.

Keywords: , , , ,

"they are fumigating the coronavirus." conspiracy rumors on social networks and their political uses in mexico

In this article we examine a rumor that claimed that governmental sanitization measures against the coronavirus are actually strategies to infect the population and eliminate it. This rumor circulated in various regions of Mexico, generating multiple community protests. This study separates itself from an approach that condemns rumor and conspiracy theories for being false, and takes into account that these phenomena help provide an understanding of what is considered plausible or not in a certain context. We present the versions that circulated in San Antonio de la Cal, Oaxaca, as well as narrative elements that confer plausibility and implausibility. The study is based primarily on an analysis of conversations generated on Facebook and personal interviews. It shows that the rumor was connected to conspiracy narratives and local accounts that discussed a lack of confidence in the authorities. Furthermore, its political use by groups opposing the authorities is examined.

Keywords: rumor, coronavirus, verisimitude, conspiracy theory, Mexico.

Rumors are access routes to unsuspected universes, to unknown ways of thinking and feeling of different social groups, to unpublished experiences of the communities. They are gaps to understand both the concerns, anxieties and illusions that have been lived during the time of the covid-19 pandemic, as well as the different notions of health, disease and ways to prevent it. This text presents the results of a research that deals with multiple rumors that have circulated in Mexico about the phenomenon of the coronavirus in socio-digital networks, especially on Facebook and Twitter. We have privileged those that have had a social impact and caused mobilizations or collective actions.

The rumor that we will analyze here narrates that the sanitization measures implemented by the government -which should serve to reduce contagions- are, rather, strategies to disperse the coronavirus, "fumigate" it and infect the population. This rumor has been circulating since 2020 in very distant points of the national territory (such as the State of Mexico, Chiapas or Oaxaca) and has generated a heated conversation in the socio-digital networks. The last version we know of this was spread in Veracruz in October 2021 and said that they were seeking to infect and spread the disease through drones, owned by the federal army, which caused some villagers to shoot down such devices. Here we will present the case of San Antonio de la Cal, Oaxaca.

These versions of the rumor stage social, economic and political dramas that the population has been living through during the uncertain times of the pandemic. They also constitute a metaphorical and symbolic language to denounce their rulers and institutions, which they deeply distrust. In a previous work we proposed that multiple rumors that have circulated in Mexico since 2020 function as a statement or warning of a possible extermination of the population that few speak of and almost no one dares to denounce: "they are killing us", an elliptical figure that can be filled in multiple ways and generates many variations (Zires, 2021). Here we continue to explore this figure and the regime of verisimilitude that sustains it.

It is noteworthy that some of the variants of the rumor about the "spraying of the coronavirus" have been used by groups opposed to certain municipal authorities to criticize them, delegitimize them, as well as to discredit the sectors to which they belong or to which they are linked. In this way, the political dimension of many rumors that have circulated in the pandemic is fully visible.

Now, in order for the rumor to be used politically, it must be plausible for the population in which it circulates, it must possess a minimum of verisimilitude for it to be disseminated and it must be articulated to pre-existing notions or discourses, otherwise it could not generate collective mobilizations. Among these pre-existing notions are the conspiracy explanations that have circulated not only in Mexico, but at a global level and that have acquired particular meanings or local interpretations, as we will see in the analyzed case. It is to these aspects that we would like to direct our attention.

The rumor and the plausible

In this research, rumor is conceived as an incomplete story in permanent transformation according to the historical and cultural context in which it circulates (Zires 2001, 2005). Due to its changing nature, it is important to recognize its multiple versions and transformations.

Rumor is produced in the interstices of institutions and circulates through informal channels of communication, both through traditional social networks (family, neighborhood, etc.), as well as in more or less interactive digital spaces on the Internet and in sociodigital networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, among others). In the past it was only an oral phenomenon. Currently it acquires oral forms in face-to-face contexts, as well as auditory, written, visual and audiovisual modalities via traditional or recoded literacy messages, audiovisual micro-productions and "memes" that circulate through mobile telephony in applications such as Messenger or WhatsApp, among others. It is a form of mediatized, hypermediated and multimodal communication (Zires, 2017, 2021).

In this sense, it differs from news or history in that they are legitimized stories that circulate through institutional channels of a society. Rumor is linked to "it is said", to the anonymous voice, and to "it is not said", to what the government or political instances frequently censor.

Rumors are group and collective phenomena that cross social groups and sometimes different cultural contexts. In recent decades they have been acquiring a more global character. This is the case of rumors related to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the meaning that interests us here, rumor is detached from the paradigm of falsehood. versus The rumor is linked to the truth and the vision that links the news with truth and objectivity, as well as the rumor with falsehood and subjectivity. From this perspective, rumor is linked to credibility, to the set of social and cultural conventions that establish what can and cannot be said in a given context, as well as how to say it. These conventions, more or less explicit, emanate from what has been formulated up to a given moment in the discourses that precede it (Zires, 2001).2.

In this sense, we are interested in knowing what makes the different rumors about the pandemic that have circulated in Mexico plausible or implausible. What are the different regimes of plausibility that shape their creation and transformation?

