By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student
For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, disease outbreaks have been accompanied by exaggerated or downright false claims of origin, spread, and treatment. Some of these claims are misinformation—incorrect information spread without an intent to mislead. For example, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, claims that garlic could cure COVID-19 spread across social media. The majority of posters did not appear to have malicious intent in sharing this content, making these claims misinformation. On the other hand, disinformation is deliberately misleading or biased information. Far-right Telegram users planned to weaponize disinformation when they urged followers to spread inaccurate information about COVID-19 safety precautions via flyers in certain neighborhoods. While misinformation and disinformation are both dangerous, disinformation is more insidious. Throughout history, both mis- and dis-information have spread prolifically during pandemics. This article provides a brief history of conspiracy theories during pandemics, discusses some popular COVID-19 conspiracies, and examines a potential convergence of various communities spreading similar conspiracy theories.
Fear of disease occupies a special place in the human psyche—an invisible threat that can cause physical deterioration and possibly death. Though science has come a long way in understanding pathogens and the human body, even today “much remains unknown in medicine, creating fertile ground for fear.” While this is certainly true of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, conspiracy theories have accompanied disease outbreaks for millennia. Susceptibility to conspiracism is present in every country and can gain traction at any time, though it is more common around unprecedented events. Disease outbreaks are certainly one example, but the attacks of September 11th and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon industrial accident show that conspiracies often accompany newsworthy events.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 saw its fair share of myths, often aimed at rival countries. For example, the United States and United Kingdom initially linked the outbreak to intentionally adulterated aspirin from Bayer, a German company. These accusations reflected a post-World War I mistrust of Germany. Similarly, a rumor circulated throughout Brazil that the 1918 influenza virus was intentionally spread around the world by German submarines in an act of biological warfare. Though Americans often call this pandemic the Spanish flu, many countries had other regional names for it based on their particular prejudices. Conspiracy theories commonly lay blame on specific groups in an attempt to turn public opinion, even going so far as to claim that an outbreak is the result of biological warfare. For instance, a pernicious rumor in 14th century France claimed that a Muslim prince enlisted help from France’s Jewish population to bribe lepers to contaminate public water sources and kill Christians. A few hundred years later, conspiracy theories around yellow fever eventually led to the genre American Gothic. The father of American Gothic, Charles Brockden Brown, caught the disease himself, and though he recovered, others in his life did not survive it. His writings often used disease as a “conventional vehicle of terror.” His style was also deeply paranoid, including “hidden voices, secret societies…[and] fears of the Illuminati.” These themes, as well as a fearful fascination with the Illuminati, reverberated in American popular culture and religious life as yellow fever continued to spread.
Conspiracies accompany nearly every significant outbreak of disease. Some believed that the SARS outbreak of 2002 was caused by a virus created in a Chinese weapons lab (sound familiar?). During the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak of 2009, rumors circulated that the World Health Organization and pharmaceutical companies conspired to manufacture the outbreak so that they could profit from vaccine distribution (a theme that appears with many outbreaks). And the current outbreak of novel coronavirus is a case study in how the internet and political tensions can exacerbate conspiracism in the United States.
Because SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus, misinformation and disinformation have provided many people with answers where science could not yet do so. The World Health Organization labeled this phenomenon an “infodemic,” where technology and social media are used on a massive scale. While technology provides new mechanisms for keeping people safe and informed, it can also result in an overabundance of information, as well as the proliferation of incorrect and potentially harmful narratives. The pandemic has spawned countless conspiracy theories, but the most widespread can be generally grouped into four buckets:
- Virus origins and spread. There is a great deal of theories about how the virus came into existence and how it is spread. Members of the Trump administration, as well as the former POTUS himself, have claimed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is responsible for bioengineering SARS-CoV-2. Some adherents of this theory claim the virus was then intentionally released, while others say it escaped the lab accidentally. Another popular theory is that 5G networks are acting as super-spreaders for the virus. This theory has been linked to several acts of vandalism against 5G towers and an increased propensity for violence.
- Preventative measures. Claims that preventative measures like mask wearing and social distancing are ineffective got a lot of traction on social media and were amplified by the Trump administration’s words and actions. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon: for example, Moldova’s former President was routinely photographed violating social distancing and mask mandates in his country. And in the US as well as Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries, these preventative measures were met with angry protests by those who believe the lockdowns were a pretense for increased government control. And unfortunately, recent studies have proven that belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories reduces willingness to engage in these preventative measures and protect communities.
