The world is now four months into the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant infodemic. Though efforts have been made to curb it, governments, platforms, journalists and the private sector are realising that as a society we are not equipped to deal with it.
While we have all had to adjust our lives in order to deal with this pandemic, and try to prevent mass casualties, others have seen the outbreak as confirmation that their pet ideologies are in fact accurate, and that this is a prime opportunity to accelerate the collapse of society.
Hoaxters, grifters, conspiracy theorists, and state actors have all been feeding into the COVID-19 infodemic. As political leaders and news outlets have rapidly adjusted their narratives and approach to the virus over the last several months, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and disinformation campaigns from the far-right have similarly evolved. The impact of this is being felt already.
On March 31, for instance, Eduardo Moreno tried to crash a train he was operating into the USNS Mercy, a ship which provides mobile medical services to troops deployed abroad, because he thought it “had an alternate purpose related to COVID-19 or a government takeover.”
The spectrum of conspiracies being circulated about the pandemic are multifaceted, but can largely be organised into a few categories:
Anti-Government Conspiracies: one of the most prominent theories in this cluster is the idea that the launch of 5G in China is the source of the coronavirus. The conspiracy theory is that 5G is a 60-gigahertz wave which, according to one post on Telegram, “prevents oxygen transfer from your lungs to red blood cells creating ‘flu like symptoms’. 5G towers give radiation poisoning or electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. According to Full Fact, the initial rumours claimed that Wuhan was the first Chinese city to roll out 5G in August 2019 as a beta test, and 5G was launched on November 1 across China. As the launch of 5G in China coincided with the appearance of COVID-19, the conflation of the two contributed to broader anti-establishment and anti-government narratives.
The Bioweapon Conspiracies: another theory that has been circulating, particularly on far-right Telegram channels, is the idea that COVID-19 is a lab-made biological weapon that targets people based on race. It was originally designed to target the Asian population, but it was “accidentally released” and is now targeting whites and Europeans. The discussion on some Telegram channels sunk to bizarre levels as individuals debated whether China would dare harm European economies on purpose given how much they are dependent on them, and whether there are “Jewry involved in China’s ranks.”
Social Control Conspiracies: it is not entirely surprising that this cluster of theories has been prominent in conspiracy circles. This set of conspiracies note that the Pentagon and DARPA were linked to a lab in Wuhan doing research on bat strains of the coronavirus for the purpose of germ warfare and they are the source of the COVID-19 outbreak. The outbreak may be intentional or accidental, however what is consistent among the theories is that the end goal is to impose societal restrictions, and force vaccinations on the American population. Relatedly, other theories also note that the government is planning militarised vaccination squads, which will be present in the “FEMA” camps the government is apparently setting up or at drive-through facilities announced by the Trump administration. According to this view, Americans will be tracked for testing and vaccination with bracelets, microchips, or as some users have stated, “they will tattoo us like we did the Jews.”
The Chaos Theories: other theories involve individuals planning on taking advantage of the chaos and using it as a transitional phase to build a new society after the pandemic dies down. As one post noted: during the boog – far-right slang for the second civil war – there “will be chaos.” The post continued: “You need to have set clear goals when shit hits the fan so we get shit done.” Whether there is a threat of violence from some of these corners is difficult to ascertain. However, as narratives shift from “this is a hoax” to “stockpile ammunition, food, get ready for action and shoot FEMA agents,” there is real potential that lone actors will take matters into their own hands.
Religious Theories: prophets, preachers and faith healers with ties to the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) and neo-Charismatic movements have pounced on this opportunity to push their religious conspiracies, sell their “miracle cures” and activate their base. NAR is non-denominational, and several of its charismatic leaders have been involved with far-right conspiracy theories as well. Neo-Charismatic preacher Rodney Howard-Browne, who was recently arrested, called COVID-19 a “phantom plague” created by the Chinese government to collapse the U.S. economy, and a deep state plot. Prophet and conspiracy theorist Mark Taylor believes the virus is a “cover” to carry out the mass arrests promised by Qanon. In a recent video, Curt Landry warned his audience not to accept a COVID-19 vaccine, nor to pray for one, because the “vaccine is from the pit of Hell” and will be a precursor to the biblical Mark of the Beast. As they have been telling their followers for years, the destruction of the deep state/new world order is not possible without the intercession of God and, as such, those in the NAR perceive this as a spiritual war between Good and Evil. Their objective is to change society and the political system that is in place, which is why some of these apocalyptic conspiracies have been adopted and modified by accelerationists.
While the full spectrum of conspiratorial and far-right theories about COVID cannot be completely discussed here, it is beyond doubt that the pandemic has created fertile ground for a flurry of fringe ideas. New theories appear and disappear on a daily basis as new facts that emerge about the disease are seamlessly incorporated into large-scale conspiracies. It is too early to say whether these kinds of views, which thrive in the digital space, will result in real life violence. But, conspiratorial thinking, even when nonviolent, produces a whole host of other societal harms.
Research shows, for example, that conspiratorial thinking impacts an individual’s trust in government, trust in science, their willingness to vote, and, most importantly for our purposes, their willingness to vaccinate their kids. At a time when individuals in our society need to be on the same page, it seems that some aren’t even reading from the same book.