Similarly, we are interested in exploring the points of connection between rumors and conspiracy narratives, moving away from the vision that stigmatizes them as false and links them to the pathological, to analyze what makes them plausible. In this way we can recognize other ways of interpreting the world and producing other truths.

This is not an isolated discussion; Boullier and colleagues recently emphasized the possibility opened up by this epistemological shift:

We must document the variety of discourses and epistemologies that strain the fabrication of truth, along with the types of evidence and groups on which they rely. In short, the boundaries of science are at stake today: the boundaries of private or political interests, whose porosity the "conspiracists" denounce; and the boundaries between legitimate and deviant science, which these actors would like to impose. Rather than taking sides in these shifting and complex controversies, the social sciences would benefit from observing the work deployed on both sides of these lines (Boullier, Kotras and Siles, 2021: 12).3.

From rumor to collective action

Rumors can contribute to articulate isolated individual or collective actions by inserting them within a certain framework of intelligibility. Hence, on many occasions there is an intimate relationship between rumor and collective action. Some studies investigate how these collective actions have been triggered by rumors. Farge and Revel (1998) highlight, for example, the significance of the riots and lynchings that were generated by rumors of child kidnappings in Paris in 1750. In this analysis, the logic of multiple signification and improvisation in collective actions based on pre-established explanations and scripts is underlined. It seems fundamental to us to take up this perspective, since it allows us to dissociate ourselves from unilinear visions.

The rumor that the inhabitants of San Antonio de la Cal are being infected or "fumigated", as well as the individual and collective actions that have resulted from it, should not be treated from a unifocal perspective in which certain culprits - those who prevented the sanitization measures - are criminalized and placed at the center as a symbol of ignorance and human stupidity. Rather, our approach suggests delving into the logics of social significance and verisimilitude of the multiple narratives that have circulated in that area and in many other contexts before that date, which will allow us to discover points of narrative convergence and interpretation between those local narratives and the conspiracy explanations that have circulated globally. This approach invites analysis of the political sectors that contributed significantly to its local dissemination, as well as those that attempted to counteract it.

Brief reconstruction of the case in San Antonio de la Cal, Oaxaca

On May 27, 2020, in San Antonio de la Cal, Oaxaca, residents of the municipality prevented the sanitization of public areas of the town because they believed they were spreading the coronavirus. According to health authorities, this disinfection measure was intended to reduce the spread of the disease, but, according to the inhabitants, it was actually the opposite, the spread of the virus.

According to different national and local newspapers,4 the villagers obstructed the sanitization with sticks and a few machetes in their hands, and detained for a time the workers in charge of the sanitization, a brigade dependent on the state Health Secretariat. The brigade soon fled to the municipal presidency, where the demonstrators then threw stones and tear gas, damaging parts of the municipal palace and the president's truck; they also blocked streets to prevent the police and the National Guard from entering. Faced with this situation, the municipal president, Alfonso Vázquez, went out to the esplanade, tried to give an explanation and convince the population, but ended up assuring that the sanitization measures were suspended, gave the protesters the liquid that was being used and the brigade left the place guarded by the police.

According to the newspapers The universal and PublimeterThe villagers even shouted: "They want to kill us" and "the liquid spreads the virus".5 According to The Day some messages sent through WhatsApp groups had circulated among the population and encouraged the collective reaction:

Local residents reported that, through groups of WhatsApp was sent an audio in which a man says that municipal authorities must deliver 60 deceased persons per day starting next week, that is why they are carrying out sanitization activities, this in order to spread the covid-19 virus, in addition to in case of illness, they are asked to avoid visiting health centers.. In this audio, people are asked to join in and prevent health personnel from carrying out these disinfection tasks, since fumes" directly affect the lungs and bronchi6 (italics added).

For its part, the newspaper Millennium pointed out that opponents of the municipal president had participated in stirring up the population on social networks. 7 In the same vein, a local newspaper, Dialogues Oaxaca, wrote that a sector of local political forces had participated in the protest action, inciting mobilization and violence: "a shock group identified with the former candidate for the municipal presidency, Juan Carlos Pascual, blocked and threw tear gas bombs". This situation necessarily leads to take into account the social context of San Antonio de la Cal and a post-electoral conflict that has been latent in the town hall and to reflect on the political dimension of the rumor.

Tensioned socio-political and post-electoral context

San Antonio de la Cal is part of Oaxaca City's metropolitan area, five kilometers from downtown Oaxaca City and in the direction of the airport. In the last decades its population has grown, expanding the geographical area it covers. In the center of this municipality lives the original population, the so-called "natives" or "caleros", who are distinguished from the population that has come to live there, the "avecindados" or "fuereños".

It is governed by a municipal electoral regime in tension: a mix between the usos y costumbres system and the partisan system, which reflects the tension between natives and outsiders. On the one hand, it is one of the many municipalities in the state of Oaxaca that are governed by the usos y costumbres system to elect their municipal authorities, which is why they vote in a local assembly.8 The caleros are the main advocates of this system. They control this system and its rules of participation (which require the candidate to have had a commitment to religious festivities and community service), which tends to sideline outsiders. The latter group, on the contrary, has advocated in the last decades for the respect of the electoral law and the partisan system that allows them to participate in local elections, even if they do not comply with the requirements of the usos y costumbres system.9 Hence, in this municipality, the usos y costumbres regime is not separated, as in other municipalities, from the logic of the parties, and for this reason, planillas are formed according to colors. When the planillas launch their campaigns, the political parties intervene with their organizational structures and support from the center of the state or the country, but the elections take place in a local assembly, a system that at certain times exhibits many contradictions.

