As the coronavirus continues to surge globally, virus-related conspiracy theories are proliferating online. These antisemitic, xenophobic, hateful messages spread misplaced blame and misinformation, making it more difficult to access accurate information while elevating fear and anxiety. While some of these messages are new, many are simply old tropes repackaged for a modern pandemic.
Conspiracy theorists are positing that the coronavirus was manufactured by humans, whether it be as a bioweapon or to make money by selling vaccines. As detailed in the sections on antisemitism and Sinophobia, many believe that the coronavirus is a bioweapon created by Jews or China. Others claim that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Bill Gates are behind the virus.
These conspiracies are dangerous: If someone believes the virus was purposefully manufactured, they are one step closer to looking for a culprit, and potentially one step closer to scapegoating or actively targeting anyone they believe to be responsible.
- One of more popular conspiracy theories is that the coronavirus was patented, thereby implying that it is manufactured and that this outbreak is man-made. While this is untrue, users on Facebook and Twitter continued to share the conspiracy theory in January and February 2020.
- On Gab, users shared links to articles in January alleging that the coronavirus is a bioweapon.
- This Facebook post posits that the coronavirus was patented and manufactured by the CDC and that it was released because it ran out of funds to continue the program. They add that Bill Gates knew about the virus prior to the outbreak and that he expanded his vaccine program to make money.
- Many on social media have asserted that Bill Gates is responsible for the coronavirus, largely to make money from the vaccine.
- On March 16, Rizza Islam, a member of the Nation of Islam, suggested on Twitter that the coronavirus is being used to target black celebrities.
- Though this post on Facebook from January 29 does not name a culprit, it frames the coronavirus, which was still emerging at the time, as something that was “created.”
QAnon and coronavirus
QAnon is a wide-reaching and remarkably elaborate conspiracy theory that has taken root within parts of the right wing, pro-Trump movement. The theory includes considerable antisemitism and xenophobia.
Even though Q has said nothing about the novel coronavirus, QAnon adherents have enthusiastically latched onto the pandemic, and widely sharing their belief that the virus was developed as a weapon to destabilize the U.S. and/or unseat President Trump.
Jordan Sather, an influential social media user and avid proponent of QAnon, claims that COVID19 is man-made, and its release was planned to coincide with the impeachment hearings. Sather and other prominent QAnon adherents have also claimed that people can protect themselves from infection by drinking bleach.
Joe M, a QAnon proponent with close to 300k Twitter followers claimed in February 2020 that the pandemic was a plot by the cabal to crash the economy and ruin Trump’s re-election. Another leading Q-proponent, Educating Liberals, who has half a million followers, agreed with Joe M, but theorized that Q is now using the crisis to destroy the Deep State
Senator Tom Cotton stoked the same flames when he speculated that coronavirus was a bioweapon made (and leaked) by the Chinese government.
Greg Rubini, a popular contributor in QAnon circles, blames the virus on the so-called Deep State.
Rubini believes that the Deep State has orchestrated the corona outbreak so they can blame President Trump and cost him the election in November. This theory was seized upon by OAN, a right-wing news outlet popular in the Trump White House.
QAnon believers hold that the social disruption caused by coronavirus is part of “The Storm,” the prophesized mass arrests of prominent liberals on pedophilia and sex trafficking charges. This belief is foundational and has its roots in the #pizzagate conspiracy theory. Since its inception, QAnon believers have considered almost any significant news event proof that Democrats are about to be arrested en masse.
Key to “The Storm” is the theory of the “sealed indictments,” the idea that there are hundreds of thousands of indictments waiting for legal action, and prominent liberals who announce they are socially isolating have actually been arrested on sex charges or even surreptitiously executed.
QAnon adherents speculate that Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks have been arrested under the cover of COVD19 “precautions.” Tom Hanks is a longtime QAnon foil, and many interpreted his announcement that he had contracted the virus as proof that he had been arrested.
Martial law, FEMA camps, gun confiscation, and depopulation
Among certain right-wing conspiracy theorist circles, notably the militia movement, fears of government-imposed martial law, FEMA camps, gun confiscation, and depopulation have been prevalent for decades. Many of these concerns have been updated and applied to the coronavirus, and they are spreading so rampantly that the Department of Defense and local law enforcement agencies have had to address them.
- As the more state and local governments have announced strategies to slow the spread of the coronavirus, right-wing conspiracy theorists are warning on Twitter that these efforts are part of a government plot to implement of martial law and so-called FEMA camps.
- A number of the conspiratorial posts shared on Twitter in March have focused on the supposed implementation of martial law claim that the government will confiscate guns.
- Some Twitter posts have explicitly connect the idea of martial law to conspiracies about depopulation and “culling” certain demographics.
The coronavirus is a hoax
Some people are spreading the notion that the coronavirus is a hoax or that the threat and impact of the virus is being exaggerated. There is no consensus as to who would be behind such an effort and why.
- On Twitter and Instagram, users have taken to filming hospital parking lots and waiting rooms to suggest that the pandemic is being exaggerated. Some of these users have used the hashtag “FilmYourHopsital” to promote these efforts.
- On YouTube and Twitter, users are alleging that “crisis actors” are being employed to make the coronavirus look worse than it is. The “crisis actor” theory is often employed following mass shootings and related incidents to suggest that victims are actors who are playing a role to further a conspiracy.