What are COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories?
Oct 21, 2020 —
To outline some of the most prominent COVID-19 conspiracy theories, we need a working definition of what a conspiracy theory is. In our research we have found it helpful to think of conspiracy theories as a mode of interpretation or knowledge production that presents prominent catastrophic events (pandemics, disasters, wars, assassinations) not as the result of regular politics, chance, or impersonal forces, but as the outcome of deliberate plotting in secret by conspirators who are trying to manipulate the course of history for their own ends, and who also then cover their traces. While there is lots of disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 to contend with, it only counts as a conspiracy theory if it offers an account of who is orchestrating events.
In later posts we will dig into the questions “What is the difference between a theory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory or between scepticism and conspiracy theory?” and “Who gets to decide what is and is not a conspiracy theory?” Different academic disciplines answer these questions in different ways and they are far from simple (although, TikTok user Abbie Richards (@tofology) has a decent and succinct stab at the first question). For now, we want to give a flavour of the kind of theories in circulation.
This list will be necessarily provisional as the conspiracist landscape evolves in response to current events (both online and off, if it even makes any sense to make such a distinction in the age of smart cities, the internet of things, and mobile data). On the ground, the following theories often draw on and merge into each other rather than exist as distinct narratives, to create what Anna Merlan has named “the conspiracy singularity”. While necessarily incomplete and interrelated, the following list can nevertheless help us to see recurring concerns and tropes, narrative steps, and patterns of fear. The list will serve as an orientation device as we launch ourselves into the underside of mainstream news coverage, official guidelines, scientific research, and government advice concerning COVID-19.
1. COVID-19 is a Chinese- or American-produced bio-weapon
Through the conspiracist lens, legitimate questions about the origin of the virus become accusations waged against particular states. Eschewing the consensus explanation from the scientific community that the zoonotic virus was transmitted to humans because of our encroachment of natural habitats, a widely shared conspiracy theory in the early months of the pandemic was that COVID-19 was developed as part of a biowarfare programme based the Wuhan Institute of Virology (or, in some versions, a dismissed Chinese scientist “spy” at a Canadian facility). Such conspiracy theories offer narratives of a synthetic virus and state-level plotting. It’s true that the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducts research into coronaviruses, but having studied the virus’ DNA, scientists are clear that the origins of the strand of coronavirus causing the current pandemic is organic: most likely transmitted from bats to pangolins to humans.
The question that guides conspiracy theories—Who benefits?—is answered in this case by looking towards the global superpowers, China and the US. Unfounded accusations that COVID-19 was manufactured by China have been aired by fringe organisations and people in powerful positions alike. One video making this claim published by the Epoch Times, a site started by Chinese-Americans associated with Falun Gong, was viewed almost 70 million times on Facebook according to a fact-checking report on the BBC. The theory was repeated in many quarters including this episode of “Get Off My Lawn”, by founder of the far right group, the Proud Boys, Gavin McInnes. In this episode, McInnes interviews Shiva Ayyadurai who makes the claim that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon.
Screen grab from https://censored.tv/watch/shows/get-off-my-lawn/episode/s02e136 Originally aired March 11, 2020.
The first post about the coronavirus from Q (who spawned the QAnon movement) appeared on March 23, 2020, endorsing, in suggestive fragments at least, the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is a bioweapon produced by China and the US Democrats in a plot to bring down Trump.
Screen grab from www.qposts.online. Original post from 8kun/qresearch, 11.13 GMT March 23, 2020.
The groundless Chinese bioweapon theory has also been alluded to by President Trump. In response to a question from a reporter about whether he’d seen evidence supporting the claim that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of the virus, President Trump, for example, replied, “Yes, I have.”
In retaliation, an official within China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lijian Zhao, speculated on Twitter: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” In doing so, he endorsed a conspiracy theory that had been circulating on Chinese social media for weeks that 300 US athletes, attending the Military World Games in Wuhan, had brought COVID-19 to China.