Traditionally San Antonio de la Cal has been considered a PRI bastion, but as other parties have grown, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri) has lost importance and some of its supporters have migrated to other parties, especially to Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena). In 2016, the following party voted for governor pribut in 2018 Morena won both in the state elections for deputies, and at the federal level, in the election for president of the country by voting for López Obrador.

On November 24, 2019, local elections were held in San Antonio de la Cal, in which ten planillas participated. During the course of the elections, people linked to the orange candidate, Juan Carlos Pascual Diego, who is close to the pri,10 who was winning. As a result, the population demonstrated in the assembly and this candidate was discarded that same day, so the candidate of the green planilla, Alfonso Vázquez Santiago, close to the National Action Party (bread). For this reason, the discarded candidate, Juan Carlos Pascual, challenged the results before the Oaxaca Electoral Tribunal, but this tribunal validated Alfonso Vázquez at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic in Mexico, in March 2020. Following this validation, candidate Pascual continued to challenge the results at the federal level and requested new elections, leading to a cancellation of the election results in July 2020. Since that date, the municipality has had no elections or permanent authorities, but only temporary administrators who are appointed by the local senate, which is governed mostly by Morena party forces.

This means that, when the rumor surfaced in the locality, there was a very tense political situation in the municipality between those who were dissatisfied with the electoral process, those who supported Alfonso Vázquez (Poncho) and those who supported the one who contested the election (Pascual). This allows us to understand why the rumors and protest actions of the people in the municipality were encouraged or supported by this sector in political-electoral dispute.

Some methodological strategies for research and analysis

Based on the media coverage by different television news programs such as Denise Maerker and Ciro Gómez Leyva about the impediment of sanitization in San Antonio de la Cal, where images, videos and testimonies that had circulated on different Facebook sites were reused, these original publications were traced, as well as the groups and pages of this platform with the topic of San Antonio de la Cal, in order to enter into the conversations that had been generated in this regard. It was of interest to recover in these conversations the different rumors that had circulated, the discourses that gave it verisimilitude and implausibility, the associative fabric that had raised both the rumor and the ways of interpreting it by users on Facebook, the collective action and, in general, the socio-political context. Among the Facebook pages we selected all those referring to local issues that were operating at the time, of which there were four, whose administrators, apart from the official ones, were not identifiable. In all of them there was a more or less confrontational conversation between those who supported the rumor and those who rejected it and disapproved the consequent collective actions. Among the pages were: the official site in 2020 Municipality of San Antonio de la Calas well as the official site in 2019 H. Municipality of San Antonio de la Cal;11 San Antonio de la Cal, Oaxacawhose administrators were more inclined to defend the authorities; We are San Antonio de la CalThis was managed by people who that day were totally critical of the local authorities; as well as the page of the municipal president at that time, Alfonso Ángel Vázquez Santiago. We also analyzed some regional pages of Oaxaca: Oaxaca Alert, Oaxacaqueando and others related to local media: El Imparcial and Oaxaca News Voice and ImageThe media, which generated critical conversation, although they did not allude so much to the rumor and local political processes and concentrated on criticizing those who prevented the sanitization. The following media stand out The Oaxaca Wave which uploaded a video of the moment when the demonstrators were protesting in front of the Municipal Palace. In this way, he took up the vision of the demonstrators themselves.

In order to get an idea of what happened in the elections in 2019 and on May 27, 2020, an informative analysis was also conducted in local newspapers in the state of Oaxaca and nationally on the Internet (Quadratín Oaxaca, Diálogos Oaxaca, La Jornada, Reforma, Milenio, Excélsior, Publímetro, Animal Político, Reporte Indigo).

In order to understand the social and political context from within the locality and to better interpret the socio-digital conversations, three people who have actively participated in the community and political life of San Antonio de la Cal were interviewed in depth: a native, with university studies in education who participated in the assembly in the 2019 elections, and who followed the moment of irruption of the rumor and collective actions on May 27, 2020 -said informant prefers to remain anonymous-; Marina Méndez, who has lived there for more than a decade, has worked in the Mexican Line for the Defense of Human Rights and in multiple community projects in contact with the different parties at the local level; and the municipal president himself, Alfonso Vázquez, who is a native, to know his vision of what happened.

Rumors about the spread of the coronavirus and discourses that lend it credibility.

In the Facebook conversations, while most of them question the rumor, call its disseminators ignorant and mock them, insult and denigrate them with racist, classist and malinchist terms; that does not prevent some from posting the different versions of the rumor and what makes it plausible from different angles or perspectives, which allows access to the collective deliberation that is generated in all rumor production. An important point of deliberation that day is what sanitization and fumigation means.

