Coronavirus conspiracy theories

Coronavirus Is the Crisis of Conspiracy Theorists' Wildest Dreams

Conspiracy peddlers of every stripe are increasingly twisting the pandemic to bolster their world views—and to claim that perhaps it's not real at all.
09 April 2020, 1:26am
People in scrubs, hairnets and face masks stand at the center to a hospital tent set up by Samaritan's Purse in Central Park.
Members of the Samaritans' Purse gather at a field hospital in New York's Central Park on April 04, 2020 in New York City/Getty Images

Last week, frenzied excitement spread across the QAnon corners of the internet. Believers told each other that, finally, it was happening. Children were being brought out of tunnels—some of them sightless, deformed, mute—and into the light.

"Children sex slaves being saved in the tent hospitals set up in Central Park," tweeted a YouTuber and QAnon promoter named Rob Counts, vaguely cautioning that what he'd heard was unconfirmed. Nonetheless, he added, "Situation worse than people think."

Counts and others were linking to a choppy audio file of two separate unidentified people. Both of them claimed in the recording that they'd heard third- or fourth-hand that children in New York City were being rescued from tunnels and cared for in hospital tents in Central Park.

"It's a friend of my mom's, she's a nurse, she's 69 years old," one of the people on the audio file proclaimed. "She volunteered through Good Samaritan. They sent her up from North Carolina to New York City… She just said, 'The thing with the kids, it's real and I have to tell you, it's horrible, so horrible.' And she said, 'Everybody be praying for those children and the medical people that are taking care of all of this' ... It's in Central Park as far as I know and these tunnels from the maps."

The hospital tents the QAnon people were excitedly referencing are, in fact, those set up earlier this month by Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical nonprofit led by Franklin Graham, the anti-gay minister and son of Billy Graham. The tents are meant to care for critically ill victims of coronavirus—and act as a little bit of positive PR for Samaritan's Purse, which has been accused of using disaster response to proselytize. (The organization is recruiting Christian medical staff for the field hospital, and, as Gothamist reported, is requiring volunteers to sign a statement of faith that, in part, requires volunteers to certify they believe marriage is "exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.")

"They say they're rescuing kids who are severely screwed up," the second voice on the recording said. "They were sex slaves from birth … The rescue operation has begun."

The excited, totally unfounded, and wildly false claim that the coronavirus field hospital is secretly a military rescue operation for sexually abused children could send you into despair. It's also just one among a myriad of examples of conspiracy peddlers and enthusiasts using the coronavirus pandemic as a vehicle or buttress for their own pet beliefs. Some of them are drawing from real-world events to claim that the systems of mass surveillance, control, and enslavement they've long warned against are finally coming into being. Others are coming closer and closer to declaring that the pandemic isn't real at all.

Samaritan's Purse told VICE that the claim that the tents are being used to rescue sexually enslaved children is, of course, utterly untrue.

"This is false information," Kaitlyn Lahm, a spokesperson for the organization, told VICE. "Samaritan's Purse is operating an Emergency Field Hospital in New York City to treat patients suffering from COVID-19. We are working hand-in-hand with Mount Sinai Hospital to bring desperately needed surge capacity. All patients treated at the Emergency Field Hospital will be transferred from Mount Sinai to Samaritan's Purse. Thank you for your assistance in addressing this false rumor."

How many such rumors need to be addressed, no one can tell.

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it still hadn't touched the United States, people like Alex Jones and Mike Adams of Natural News were already declaring that the governments of the world were using it to execute a global depopulation effort, and would imprison and enslave any survivors. Fears about global enslavement or deliberate mass killings of civilians by the New World Order are some of the oldest conspiracy theories around, and so it made sense that the novel coronavirus would be used as the latest pretext to announce that the long-awaited crackdown from the shadowy powers that bestride the globe was finally here.

As the virus has devastated the United States, though, conspiracy peddlers of all stripes have more and more frequently claimed that the pandemic is merely a cover for or sign of Something Else: the "Storm" that QAnon followers eagerly await, the execution of mass vaccinations that anti-vaccination activists fear, the effects of 5G technology on the human body, or merely another in the series of efforts to discredit Donald Trump that slightly more mainstream right-wing activists see as constant. (The president himself, after all, referred to the Democratic criticism of his administration's early response to the crisis as a "new hoax.") And that impulse—to make coronavirus into a sign of some deeper conspiracy, instead of its own unique emergency—is only going to get worse.

Anti-vaccine activists, for example, continue to believe that the pandemic will lead the government to enforce a mandatory vaccination for the virus. (Clinical trials for a potential COVID-19 vaccine are underway, but a vaccine isn't expected to be available to the public until 2021 at the earliest.) But some of the more prominent among them are increasingly claiming that the virus was a pretext to execute mass surveillance and control all along. Larry Cook, one of the biggest single sources of anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook and the creator of the massive group Stop Mandatory Vaccination, has persistently claimed in recent weeks that the virus is a cover for "mandatory testing, tracking and vaccination."