While Zhao’s tweet doesn’t go so far as to offer a conspiracist explanation for why the military might have brought the virus to China, others fill in the gaps. The tussle over global power we can see in the current US-China trade war and concerns from certain quarters in the US about the level of Chinese owned US debt, provides a motive for those that claim the US seeks to infect and thwart the Chinese economy.
But theories of American culpability don’t only come from Chinese accusers. A report from EUvsDisinfo finds that pro-Kremlin sources circulated fake news stories via YouTube videos in multiple languages that Covid-19 originated from secret American biolabs.
2. COVID-19 is a Democrat or “deep state” hoax/plot to undermine Trump
Within the heated, polarised climate of US domestic politics, some conspiracy theories make the fallacious claim that COVID-19 is not a real virus and is, rather, a hoax invented by the Democrats to destroy the economy and therefore weaken Trump’s chances in the November 2020 elections. A slight variation of this theory is that it is the so-called deep state that is orchestrating the hoax. The deep state is thought to be a substrate of government bureaucracy that operates beyond the transparency mechanisms and checks and balances that elected politicians are subject to and is imagined to be where the real power lies. Trump has long accused the deep state of acting against him. In relation to COVID-19 vaccines, he tweeted the following on August 22, 2020:
Whereas the “deep state” has been imagined as a shadowy group of operators in conspiracy fictions (think about the cigarette smoking man in The X-Files, for example), Trump loosens the definition to besmirch and blame regular government agencies when they act against his wishes or make his government look incompetent.
Early in the pandemic, QAnon supporters repeated the flawed idea that COVID-19 was a ruse by the “deep state” to thwart Trump. Although, later some Q followers changed track to argue that the pandemic is a cover-up for Trump to arrest members of the deep state.
Another variation on this conspiracy theory is that rather than a hoax or simulation, COVID-19 is indeed real, but its release has been timed and planned by the Democrats in cahoots with the Chinese government (which takes us back to our first conspiracy theory above). An example of this baseless theory is expounded by Josh Bernstein, a YouTuber whose tagline is “I report news others refuse”, on an episode of the alternative health podcast called “The NutriMedical Report” from March 10, 2020.
3. The COVID-19 pandemic was orchestrated by the Pirbright Institute and Bill Gates as a pretext to vaccinate and track global populations.
Some conspiracy theorists have pointed to existing cleaning products and vaccines designed to combat strains of coronavirus as a sign that some people (usually a super-rich elite) already have a secret cure or vaccine for COVID-19. However, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a completely new strain of coronavirus and research into coronaviruses has been conducted for many years, intensifying during the 2002-3 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. A patent for a vaccination taken out by the Pirbright Institute (part funded by the Gates Foundation) for a previous coronavirus (that affects poultry livestock), pandemic simulations funded by the Gates Foundation, and a 2015 TED talk by Gates in which he warns of a new pandemic have fanned the flames and bolstered fictitious claims that Gates had foreknowledge of the COVID pandemic or even purposely caused it.
This conspiracy theory claims that Gates’ motive is to use a vaccination program to implant digital microchips that will somehow track and control people. In the widely viewed misinformation video, Plandemic, and its sequel Plandemic: Indoctornation featuring Judy Mikovits, a discredited former medical researcher, falsely suggests that Gates has much to gain, in political and financial terms, from a mass vaccination programme.
Meme circulating on Instagram
Since details of the messenger RNA vaccine technology used in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine became known, some conspiracy theories have begun to erroneously claim that the vaccine will alter human DNA.
4. COVID-19 is part of a “global government” plot to take away civil liberties
Rather than Bill Gates, this theory points more generally to a vague “global government” or “New World Order” that will administer trackable nanochip technologies via a vaccine in order to erode civil liberties. Such fears go some way to explaining why anti-lockdown protests with conspiracist presence fashion their claims in the language of rights and freedom.