In the videos recovered from the protest action discussed above, the protesters do not use the term "sanitization", but rather "fumigation". The authorities interviewed and the reporters speak of sanitization. Both actions, sanitization and fumigation undoubtedly have elements associated with them.The use of certain chemical substances is generally unknown to the common people; and the people who spread these substances wear masks or suits that protect them, which alludes to a certain danger or care for these substances. It is not by chance that in one of the Facebook sites someone asks precisely that May 27: "The people demand an answer. To the municipal authority. It is being fumigated or sanitized. And for what purpose and with what chemicals are they doing it??" 12

In relation to the chemical substances that are being used in the "fumigation", the users express great distrust due to their possible danger and the unwise use of these substances: "they are poisons", "this mother is poison". From a more environmentalist point of view, some express their uselessness: "It is a waste of money. It pollutes the streets and the environment. It does not really prevent the proliferation of covid and kills many other useful forms of life". In the same vein, another user adds a reference to the scientific discourse: "The who already said that fumigating streets is useless. I disapprove of the actions of the people and also of the government in not following the recommendations of the who”.13

Other people gave sanitization-fumigation a clearly lethal meaning and, therefore, more directly linked to the rumor itself that generated the collective action: "They just want to kill more people, as they have already done"; "it is true that through fumigation they are killing people". Several users brought examples of concrete places where this had happened, which gave credibility to the rumor, such as in Tuxtepec, San Fernando de Chiapas and the Central de Abastos: "Coincidence or not, but one day after the fumigation there are a lot of infected people, how do you explain it? In Tuxtepec something similar happened, one day before they fumigated and sanitized and the next day bam the neighborhood with more than 10 infected"; "Here in San Fernando Chiapas! Since they fumigated! Many people started to die! What a coincidence? No!!".

Other elements that contributed to the credibility of the coronavirus "spraying" rumor were stories about distrust of the municipal government and the fact that the town hall has not been sanitized, nor has the municipal president's house:14

Everyone talks, criticizes and insults! For those who do not know, it was said that the sanitization was accepted but first they had to start with the houses of the municipal council, did anyone accept, no one accepted because they know that the liquid is toxic.

Let's not allow it, paisanos. If poncho (referring to the municipal president) wants to fumigate, let him start at home. Let's hope he doesn't get his mother or sister killed.15

Another user added another narrative element that lent verisimilitude to the rumor of the spread of the virus not only in San Antonio de la Cal, but also in Ixtlahuaca, State of Mexico, the mention that "fumigations" are carried out at night, "late at night" (Arcega et al., 2021):

Mistrust is so great in the communities of Oaxaca and there is even more distrust when a white van arrives in your community late at night to fumigate other people's houses.

The suspicion aroused by the government in general and the health authorities is a recurring theme that contributes to lend credibility to the versions of the rumor of the spread of the virus in the Mexican population. The following expressions from users are illustrative in this sense: "what happens is that the government has lied to them so much that they do not know whether to believe or not"; "knowing the Mexican government, I would not doubt it"; "but the truth is that you cannot trust the government with everything"; "with this fucking government, I do not doubt that they are going to spread the virus"; "Do not allow fumigation, do not trust the government or hospitals".

In this conversational space of suspicion towards government institutions, the association of the rumor of the "fumigation" of the coronavirus arose several times, articulated with the rumor that they were killing patients in hospitals that circulated in other parts of the country, especially in Ecatepec, State of Mexico, and has been analyzed in detail in a publication by Zires (2021). In this version of the rumor, the fumigation does not have a lethal effect, but it does make people seriously ill, so they have to go to the hospital and are killed there. The hospital is seen as a place of systematic annihilation of the patients who come to it.

One of the versions of the rumor that there is no coronavirus, but they kill in hospitals was clearly linked to conspiracy views:

Do not believe in holy kings, this disease does not exist, the government has made a pact with all private or government hospitals. The purpose of the project [which] is to kill every person who enters with any type of disease so that they say they are covid, open their eyes and that is why people have already realized [that] they have to go out to the streets [the italics and the conjunction "que", which facilitates the reading, are ours].

Logic of thought or conspiracy explanations in a local context

Many of the rumors about the pandemic circulating today in social networks and WhatsApp groups in Mexico are shaped by some elements of the explanations or alleged "conspiracy theories", as they are commonly called in the media, 16 although they acquire a local touch that is important to note, as is the case in San Antonio de la Cal. Such explanations have a scheme or certain logic of thought or interpretation of reality in which a threat is always denounced, a hidden plot by an identifiable agent that has an evil, destructive intention against some subjects, population or specific localized entity. This evil instance possesses resources, power and acts in secret together with certain allies that make its actions possible (Campion Vincent, 2005: 104). From this follows, therefore, a clear Manichean narrative pattern of recognizable victims and victimizers, as well as a mechanical cause-effect scheme. According to social psychologists, this simple scheme is very attractive because it contributes to give a simple and clear order of interpretation to complex social processes, such as in the process and development of the covid-19 pandemic, where multiple health and health, economic, political, cultural factors intervene, as well as elements of chance that create many concerns in people (Douglas, Sutton and Cichocka, 2017).

