As the COVID-19 crisis worsens, the world also faces a global misinformation pandemic. Conspiracy theories that behave like viruses themselves are spreading just as rapidly online as SARS-CoV-2 does offline. Here are the top 10 conspiracy theories making the rounds.
This conspiracy theory should be easy to debunk: it is biologically impossible for viruses to spread using the electromagnetic spectrum. The latter are waves/photons, while the former are biological particles composed of proteins and nucleic acids.
But that isn’t really the point — conspiracy theories are enticing because they often link two things which at first might appear be correlated; in this case, the rapid rollout of 5G networks was taking place at the same time the pandemic hit. Cue a viral meme linking the two, avidly promoted by anti-vaccine activists who have long been spreading fears about electromagnetic radiation, egged on by the Kremlin.
It’s worth repeating, as the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, that viruses cannot travel on mobile networks, and that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in many countries that do not have 5G networks. Even so, this conspiracy theory — after being spread by celebrities with big social media followings — has led to cellphone towers being set on fire in the UK and elsewhere.
Bill Gates as scapegoat
Most conspiracy theories, like the viruses they resemble, constantly mutate and have several variants circulating at any one time. Many of these plots and subplots seem to involve Bill Gates, who became a new target of disinformation after gently criticizing the defunding of the World Health Organization. According to the New York Times, anti-vaxxers, members of QAnon and right-wing pundits have seized on a video of a 2015 Ted talk given by Gates — where he discussed the Ebola outbreak and warned of a new pandemic — to bolster their claims he had foreknowledge of the COVID pandemic or even purposely caused it.
A recent variant of this conspiracy theory, particularly beloved by anti-vaccination activists, is the idea that COVID is part of a dastardly Gates-led plot to vaccinate the world’s population. There is some truth in this, of course: vaccinating much of the world’s population may well be the only way to avoid an eventual death toll in the tens of millions. But anti-vaxxers don’t believe vaccines work. Instead some have spread the myth that Gates wants to use a vaccination program to implant digital microchips that will somehow track and control people.
The spread of misinformation has meant that ID2020, a small non-profit that focuses on establishing digital IDs for poorer people around the world, has had to call in the FBI. (The Cornell Alliance for Science is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)
The virus escaped from a Chinese lab
This one at least has the benefit of being plausible. It is true that the original epicenter of the epidemic, the Chinese city of Wuhan, also hosts a virology institute where researchers have been studying bat coronaviruses for a long time.
One of these researchers, Shi Zhengli, a prominent virologist who spent years collecting bat dung samples in caves and was a lead expert on the earlier SARS outbreak, was sufficiently concerned about the prospect that she spent days frantically checking lab records to see if anything had gone wrong. She admits breathing a “sigh of relief” when genetic sequencing showed that the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus did not match any of the viruses sampled and studied in the Wuhan Institute of Virology by her team.
However, the sheer coincidence of China’s lead institute studying bat coronaviruses being in the same city as the origin of the COVID outbreak has proven too juicy for conspiracists to resist. The idea was seeded originally via a slick hour-long documentary produced by the Epoch Times, an English-language news outlet based in the United States with links to the Falun Gong religious cult that has long been persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Epoch Times insists on calling COVID “the CCP virus” in all its coverage. The theory has now tipped into the mainstream, being reported in the Washington Post, the Times (UK) and many other outlets.
COVID was created as a biological weapon
A spicier variant is that COVID not only escaped from a lab, but it was intentionally created by Chinese scientists as a biowarfare weapon. According to Pew Research, “nearly three-in-10 Americans believe that COVID-19 was made in a lab,” either intentionally or accidentally (the former is more popular: specifically, 23 percent believe it was developed intentionally, with only 6 percent believing it was an accident).
This theory that the Chinese somehow created the virus is particularly popular on the US political right. It gained mainstream coverage thanks to US Sen. Tom Cotton (Republican, Arkansas) who amplified theories first aired in the Washington Examiner (a highly conservative media outlet) that the Wuhan Institute of Virology “is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program.”
This theory can be easily debunked now that there is unambiguous scientific evidence — thanks to genetic sequencing — that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has entirely natural origins as a zoonotic virus originating in bats. The Examiner has since added a correction at the top of the original piece admitting the story is probably false.