Meme circulating on Instagram
5. COVID-19 was developed in a laboratory in Wuhan, which was also manufacturing adrenochrome: a drug popular among the global elite
Some followers of QAnon claim that the global elite thrive on the drug adrenochrome, the oxidized form of adrenaline. Produced naturally by the adrenal gland, the synthetic version is sometimes used as a blood-clotting agent. Presumably drawing on some outdated and inconclusive scientific research into schizophrenia from the 1950s into adrenochrome’s hallucinogenic properties, and the mention of it in Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, QAnon followers propose that the elite go to great lengths to acquire a pure organic version. Such purity, they claim with little plausible evidence, is achieved by harvesting adrenochrome from children, whom the elite traffic, sexually abuse, and murder.
Theories about adrenochrome appear in QAnon discourse before the COVID-19 pandemic but have adapted to the new crisis. In recent incarnations, this conspiracy theory claims that the drug is manufactured in Wuhan by a facility funded by a favourite conspiracy theory target, George Soros. The mention of Soros in this context draws on established antisemitic tropes, not least a history of “blood libel,” which accused Jews of using the blood of Christian children in religious rituals. Of note is the way in which the focus on the sacrifice of children, and loose talk about child trafficking and paedophilia, has enabled the influence of QAnon to spread to new demographics, particularly women.
Twitter post, 14 March 2020
6. COVID-19 is actually caused by 5G and is a pretext for genocide by vaccine
In the vein of age-old techno-panics, some misguided theories draw a causal link between the roll out of 5G technologies and the rise of COVID-19. Concerns about the health and surveillance implications of 5G predate the pandemic but were drawn into speculations about COVID-19 during the early part of 2020. In their study of how the 5G conspiracy theory evolved in January to April of 2020, Axel Bruns, Stephen Harrington and Edward Hurcombe find that the first mention of a Wuhan-5G connection appeared on Facebook on 20 January 2020 in French. They note that the theory had to be repeated in several different Facebook spaces in different languages before it took hold. During its spread the theory changes. One blog post studied by Bruns and his team claims that 5G activates a synthetic coronavirus manufactured by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In subsequent theories, COVID-19 becomes a pretext for the mass delivery of a deadly vaccine that will be activated by 5G. The usual figures of Soros and Gates begin to figure, or transnational institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. The Illuminati, as a convenient signifier of a secret elite, frequently appears in these narratives according to Bruns, Harrington and Hurcombe.
The 5G conspiracy theory is notable for the way in which it spilled over into physical activism. In the Netherlands and the UK, there were a number of arson attacks on 5G masts (and masts erroneously thought to be 5G) and communication infrastructure engineers. Various celebrities—some conspiracy veterans (David Icke) and others less associated with conspiracy theories (Woody Harrelson and the boxer Amir Khan)—expressed concerns over 5G. Whipping up instant controversy, the UK TV presenter, Eamonn Holmes, supported if not the 5G conspiracy theory itself, then at least the right to question what he called “the state narrative” concerning Covid-19 on live television.
Of importance is the way in which 5G conspiracy theories have been woven into larger cognitive maps that depict the collusion of big pharma, big tech, and science with the goal of depopulation.
Image shared on Instagram, May 3rd, 2020.
Facebook post, 8 March 2020. Sourced by https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-09/corona-5-a/12130944?nw=0
7. COVID-19 is a plot by big pharma to increase its power and profit from treatments and vaccines
Some pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, have pledged to only sell a successful vaccine at cost price. However, others, like Moderna, have not made such commitments and it’s not particularly conspiracist to assume that pharmaceutical companies will profit in some way from the pandemic (whether this be through a vaccine or treatments). As mainstream a publication as Rolling Stone, for example, ran a story titled “Big Pharma’s Covid-19 Profiteers.” Where conspiracy theorists make vague accusations of conspiracy, legally defined conspiracies, in the form of price fixing, do occur in big pharma. For example, in August 2020, the US Department of Justice announced price fixing charges against Teva Pharmaceuticals as part of a wide-reaching antitrust investigation.
Making health and medicine subject to competitive open markets perhaps produces conspiracist effects. Not satisfied with the ordinary ways in which the worst excesses of capitalism exploit people, conspiracy theorists push further to falsely suggest not merely that pharmaceutical companies will profit from the pandemic, but that they caused it in the first place for that very reason. There are no lucky windfalls in conspiracism.
Facebook, post, 23 September 2020
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