In the last version of the rumor mentioned above, a deception is denounced by pointing out that the disease does not exist and that there is a hidden pact or plot between the government and the hospitals (both private and governmental), a pact of extermination; likewise, the collective action that generated the rumor is justified: "that is why the people already realized [that] they have to go out to the streets". The victims are the inhabitants and the victimizers are the government and the hospitals. In fact, in many of the comments on the different Facebook pages selected, the figure of the government appears as the victimizer par excellence, the one that "does not inform", the one that "has lied", the one that "cannot be trusted", the one that is "corrupt", the one that "has made a pact with hospitals", the one that "wants to kill us".

Now, we wonder what possible interest the government or governments could have in annihilating a part of the population. In some versions of the Facebook rumor, a possible reason is stated: global overpopulationbut with certain local or national tints and variations. In some cases, these comments are made to denounce the conspiracy against the old people and to prevent their extermination:

The communities are right, the government what guarantee do they give them to sanitize, those chemicals we do not know in [what]. can affect the elderly. People are scared now because of overpopulation we know that hurts our old people (italics and the conjunction "what", which facilitates reading, are ours).

In other comments the opposite happens, the fictitious sense of this conspiracy is denounced and it is qualified as "false information", but both examples demonstrate the existence of the notion of world overpopulation that would support the conspiracy explanations in times of pandemic:

This happens because of people who do not believe in the pandemic and keep inventing and sharing information. false that will be fumigated to end overpopulation... [italics added].

It is interesting that those who qualify such conspiracy versions as "conspiracy information" are not only the most likely to be "conspiracy theorists", but also "conspirators".false"and disqualify the alleged government strategy of "reducing the population" alert the population of San Antonio de la Cal about the circulation of written and audio messages through socio-digital networks:

My dad just showed me an audio that he received and they are sending by messaging in Whats App groups where a lazy guy says that people should stop them from sanitizing because it is only government strategy to make people sick and reduce the population that reptilians, world order, gluten, 5G antennas and I don't know how many other things. Don't share those fake news chains that's why this happens.

According to Denise Maerker's website, there was an audio that circulated through the social-digital networks in San Antonio de la Cal that said the following: "The governments have an agreement and they must comply by delivering 60 people a day. They have to deliver 60 dead people a day next week. So what does this mean? That they share the information.17

The audio emphasizes a fundamental aspect of the conspiracy narrative logic: the pact or agreement involving the governmental instance; in this case, "governments" are referred to in the plural, although it is not specified which governments are involved, so, according to its diffusion, it could be associated to different governmental entities of the local, regional, national or global spheres. However, it is noteworthy that the number of deaths per covid required per day is specified: 60 people, 60 deaths. From the collective reaction generated by this message, it is possible to think that the figure must have sounded terrifying for a municipality like San Antonio de la Cal.

The journalist's website does not indicate the authorship of the audio production. It remains as an anonymous voice that was circulating in the various social networks of the locality. This audio was also referred to us by the interviewees from San Antonio de la Cal, both by Marina Méndez, as well as by the municipal president himself. The other native interviewee indicated that this audio had not reached him, but that he had been told something similar: the rumor that the municipal presidents of the localities of Oaxaca had to deliver both official numbers for death of covid-19 and for contagion in order to "receive economic remuneration". In this version, the motive or interest in participating in this governmental pact stands out: the "blessed" money.

The significance of class actions

Once the versions of the rumor about the "fumigation" of the coronavirus have been explained and some of the narrative elements that make them plausible have been presented (such as the stories that the sanitization is rather a dispersion of the virus, that it is carried out at night and, above all, the stories about the distrust that all government authorities arouse in them, together with the conspiracy explanations), it is convenient to analyze the meaning of the collective actions generated by the rumor.

Act of defense and resistance in the face of a social drama according to the protesters themselves

Based on the analysis of a live video broadcast and published by Oaxaca Wave On their Facebook site, we were able to take up the protesters' own expressions and statements at the time of the protest action that took place on the esplanade, in front of the municipal palace, on May 27, 2020.18 In this video, the voices of the protesters, mostly women, many of them tortilla vendors, are recovered in a dialogue with the reporter. Here we retake the testimonies of two of these women who appear as leaders, who give their version of the rumor and demonstrate against the sanitization or "fumigation"; according to them:

There are people from where they went to fumigate, they have already died. Just now a lady just died. So, what are we playing at? We already know that they want people dead because of overpopulation. But it is not acceptable that they are taking people by force.

She narrates the most widespread version of the rumor (where they fumigate: people die) and also denounces the hidden plot, i.e., the population reduction plan, as well as the motive of this plot, to combat overpopulation. He surely alludes to the content of the audio that had circulated in the socio-digital networks in San Antonio de la Cal mentioned before: "Beforehand we already know that they want dead people because of overpopulation...". The logic of conspiracy thinking is clearly exhibited to its full extent at the moment of collective action.

Another tortilla vendor repeats the same version of the rumor:

In the food market people covered themselves, they constantly washed their hands and there was not a single dead person. What happened? They just went to fumigate and the dead began to fall, so what we do not want for our families, we have old people here in San Antonio de la Cal, we have children, we have sick people, so why fumigate? We know that it is killing us, so we don't want it anymore.