"Whatever struggles we had fighting vaccine mandates prior to COVID-19, those struggles are now amplified by a factor of 100," Cook wrote on Facebook on April 7. "Adult vaccine mandates are literally right around the corner. If they can shut down cities and societies around the world, they can force-vaccinate the population, by literal force, if they want." He's urged his followers not to "accept" COVID-19 testing, and darkly warned that testing soon will be required to "rejoin society."

For once, Cook has some real-world data points to draw from, even if his broader claims are flatly false. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about the ways that surveillance technology companies want to pivot to tracking potentially infected citizens, giving them, and their government clients, an opportunity to ramp up mass surveillance. And the measures currently being put into place, as Bloomberg recently pointed out, are very hard to undo. This is all the stuff of old-school paranoia fever dreams—mass surveillance, increased government control, restricting the movement and health choices of ordinary citizens—come to life. By tying the preexisting fear of vaccination to very real concerns about the effects this crisis will have on day-to-day life, Cook is performing the classic trick of the effective conspiracy theorist, adducing what people see around them as evidence that what only the illuminated can see is true.

This sort of mutant strain of conspiracy theorizing, bringing together classical paranoia and anti-vax positions, is hardly limited to the fringe of the fringe represented by Cook, but can be found in more mainstream places as well. Take Emerald Robinson, White House correspondent for the ultra-right news outlet Newsmax who was a regular Trump interlocutor at White House press briefings when she worked for OAN. She has been energetically promoting the idea that Bill Gates holds a dangerous amount of sway over the World Health Organization, and that he's interested in promoting mass vaccination as a means of mass surveillance.

"What's the plan? Using vaccines to track people," she tweeted on April 6.

The freakish apogee of this line of thinking is probably that presented by Laura Ingraham, the Fox News presenter who is not just watched by but has a direct personal line to Trump. Ingraham has recently offered something like a unified field theory of conspiracy, proposing that "globalists"—a term often seen as a veiled reference to Jews, though Ingraham would surely say she doesn't mean it that way—have been plotting for years to track everyone digitally and will be able to use Gates' mention of a basic public-health proposal as a pretext to do it.

Ingraham has also suggested that people will be subject to more and more outrageous incursions on their freedom using COVID-19 logic, supposition-fretting that it could someday be used to steal our cars.

What Bill Gates' plans, digital surveillance, cars, and public-health emergencies have to do with each other isn't always totally clear. What is probable, though, given who's making these claims, is that this sort of thinking is getting a hearing in the White House.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the once-mainstream environmental activist turned persistent anti-vaccine campaigner, has issued a slightly more subtle theory from the overlap in the Venn diagram between surveillance theorists and vaccine skeptics: He claims that coronavirus is being exploited to install 5G technology nationwide, as he wrote in a Facebook post. (Kennedy and others have claimed that 5G technology has serious health effects and is also used as a tool of mass surveillance.) Kennedy claims that "Big Telecom," as he puts it, "loves coronavirus," because it gives them a "compliant population" that will accede to any invasions of their privacy.

"The quarantine has facilitated the unobstructed #5G rollout and has effectively ended the opportunity for mass public protests which were our best hope for derailing the 5G robber barons from microwaving our country and destroying nature," Kennedy wrote. "The Telecom Titans now have an open road, willing politicians and a compliant population sufficiently frightened, beleaguered, broke and submissive to relinquish their constitutional freedoms and welcome the surveillance state."

To put a headspinning twist on things, yet another but slightly distinct burgeoning mass-surveillance conspiracy theory is tied to 5G technology, and coronavirus is making its appearance there too. As Buzzfeed News reported, "New Agers, right-wingers, and QAnon conspiracy theorists" have all variously claimed that 5G technology is being used to spread coronavirus, tying existing anxieties and false claims about the technology to the pandemic. This is being taken seriously enough that 5G towers in the United Kingdom are being set on fire, with ordinary workers being harassed. (And this isn't even to get into the theory that COVID-19 symptoms are on some level the symptoms of 5G poisoning, promoted by celebs like Woody Harrelson.)

One thing the varying theories about mass surveillance, vaccination, 5G, and population control have in common is that they are dark. This makes for a contrast to one curiously joyful theory. For QAnoners, things that the rest of us might take to be signs of a country gripped by an apocalyptic public-health crisis—like a field hospital in Central Park—actually mean something else. Increasingly, QAnon followers are declaring that everything is finally falling into place, and that all the mass arrests and harsh justice that "Q" has been promising for years in his mysterious transmissions are, at last, happening, and that the signs of the pandemic are, in fact, proof. Before the hospital tents were meant for rescued children, some Q followers claimed they were, instead, for imprisoning "Deep State Pedophiles," as one person put it.

Around the same time, QAnon followers had also begun claiming that Tom Hanks didn't have coronavirus—he was, instead, they thought, under house arrest in Australia after having been taken into custody as yet another Deep State pedophile. (Tom Hanks is not a deep state pedophile. Neither is Oprah Winfrey, who has also not been arrested. Neither is Ellen DeGeneres, another celebrity who was accused of having been brought down in the supposed "raid.") Hanks' return to the United States after he recovered from COVID-19 was also taken as yet more proof that he was under arrest.