- Vaccines. No other preventative measure has spurred quite as many conspiracy theories as the COVID-19 vaccine. The theories range from mundane (the vaccine actually gives you COVID-19) to bizarre (the vaccine will alter your DNA) to absolutely wild (the vaccine contains a microchip that will allow Bill Gates to track your every movement and implement a New World Order). Others are simply concerned about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine because they perceive the approval process as rushed and/or they mistrust the government and pharmaceutical companies. As of December 2020, only 60% of Americans surveyed said they intended to get the vaccine, while 20% said they were fairly certain they would under no circumstances get the vaccine.
- Treatments. At the start of the pandemic, home remedies for COVID-19 were extremely popular on social media. Other bad information about COVID-19 cures came and went throughout 2020. Some of the most popular “cures” include garlic, saline nasal wash, exposure to high temperatures or sunlight, antibiotics, and hydroxychloroquine. None of these are effective against COVID-19.
Bad actors often encourage and amplify the spread of these narratives, twisting them for their own purposes. Extremists have latched onto many of these conspiracy theories and used them to recruit and radicalize followers. Social distancing, lockdowns, and online school and work have moved many people indoors, online, and looking for answers. When scientists, doctors, and public officials cannot provide the answers people are looking for, they become incredibly susceptible to messengers that claim to have a simple answer.
Conspiracism ebbs and flows, and though it is not a uniquely American phenomenon, we are currently living through a peak in what Richard Hofstadter has called the “paranoid style in American politics.” Understanding all the factors that have led to this crescendo is beyond the scope of this article, but political turmoil, increasing inequality, and a global pandemic play a significant role, exacerbated by the rapid spread of information and a waning trust in institutions. While much of the focus is on the political right, particularly given the recent siege of the Capitol, there is evidence of a convergence of conspiratorial thinking among those on both ends of the political spectrum, as well as those with few political beliefs who find answers in these ways of thinking. COVID-19 misinformation has been rampant on the right as well as within wellness and spirituality communities that are traditionally uninterested in politics or lean left. Liberal and leftist activists have also spread similar misinformation rooted in suspicion of pharmaceutical companies, the “medical industrial complex,” and the government.
The QAnon conspiracy is another recent example of this convergence. Declared a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI in 2019, adherents of the theory have been linked to at least a dozen alleged crimes. This statistic does not take into account any crimes committed during the Capitol siege, but QAnon adherents had a sizeable presence there. While many Q followers approve of Donald Trump because they believe that he has been trying to dismantle the deep state cabal of pedophiles and Satanists that run the US government, QAnon has appealed to people across the political spectrum. Though at its core, the QAnon conspiracy is based on an old antisemitic trope of the Blood Libel, the core belief has been laundered through movements such as #SaveOurChildren (claiming to be fighting child sex trafficking) and by social media influencers that put a gentle exterior on an extreme ideology. Much like multi-level marketing schemes, this rebranding targets potential marks by constructing a façade to hide the ugly reality and consequences. The subreddit QAnonCasualties is full of stories from former Q adherents as well as their friends and family. These stories show how conspiracism can consume someone’s life, leading them down a path to extremism that often ends in ostracism and sometimes even violence against their loved ones. The subreddit also shows the many different communities that can lead to Q, from churches to the wellness community to other conspiracy communities to right-wing politics and in countries outside the US.
Conspiracy theories and extremism will remain a potent threat for years to come, and currently disparate communities may converge in ways predictable or surprising. Conspiratorial thinking is often black and white, an “us versus them” mentality that can erode a person’s aversion to violence. Terrorist groups can (and have) taken advantage of this shift in mindset and used conspiracy theories as an opening to eventually introduce more extreme ideas. The Capitol siege and subsequent crackdown on inflammatory rhetoric on the major social media platforms may be pushing people toward sources such as Gab, Telegram, and Bitchute where extreme ideas flourish. The Biden administration has suggested several actions to combat the threat of domestic extremism, including a threat assessment and capacity-building to disrupt extremist networks. These are positive steps that must include experts outside of government and from a variety of disciplines, including those experienced in successful cult deprogramming and deradicalization. While promoters of and participants in extremist violence should be held fully accountable under the law for their actions, we should not lose sight of the structural and systematic failures that have made these conspiracy theories so appealing today.