Near the end of the video, both demonstrators justify their protest action as a defense and resistance of "the people", of "the people" and the support they receive from those present is evident: "So what I say here many people have already left, but there are few of us who have not left. But it doesn't matter, I'll stick my hands in for my people". At this, the group of villagers applauded the woman as a sign of support. After her speech, the other woman defends herself from having been classified as a troublemaker: "They have already pointed the finger at me, they have already blamed me, that I am making trouble for the people. Let the people here say if I am disturbing them". To this request, the crowd at the back of the esplanade responded loudly: "No!

The representativeness of these women's voices must be seen in the context of the role played by tortilla makers in San Antonio de la Cal, a place known for its tlayudas, a type of tortilla typical of Oaxaca, whose production and sale had declined during the pandemic.19

When asked by the reporter if the community had not been informed, the women repeat several times that there was no warning and claim that they did not participate in the decision making process, that there was no "meeting" or "assembly" where the people had a say in the matter. They add that the people did not ask for "fumigation". According to them, the president of the municipality is not "in charge of our life, nor of our house, of our people". The president would not send himself alone, since he owes it to the people: "If the people put me, then let the people tell me... he will send his house, but not the people". In his words we can see the principles of the usos y costumbres regime that governs them, and the importance of the assembly in local decision making.

The protest action also became a sounding board for many other complaints to the municipal president that reflect the economic drama they were experiencing: doubts as to whether the sanitation measures were really promoted by the Ministry of Health, complaints for not having received support at the time of the pandemic as other neighboring towns would have received and, most importantly, for having installed police filters that prevented the entry of staple foods such as tortillas, corn, bread and cheese, among others. The insinuation is that the municipal presidency is "profiting from the pandemic".

In their speeches, the lime growers' notion of being victims of deceit by their local rulers is evident: "they should not go around deceiving all the people of the town"; "let's see if it is true that we are the liars or they are the ones who are deceiving the people".

Multiple significance of the collective actions generated by the rumor on Facebook

In the conversations analyzed in the Facebook sites related to San Antonio de la Cal and the state of Oaxaca, the collective actions generated by the circulation of the rumor of sanitization were classified from very different social, political and ideological perspectives. The conversations reveal these perspectives and allow us to enter into the social framework and the tensions that were being experienced at that time in the locality; they reveal the difficulty of dialogue between very polarized sectors: between those who supported the municipal authorities, Alfonso Vázquez - "Poncho"-, and those opposed to him, linked to the party that contested the elections and its leader Juan Carlos Pascual.

Acts of ignorance, savagery and dishonor for the municipality.

From the perspective of those who defend the municipal authorities, both the spreading of rumors and the actions against sanitization are acts of total ignorance; it is said that these are people who do not read, do not research, do not know how to write and only feed on gossip via word of mouth or social networks. From a classist perspective, this sector is placed in the place of the one who knows, has studied and would be informed:

ignorant people, start reading, do some research... look for popular science articles, so you can inform yourself. Leave ignorance aside and help your family to stop spreading ignorance everywhere.

The problem is that these people only believe gossip, they do not take the time to investigate or at least ask questions, they only come out like monkeys with their sticks, not even as apes for those reason more.

The process of social stigmatization that accompanies polarized conversations on social networks also flourishes in this space. Those who share the rumor and participate in acts of protest are equated with monkeys or extinct, primitive and savage species:

...how you make me laugh, it's like watching a colony of living Neanderthals, I have already talked to National Geographic to make a documentary about you.

Some Facebook users qualify in a negative way the expansion of the rumor and the acts of protest that it raised from the impact it would have on public opinion and outside the town. In that sense, it would be an act of dishonor, for which the entire municipality would be singled out for being inhabited by uncivilized people:

It is unfortunate that San Antonio has become known for such unpleasant things and it is a shame.

Not even because they are close to the center of the city are they civilized people! [...] San Antonio de la Cal, known for its tlayuda fair, has become known as the "Ecatepec" of Oaxaca.

The above comparison shows the feeling of humiliation and the recognition of the stigmatization process that Ecatepec had suffered and the one they were suffering. Being from Oaxaca and belonging to an Oaxacan community emerged as a total stigma that explained not only the ignorance in San Antonio de la Cal, but the inability of its inhabitants to reason, as well as to understand the internet and sociodigital networks such as Facebook or WhatsApp: "Pura ignorancia les brota, pinches paisanitos, por eso están como están"; "De oaxaca tenían que ser"; "Que alguien le quitar el WhatsApp a la gente de Oaxaca"; "Pinches oaxacos se creen todo lo que ven en el feis"; "La gente de Oaxaca le das un poco de internet y se creen parte de la sociedad". It was clear: they were inferior beings. They did not deserve, therefore, to be taken into account: "Learn to write first"; "my god, you don't even have a high school degree and you really want to give your opinion, put4 a bunch of ignorant people, they are the ass of this country, they are the shit of this country". Regional social stigmatization was accompanied -in one case also- by national stigmatization, by malinchismo: "Mexicans being Mexicans".

