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Friday, March 1, 2024

Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Are a Public Health Hazard

Conspiracy theories will always circle major world events and disasters like paranoid vultures, but with the Covid-19 pandemic they have been given a feast. Since China first alerted the world to the spreading disease late last year, the coronavirus has inspired countless wild stories about its origins, its effects, its cure. That’s only natural. People always seek explanations for events too frightening to accept as random. So, as anxious snippets of misinformation warped and refracted through social media, Covid-19 became—amongst other dangerous nonsense—a byproduct of bat soup, an escaped bioweapon, and a disease treatable by Lysol, oregano oil, or, worse yet, gargling with bleach.


Coronavirus misinformation has stoked xenophobia, created relentless demand (and considerable profit) for products that are unlikely to help anyone, added considerable confusion to an already uncertain situation, and has only continued to multiply. At best, the latest crop of Covid-19 conspiracy theories are wacky bits of hogwash: Did The Simpsons predict coronavirus, or was it a thriller novel by Dean Koontz, or was it Disney’s Tangled? At worst, the misinformation has cast doubt on measures meant to protect people and has encouraged reckless, destructive behavior.

Strangest—and perhaps most medically concerning—is misinformation that suggests certain groups of people need not worry about the virus at all. For weeks, Brandi Collins-Dexter, campaign director at the civil rights nonprofit Color of Change, had been seeing a bizarre idea circulating on Twitter and among members of her family: black people, the theory goes, were completely immune to Covid-19, or would recover quickly and easily if they did contract it. To be perfectly clear, this is false. “Blue-check users were saying this and getting thousands of retweets,” Collins-Dexter says. “It’s not necessarily with mal intent, it’s rooted in a misunderstanding, but all of these things are violating Twitter’s standards at a basic level.” Twitter has since taken action against accounts spreading the theory, but the black community isn’t the only group wrongly being told not to worry. People have also claimed that Yemenite Jews are naturally immune—again with zero scientific backing.

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Then there’s the virus’s disputed origins. You have likely heard some people speculate (baselessly) that Covid-19 was somehow conjured in a Wuhan lab. That theory has been popular for a long time, especially since some US media outlets and pundits have continued to call the disease the “Chinese coronavirus” or the “Wuhan virus.” As months have gone on, though, accusing a country of being the supposed origin of the novel coronavirus has become a well-used political smear.

Despite epidemiologists saying otherwise, Chinese officials are now claiming the virus originated in Italy or from a military laboratory in the United States. The latter has also been espoused by Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who cited the theory as a reason to turn down US medical aid, and by Philippines senate president Vicente Sotto. Some accuse Russia of spreading this conspiracy theory, though the Kremlin strenuously denies it. Proponents of the theory see the US as having something to gain—usually economically—from impacted nations, but the real impact is that aid and medical knowledge are flowing less freely at a time when unity and transparency would be far more beneficial.

Plenty of US citizens think the virus is a hoax or a cover for some shadowy power grab, too. FEMA has created a Coronavirus Rumor Control website, in part to quell conspiracy theories about the US heading for martial law. Others claim that the virus is a hoax, no more deadly than the common cold, but that officials are stoking panic to undermine President Trump. Not everyone names a specific boogeyman—rapper Cardi B has claimed that celebrities who have tested positive for coronavirus, like Idris Elba, are being paid to say that they have the disease by somebody for reasons—but if you have a go-to scapegoat, it’s open season.

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Anti-vaxxers think the virus is an effort to force vaccines on them, possibly orchestrated by Bill Gates. Others blame 5G networks. Then there’s the one everyone should always be expecting. “One of the oldest stereotypes about the Jewish people is that they have power to manipulate these global events to their benefit,” says Oren Segel, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “[The theory is] that the Jews have created the coronavirus in order to try to gain power at the expense of others.” All over the world, from Iraq to the United States, people have been spreading anti-Semitic memes and messages suggesting that Jews, or Jewish stand-ins like George Soros, the Rothschilds, and Israel, are to blame for the outbreak. All of this doubt contributes to behaviors that undermine efforts to control the virus’s spread. And again, none of these things are true.

In the internet’s darkest corners, the scapegoating is being used to stir a movement that is less conspiracy theory than actual conspiracy. According to Segel, white supremacists and other extremists have encouraged their followers to “cough on [their] local minorities,” to lick items in the Kosher section of grocery stores, and to use the growing tensions between nations and races as impetus for “the boogaloo,” which is what they’re calling the race war. (Deliberately coughing at people while having or claiming to have Covid-19 is considered a terroristic threat, which is a felony.)

Simply put: Minority communities don’t need this right now. Violence against Asian Americans is already rising, and, as Collins-Dexter points out, people of color are likely to be disproportionately impacted by both the health and economic consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak. “When America gets a cold, black folks get the flu,” she says. Segel cautions that while the number of people participating in the most hateful of these discussions is currently low, they are also happening at a time when the people they target are most vulnerable. Conspiracy theories spread most easily when they stem from fear—and so does hate.

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