The US military imported COVID into China
The Chinese government responded to the anti-China theories with a conspiracy theory of its own that seeks to turn blame back around onto the United States. This idea was spread initially by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who Tweeted “it’s possible that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan.”
These comments, according to Voice of America news, “echoed a rumored conspiracy, widely circulated in China, that US military personnel had brought the virus to China during their participation in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan last October.” For China, as the Atlantic reported, this conspiracy theory, and an accompanying attempt to rename COVID the “USA virus,”’ was a transparent “geopolitical ploy” — useful for domestic propaganda but not widely believed internationally.
GMOs are somehow to blame
Genetically modified crops have been a target of conspiracy theorists for years, so it was hardly a surprise to see GMOs blamed in the early stages of the COVID pandemic. In early March, Italian attorney Francesco Billota penned a bizarre article for Il Manifesto, falsely claiming that GM crops cause genetic pollution that allows viruses to proliferate due to the resulting environmental “imbalance.” Anti-GMO activists have also tried to blame modern agriculture, which is strange, since the known path of the virus into the human population — as with Ebola, HIV and many others — was through the very ancient practice of people capturing and killing wildlife.
Ironically, GMOs will almost certainly be part of any vaccine solution. If any of the ongoing 70 vaccine projects work (which is a big if), that would be pretty much the only guaranteed way the world can get out of the COVID mess. Vaccines could be based on either GM attenuated viruses or use antigens produced in GM insect cell lines or plants. If GMOs do help save the world from the curse of COVID, maybe they’ll stop being a dirty word.
COVID-19 doesn’t actually exist
According to professional conspiracy theorists like David Icke and InfoWars’ Alex Jones, COVID-19 doesn’t actually exist, but is a plot by the globalist elite to take away our freedoms. Early weaker versions of this theory were prevalent on the political right in the notion that the novel coronavirus would be “no worse than flu” and later versions are now influencing anti-lockdown protests across several states in the US. Because believers increasingly refuse to observe social distancing measures, they could directly help to spread the epidemic further in their localities and increase the resulting death rate.
The pandemic is being manipulated by the ‘deep state’
Some believe that a “deep state” of America’s elite is plotting to undermine the president — and that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the US coronavirus pandemic response — is a secret member. Fauci’s expression of disbelief when the deep state was mentioned during a press briefing supposedly gave the game away.
COVID is a plot by Big Pharma
Many conspiracy theory promoters are in reality clever actors trying to sell quack products. Alex Jones, between rants about hoaxes and the New World Order, urges viewers to buy expensive miracle pills that he claims can cure all known diseases. Dr. Mercola, a quack anti-vax and anti-GMO medic who has been banned from Google due to peddling misinformation, claims that vitamins (and numerous other products he sells) can cure or prevent COVID.
NaturalNews, another conspiracist site, sells all manner of pills, potions and prepper gear. These conspiracists depend for their market on getting people to believe that evidence-based (i.e. conventional) medicine doesn’t work and is a plot by big pharmaceutical companies to make us ill. Big Pharma conspiracies are a staple of anti-vaccination narratives, so it is hardly surprising that they have transmuted into the age of the coronavirus.
COVID death rates are inflated
Another far-right meme is the idea that COVID death rates are being inflated and therefore there is no reason to observe lockdown regulations or other social distancing measures. Prominent in promoting this myth is Dr. Annie Bukacek, whose speech warning that COVID death certificates are being manipulated has been viewed more than a quarter of a million times on YouTube.
Bukacek appears in a white lab coat and with a stethoscope around her neck, making her look like an authoritative medical source. Dig a little deeper, however, as Rolling Stone magazine did, and it turns out she’s actually a far-right anti-vaccination and anti-abortion activist, previously noted for bringing tiny plastic fetuses into the Montana state legislature. Her insistence that COVID death rates are inflated has, of course, no basis in fact. More likely the current death toll is a serious under-count. T0 further clarify the issue, the Centers for Disease Control has published information about excess deaths associated with COVID-19.
How to recognize and debunk conspiracy theories
It is important to speak out and combat online misinformation and conspiracist narratives, whether on COVID or climate change or anything else. This handbook (PDF) by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, both of whom have extensive experience in combating climate denialism, is an essential tool.
How These Conspiracies Impacted the World
A wave of misinformation and conspiracy theories spread through social media underlie the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Africa, where just 11 percent of the people have gotten the jab.