Act of political manipulation by opponents of the authorities

A sector of Facebook users, possibly linked to the authorities, interprets the spread of the rumor and the collective actions against the sanitization as an act of political manipulation on the part of the opposition sector. Precisely, the administrators of the Facebook group "San Antonio de la Cal", whose names do not appear on the site, launched this interpretation in the evening, once everything was concluded:

And these people who started their rampage are the same ones who are trying to challenge the current cabildo. The same representatives of the planillas and their shock groups, just look at who was in charge of the mess. Who destroyed the patrols and detained the people. And those people who were disturbing the people are the ones from the orange planilla of Juan Carlos, the ones from the purple planilla of Facundo, the ones from the pink planilla and there were also people from Porfirio?

Some support this interpretation by pointing out that "a small group led by the caramelo sisters and those who were part of Juan Carlos Pascual's planilla" would have participated. And others point out precisely since the morning, on the Facebook page of the same municipal authority, that there was a woman with a device that was disturbing the people at that moment, inciting them not to sanitize and to violence: "they should do something about the announcement that they are putting up about not allowing fumigation"; "Someone tell that lady who is announcing that she should stop disturbing the people". Some users consider this behavior illegal and deserving of a fine: "she should be fined and her device should be shut down, she is only inciting violence". One of the comments that gives the impression of coming from people close to the authorities takes on a threatening tone: "they are investigating to give the old woman who is disturbing the people of San Antonio de la Cal her punishment".

It is illustrative that a user, who had a comment deleted on this Facebook page, considered that this site was sold to the municipal president and that it censored other interpretations: "Why are you deleting my comment where I say that you defend Poncho Vasquez? do not pay attention to this sold pageaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa"..

Act of defense and resistance

On the contrary, for those users who believe the rumor of the spread of the virus or other poisonous substances to be true, the circulation of the virus, as well as the collective actions it provoked, are considered an act of defense and resistance to a deadly attack by the authorities and their manipulation:

Hello very well friends and neighbors of San Antonio de la Cal remember not to let them manipulate the people, everything they are doing these fumigators is deadly, be alert if there is something then make the wake up call and we do not want more deaths that are caused, enough is enough.

From this perspective, those who took to the streets and protested are a source of pride, they deserve recognition for their daring: "Good for those people who are defending themselves, that's good"; "A round of applause for the brave people of San Antonio de la Cal". The protesters are associated with the revolutionaries, with the "organized people of San Antonio". Hence, one user takes up the very popular slogan of the Chilean left that has become internationalized: "People united will never be defeated, these are the brave people that are needed at this time...".

They try to defend themselves on Facebook from the discriminatory attacks they had received and try to counter the idea that those who believe the rumor are ignorant by pointing out that not believing the government is having their own criteria and a symbol of waking up to defend their lives:

Ultimately you have the right to believe or not to believe, not everything the government gives is good or bad, it is important to have your own criteria, it is not a symbol of ignorance, it is a symbol that people are waking up to defend their lives, their health and their way of thinking. (italics added).

While some users close to the authorities and to the page administrators San Antonio de la Cal denounce that behind the spread of the rumor and the protests are the opponents of the authorities, this group opposed to the authorities that manifests itself in the Facebook page We are San Antonio de la Cal denounces precisely the opposite, that the rumor characterizes them as criminals. In this last page, the administrators - unidentified and from the anonymous voice - initiate
The conversation with several posts in which they accuse the authorities for the lack of information about the sanitization, the liquids that would be sprayed, the management of the president as a corrupt "administration of laughter", which wants to hide the thefts from the treasury using the expenses of the sanitization. They denounce that there would have been fraud in the elections and that "Poncho Vásquez would have proclaimed himself municipal president", in addition to criticizing the "sanitary fence where those who are checking do not even use mouth covers and maintain physical contact between them and the drivers".

Final thoughts

On conspiracy theories and their political uses

From what has been presented, we can highlight that rumor continues to be a tool frequently used in electoral politics (Kapferer, 1989: 267-282) and, therefore, also in post-electoral conflicts such as the case of San Antonio de la Cal. However, it must also be stressed that this would not have been possible if the rumor used had not enjoyed a horizon or prediscursive framework of verisimilitude, configured by conspiracy explanations that had circulated previously, in addition to other pre-existing notions and discourses on the dubious and murky performance of government authorities.

This study also shows how rumors not only link communities, but also divide them; they mark a strong dividing line from which different sides (those who believe and those who do not, those who support the collective actions and those who disapprove of them) throw different explanations, cite other sources, question and attack anyone who appropriates the narrative they intend to overthrow (Rouquette, 1977). Rumors are inserted in a discursive contest to make sense not only of the pandemic, what each group is experiencing and how they act, but also to legitimize their place of social and political belonging in a framework of struggle between local forces.

After analyzing the way in which the protesters and Facebook users themselves interpreted the rumors and collective actions that took place in San Antonio de la Cal, it is clear that there are two opposing forms of political interpretation of these: the first as acts of defense and resistance of the inhabitants against the arbitrariness of the municipal authority and its "criminal" strategies against the population and, the second, as acts of ignorance of a sector of the population and manipulation of groups opposed to the authority in order to delegitimize and discredit it. Both views emphasize the political dimension of the rumor. Thus, for the sector opposed to the authorities, rumor is a counter-power from a conspiracy perspective that reveals what the government has "not said": its secret agreements with other governments, its hidden pacts with the health authorities. For the other sector, the important thing is to reveal the exercise of conspiracy manipulation of an opposition sector by pointing out those who spread it and participate in collective actions, from an anti-conspiracy perspective.