"So many QAnon followers live with the belief that an untold number of stolen children are still being systematically abused by the cabal in unspeakable ways,'" Travis View told VICE. He's an expert on QAnon as a subculture and a host of QAnon Anonymous, which looks critically at the sprawling world of Q-based conspiracy theories, "Their only hope of ending this horror is supposedly a curiously slow-moving and secret military operation headed by President Trump. They long to see the rescue of these imprisoned children not just because they think it would vindicate their worldview and expose the children's abusers, but also because it would make the world a less evil and cruel place."

This can look a lot like retreating into fantasy. "QAnon often feels like it's a way to ignore difficult truths by pretending things are different and better planned than they are in reality," he said. "That might come in the form of thinking typos by Trump in tweets are secret codes rather than evidence of Trump's fallibility. Or it might come in the form of thinking Central Park tents are a part of a children's rescue operation rather than evidence of an overwhelmed medical system."

Perhaps the most disturbing conspiracy theory taking shape, frightening for how formless it currently is and yet implicit in the others, is the idea that maybe there is no medical emergency at all. The #FilmYourHospital hashtag, as NBC News reported, was born after former right-wing personality Todd Starnes uploaded a video outside a Brooklyn hospital, showing a quiet scene.

"You're hearing one thing on the mainstream media, and this is what it's like in reality," Starnes declared on the video. "Very quiet, very calm out here … There is not massive chaos outside this hospital."

Starnes' tweet inspired dozens of copycat videos and the hashtag began to circulate, giving people—mostly on the right—room to proclaim that there was something suspicious about the way "the media" or "Democrats" are talking about the crisis. The surface claim is that those groups are unnecessarily causing panic and distress even though everything is under control. But under the surface, the implication is that we have not been shown enough proof that there's an emergency at all.

"Where are the videos of the hospitals being overwhelmed with patients?" former actor James Woods tweeted. "Something is creepy wrong and very scary about this entire event." (He also used the hashtag #WuhanCoronaVirus, as are many right-wing activists focused on keeping blame on China for the spread of the disease.)

Former New York Times reporter and novelist Alex Berenson has recently been making the same general case from a slightly more respectable position, arguing that COVID-19 infections in the United States have already peaked and that the U.S. response to the pandemic represents a massive overreaction.

(Current Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman made the curious decision to share a Berenson tweet, writing, "RTs are not endorsements, particularly that infections may have peaked when there's so little testing, but there are ongoing questions about the modeling that's being relied on and what assumptions are going into them.")

And Fox News has, predictably, begun to unite around the viewpoint that if there were ever a coronavirus crisis, it's all but over, as John Whitehouse of Media Matters pointed out.

Fox has a lot riding, politically, on the idea that the COVID-19 crisis is well-handled, or perhaps not much of a crisis at all. They were disastrously efficient cheerleaders for hydroxychloroquine, a drug for malaria, lupus, and arthritis that's now in catastrophically short supply all over the world because the president saw it on TV. "What do you have to lose?" he said recently, during the same press conference where he said he won't wear a face mask, even as the country's health organizations urge everyone to do just that. "They say, take it. I'm not looking at it one way or the other … If it does work, it would be a shame if we didn't do it early. I've seen things that I sort of like, so what do I know?"

But cheering a purported miracle drug alone wasn't quite enough: Fox also saw fit to start plunging into something close to death denialism. Brit Hume recently mused that the number of COVID-19 deaths is, perhaps, subject to your political viewpoint.

"[T]here are people who don't like Trump very much who kind of seem to argue that the death rate is higher than we think and there are people who are more disposed toward Trump who would prefer to take the view that the death rate is lower than we think," Hume said. "We've got a long way to go here but I think that argument is very much out there and I don't think there's any way to tell, based on current data, who's right."

Some Fox personalities are willing to go farther than musing that the death count isn't knowable, or is subject to debate. Tucker Carlson recently suggested that it's being actively inflated by agenda-driven journalists.

"There may be reasons that people seek an inaccurate death count," Carlson told Hume. "[W]hen journalists work with numbers, there sometimes is an agenda. Unfortunately."

It's easy to see where this is going. These are the kinds of mitigations and excuses and obfuscation that will be deployed against whatever official devastation the virus is proven to have wrought. They are not, in the end, so different from what the QAnoners and anti-vaxxers and enemies of 5G have to offer.

All of the ways the pandemic is being twisted, lied about or reworked into an existing belief system are, fundamentally, political choices, meant to promote political ends. That can mean shoring up support for the Trump Administration, opposing 5G technology, or claiming vaccines represent the incursion of the New World Order. But reality is, at this moment, even more grimly resistant to spin than usual. The same hospital where Todd Starnes filmed his supposedly quiet, peaceful video, is, as NBC as well as CNN's Andrew Kaczynski pointed out, where one of the most disturbing images of the pandemic so far was captured: Bodies were being loaded into a refrigerated truck, as the city's morgues began to fill and there was no more room for the dead.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.