The novel coronavirus has fired up the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and fringe groups, who are using the crisis as an opportunity to push disinformation and alternative narratives to an increasingly anxious public.
InfoWars host Alex Jones, for example, has described the virus as a “bioweapon” from China designed to destabilize the Trump administration — all while touting his “Superblue Fluoride-Free Toothpaste," which he says can help prevent you from getting sick. Others have speculated that the virus is linked to the new 5G internet.
The coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. As of March 13, there were nearly 140,000 confirmed cases across the world, and over 5,000 deaths. The entire nation of Italy is on lockdown, the U.S. National Guard is assisting with a containment zone in a New York suburb, the stock market is plunging, and the news is filled with images of deserted airports and medical teams in hazmat suits like something from a bad sci-fi movie.
Yet there’s still much that’s unknown about the virus, making it easy fodder for those who thrive on a deep distrust of authority and who peddle fear of impending societal collapse, even when a pandemic isn’t unfolding. Speculation, disinformation, and conspiracy are proliferating across the internet, and in some cases on TV.
“We’re seeing a mix of misinformation, false information that’s going around, like fake cures on fringe websites, such as drinking bleach will cure you, bathing in salt. And then you see conspiracies like the virus was a bioweapon, or it started from people eating bats in China,” said Gianluca Stringhini, assistant professor and co-director of the Security Lab at Boston University’s College of Engineering and an expert in disinformation.
Coronavirus is caused by 5G internet
A California-based YouTuber with 166,000 followers published a video last month claiming that the coronavirus was, in fact, radiation poisoning from 5G wireless technology. She argues that the high frequencies from the new technology impacts oxygen absorption, causing respiratory symptoms identical to those associated with COVID-19. As a way to circumvent YouTube’s crackdown on fake news and disinformation, the YouTuber uses codenames for keywords: She refers to China as “CH”, coronavirus as “CV”, and spells out 5G like “f-i-v-e-g.”
The claim linking coronavirus to 5G technology has zero basis in fact or reality, and is one of the most bizarre conspiracy theories about the virus, but still managed to proliferate on social media. Some people have shared side-by-side world maps of places with 5G technology, noting that the geographical distribution is similar to countries impacted by coronavirus. “It takes 5G to activate what’s in you from vaccines and chem trails,” remarked one person on a Facebook page for the QAnon community.
“All DNA has Corona in it,” someone replied. “5G mega frequencies can be used to alter your DNA, developing the virus. Bio-warfare.”
Coronavirus is a bioweapon
Scientists still don’t know exactly where coronavirus came from, but the broad consensus is that it was not man-made. They suspect it began in a wet market, where live fish, meat and wild animals are sold, in Wuhan.
However, in late January an unpublished manuscript by scientists in India started circulating online i, arguing that the protein sequences of the coronavirus suggested that it was engineered in a lab. The claims were widely debunked by scientists who study viruses, and the paper was withdrawn a couple days later by its authors. But it was too late — conspiracy theorists around the globe pounced on the paper and used it as evidence to support their baseless claims that the virus was a bioweapon.
This is one of the most popular conspiracies being peddled, and it even has a few different iterations. The origin of the supposed bioweapon varies depending on who is promoting the conspiracy.
Infowars’ Jones and his cohorts have claimed that virus was engineered by China, which is in collusion with the “deep state” to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy and ruin Trump’s chances of being reelected in November.
The claim that the virus was a bioweapon from China made its way to Republican Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas, who repeated it during a segment on Fox News last month.
Then on Fox and Friends on Thursday, evangelical leader and Trump ally Jerry Falwell Jr. claimed that the virus was a bioweapon from North Korea.
This idea has also taken hold outside of the U.S.
State TV in Iran, which has been especially hard hit by the virus, broadcast the conspiracy that Coronavirus could be a bioweapon manufactured in the U.S. And Iranian TV personality Ali Akbar Raefipour was one in a handful of public figures who also suggested that the Trump Administration had unleashed the virus against Iran and China as part of a “hybrid warfare” scheme.
This week a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry also pointed fingers at the U.S., but their accusation didn’t reach the level of bioweapon conspiracy.
Zhao Lijian suggested on Twitter that the U.S. army may have imported the coronavirus, surfacing a theory that has been circulating on Chinese social media for weeks. Specifically, Lijian suggested that the 300 military athletes who attended the 7th Military World Games in October in Wuhan, first the epicenter of the virus, were already infected with COVID-19.
Coronavirus came from people eating bats
Researchers suspect that pangolins, also called scaly anteaters, may have passed the virus from bats to humans. Their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine and they are sometimes sold at wet markets. It’s not known whether they were being sold at the Wuhan market, but scientists say that the strain of coronavirus found in pangolins is the most similar to the one found in humans.
But the nuance got lost online, and racially-tinged conspiracies and racist memes around Chinese food culture began mounting. Those stemmed from a video that surfaced online showing a woman appearing to eat a bat out of a bowl of soup using chopsticks. The video was shared widely, including by RT’s YouTube channel, according to Foreign Policy, setting off a firestorm on social media.
Bat soup is considered a delicacy in some parts of China, but it’s not a popular dish in Wuhan. Nor was the video that went viral even taken in China: it was recorded in the Pacific nation of Palau.
Earlier this month, Fox News’ host Jesse Watters surfaced the claim on air, saying that the virus was the result of Chinese people eating bats and snakes.
“They are very hungry people,” Watters said, as his co-hosts laughed. “The Chinese communist government cannot feed the people. And they are desperate, this food is uncooked, it is unsafe. And that is why scientists believe that’s where it originated from.”
Coronavirus is an overblown liberal media hoax
The idea that coronavirus is totally overblown is the most mainstream, and most dangerous, conspiracy out there, and it’s been promoted by the likes of right-wing commentator Sean Hannity.
President Donald Trump himself initially downplayed the severity of the virus, likening it to the common flu — and blamed the media for creating panic. As criticism of his administration’s response to the crisis began mounting, his allies started accusing media and Democrats of fearmongering with the goal of destroying the stock market and undermining Trump. Earlier this week, with at least 26 Americans dead from the virus and hundreds more infected, Fox business host Trish Regan shared a graphic on air that said “CORONAVIRUS IMPEACHMENT SCAM.”
Downplaying the severity of the virus is particularly dangerous, because its containment relies so heavily on the public taking health orders seriously, such as limiting travel, limiting social contact, and washing hands regularly.
According to a Reuters poll from last week, around 4 in 10 Democrats felt that coronavirus was an “imminent threat” compared to 2 in 10 Republicans. In the last few days, Trump has changed his tune — and on Friday, declared a national state of emergency in response to the virus.
Cover: Alex Jones of Infowars conducts a news conference outside a Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee hearing in Dirksen Building where Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, were testifying on the influence of foreign operations on social media on September 5, 2018. Jones has recently been banned from social media platforms. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)