These reflections lead us to take up the perspective of Taïeb (2010), who has highlighted the political dimension of conspiracy thinking, its "political logics", by analyzing the rumors that circulated about the influenza vaccine in 2009 in France, among other cases. From the perspective of political sociology and with a clear interest in political rhetoric, this author argues that all conspiracy theories, being "the revelation" of a plot, aim to go against the conspirators, and therefore incite action or mobilization. In this sense, it is clearly a political discourse that should be studied from this perspective, without minimizing it as something irrational or of little importance. From a similar position, Waisbord (2022) argues that conspiracy views related to the covid-19 pandemic, both the denialism of the disease and the beliefs that the World Health Organization (who)The Gates Foundation and George Soros "caused the 'supposed' pandemic with obscure objectives", among other narratives, cannot be understood only as isolated opinions detached from politics. For this author, they respond to campaigns of political polarization: "It reflects the mobilization of political elites, leaders (religious, educational, etc.), and the mobilization of the media", celebrities), and traditional and digital media [...]" (Waisbord, 2022: 40). This type of study allows us to understand the global context of the diffusion of many conspiracy narratives that are circulating not only in Mexico, as well as to illuminate an important part of the pre-discursive breeding ground of the fumigation rumor in the locality studied.

Beyond the political dimension of conspiracy narratives, we believe it is important to delve into the ways of seeing and interpreting the world that they convey, which are often disqualified. a priori. Therefore, it seems important to us to take up the invitation of Boullier and his colleagues to recover "conspiracy epistemologies" in our analysis of the description of reality and the construction of truth:

Rather than a simplistic duality in which conspiracy is an impermeable and homogeneous category, identified as the antithesis of scientific discourse about the world. We propose to understand these objects as part of a continuum of critiques directed at contemporary techno-scientific modernity, regardless of whether they are labeled as conspiracies or not (Boullier, Kotras and Siles, 2021: 13).20

The plausibility of rumor and conspiracy theorizing at the local level

In this study it was also important to analyze what makes the rumor of the "fumigation" of the coronavirus, clearly conspiracy-inspired, in San Antonio de la Cal, plausible, and to study how this type of explanation is processed at the local level. Among the narrative associations that give it verisimilitude, it was important to find again multiple discourses that referred to the great distrust generated in the subjects by the different authorities: municipal, state, federal, national government, governments in general and health authorities. In this world of narratives that we were able to capture, the notion of a deadly State seems to be outlined or delineated, in a broader sense of the concept of State, a more abstract instance that includes the different governmental institutions, their rules, norms and practices. And in relation to that State arises the notion of an unprotected individual and collective social subject, at the discretion of sanitizing and possibly criminal practices of that State; a subject that has no value, that does not matter, whose existence is of no relevance to that State and States. The repetition of phrases about "overpopulation", "we are too many", "too many" clearly conveys the idea that some individuals are superfluous, we are too many, the elderly are superfluous, they are not useful for the State, they are a nuisance, they demand money for pensions, the payment for "the elderly"; the latter in a local, national key, as something close to the experience of the people who manifested and talked in the socio-digital networks and that gave sense or verisimilitude to the notion of the possible extermination that could be being perpetrated. This regime of verisimilitude needs to be further explored.

Taïeb (2010) mentions that these conspiracy interpretations are related to the greater dominance of medical knowledge in contemporary societies and to the distrust aroused in some social sectors by this biopower or the capacity of governments to impose specific biopolitical measures in the administration of life, with the idea of creating health measures to prevent disease, which in the rumors is totally resignified as a thanatological power of the State. More than administering life, it would be administering death.

It is worth noting that once the rumor was publicly denied in the media, the tendencies of social stigmatization increased towards those who had believed in the rumor and had spoken out. A kind of public vacuum was created; no one dared to talk about the rumor, let alone defend it; the subject disappeared almost suddenly. In the words of one of our interviewees: "Nobody wanted to be the next object of ridicule in the networks after what happened on the 27th". It remains to be analyzed what was silenced and remains latent in the collective memory.


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Margarita Zires Roldan is a research professor of the Graduate Program in Communication and Politics at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana -Unidad Xochimilco and a member of the National System of Researchers. Her lines of specialization are the following: analysis of rumors in traditional and socio-digital social networks, currently in contexts of violence; in relation to the pandemic in Mexico and study of contemporary, media and hypermedia manifestations of the myth and symbol of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as its appropriations in different cultural contexts and social movements in Mexico and the United States. See publications: https://uam-mx.academia.edu/MargaritaZires

Aldo Cicardi Gonzalez has a degree in Social Communication from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Unidad Xochimilco, where he wrote a thesis on university film clubs as a form of resistance, which can be consulted at: https://repositorio.xoc.uam.mx/jspui/handle/123456789/24653. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Communication and Politics at the same institution with a research project on the rumor of the fumigation of the coronavirus and collective action in two socio-cultural contexts: Oaxaca and the State of Mexico. He is co-producer and editor of the documentary Opening paths to justice. Ayotzinapa Sentencepremiered in 2020 at the Cineteca Nacional and part of the official selection of the Festival Against Silence All Voices.


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