Religious beliefs, mistrust of government and the West and a flippant attitude toward the magnitude of the pandemic have also contributed to the overall hesitancy in parts of Africa.
A May 2021 Geopoll survey conducted across six African countries singled out religious beliefs as major catalysts of hesitancy. Some 90 percent of individuals surveyed in Niger and Liberia said that prayer was more effective than the COVID-19 vaccine.
Africans have been described as “notoriously religious,” which might explain why a lot of vaccination misinformation has found its way to pulpits across the continent.
Religion’s tenacious grip on the general populace is well illustrated in the case of Nigeria, where religious leaders have been complicit in the spread of misinformation that inevitably sows the spirit of hesitation among their deferential congregants.
“Nigeria is a religious country with a large Christian and Muslim population and a small fraction of other faiths,” writes Nigerian journalist Obinna Nwuko. “The religious institutions are one of the best ways to inform a large congregation of people because of the loyalty attached to the church. When some religious leaders started branding the virus as devil made and the vaccine as the sign of anti-Christ, most Nigerians have concluded that they will distance themselves from the vaccine and have nothing to do with the virus.”
A distrust of vaccines developed in Western countries has pervaded in Africa for ages. In a 2021 study by the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43 percent of respondents believed that Africans were being used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials. A 2021 survey in Addis Ababa pegged hesitancy on the belief that the COVID vaccine was a biological weapon from developed countries to control population growth. Others surveyed did not believe that COVID-19 exists and they showed a higher degree of unwillingness to go for the jab.
While social media can serve as a great tool for self-education, which could even aid vaccination decision-making, it’s also a rich repository of misinformation, including “anti-vaxx” messaging, incomplete information and inconsistent and complicated scientific information that may be difficult to understand. The Africa CDC study established that people with high levels of hesitancy were more likely to use social media and be exposed to disinformation.
Rumors travel spectacularly fast and widely, particularly on social media. Even ridiculous commentaries can find an audience due to the unfettered freedom of social media platforms.
“Healthcare workers are immunized even without vaccines,” someone opined incorrectly on a WhatsApp bulletin. In yet another instance, a cynical commenter scoffed at a South African news item posted on Facebook: “If it works, then why ship it to Africa instead of first giving it to each and every American???”
As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, vaccine hesitancy is a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite the availability of vaccination services.” Vaccine hesitancy in Africa, which is said to be rife even among health workers, is principally driven by concerns about safety, side effects and effectiveness.
Africa suffers a low COVID-19 vaccine uptake, trailing other regions by significant margins, despite a recent uptick in increased vaccine availability. In January, 96 million doses were shipped to the continent — more than double the deliveries made in mid-2021.
And yet, only 11 percent of the continent’s population had been vaccinated by the start of February 2022, notes the World Health Organization (WHO). As things stand, Africa would have to ramp up its COVID-19 vaccinations six-fold to meet the 70 percent target set for mid-2022.
Every week, an average of 6 million people receive the COVID-19 vaccination in Africa. To achieve the 70 percent goal, the number needs to rise to 36 million. With the increased vaccine deliveries to the continent, focus now shifts on the need for African countries to accelerate the vaccine rollout correspondingly.
“Africa is now accessing the vaccines it has demanded for far too long. A dependable pipeline must go hand in hand with operational funding to move doses out of depots and into people’s arms,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Other parts of the world have also had to contend with degrees of localized COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. In Bolivia, for instance, only about 45 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, a phenomenon antithetical to South America’s position as the worlds most vaccinated region. Several factors have been blamed for Bolivia’s lag, including sustained torrents of toxic campaigns by anti-vaxxers — including negative messaging by some churches — a widespread distrust of the healthcare system and a preference for traditional medicine.
Fortunately, the misperceptions and vaccine hesitation in Africa have been determined to be non-static. The GeoPoll survey recorded decreased hesitancy in some of the sampled countries between November 2020 and April 2021. In Mozambique, hesitancy was noted to decrease in late 2020, while in Ghana, hesitancy decreased from 38 percent in August 2020, before vaccines were approved, to just 17 percent in April 2021 upon delivery of the first batch of vaccines.
Other reasons cited for Africa’s slow vaccination rates include poor health infrastructure, limited funding for training and deployment of medical staff and challenges with vaccine storage.