The Media Today

The many coronavirus conspiracy theories

May 15, 2020

On February 2, more than a month before the World Health Organization deemed the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic, it declared that the virus had led to a “massive infodemic.” WHO observed “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” A few months later, the infodemic has only intensified. Conspiracy theories are sloshing around the internet, alleging, among other wild claims, that China deliberately engineered the virus in a lab, that the US military implanted the virus in China, that Bill Gates wants to use vaccination to microchip the world’s population, and that the virus is spreading via 5G technology. Often, right-wing media outlets have boosted the signal; last week, for example, One America News Network, an outlet beloved of Trump, implicated Gates, George Soros, and the Clintons in a “globalist conspiracy to establish sweeping population control.” Sometimes, the White House has been the booster. We all remember bleachgate.

Early this month, a viral YouTube video brought some of these strands together. The video—a clip from a “documentary” called Plandemic—starred Dr. Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist who claims, among other things, that wearing a face mask can actively make you sick, and that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suppressed her work on the harms of vaccines. (There is zero evidence for any of this.) The video was promoted aggressively by anti-vaccination activists and by adherents of QAnon, a convoluted deep-state conspiracy theory; the Epoch Times, a right-wing media outlet with ties to Falun Gong, also boosted Mikovits’s message. This week, Davey Alba, of the New York Times, reported that mentions of Mikovits on social media and TV have “spiked to as high as 14,000 a day.” Facebook and YouTube eventually removed the video, but not before it reached millions of users. Erin Gallagher, a social-media researcher who charted the video’s spread, concluded that “both platforms were instrumental in spreading viral medical misinformation.” According to Anna Merlan, of VICE, Zach Vorhies, a former YouTube and Google staffer who now has ties to QAnon and anti-vaxxers, helped orchestrate the video’s virality.

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The Mikovits video reached at least eight million people, and it may only be a small taste of conspiracies to come. Kevin Roose, who covers technology for the Times, writes that he was watching the clip from Plandemic when a “terrifying thought” struck him: “What if we get a COVID-19 vaccine and half the country refuses to take it?” Roose sees a number of reasons why a future COVID vaccine could play into the hands of propagandists—it’ll likely have been fast-tracked, adding rocket fuel to existing vaccine-safety fears; it’ll likely be mandatory, at least for certain groups, boosting anger about perceived government overreach; and anti-vaxx boogeymen, including Gates and the WHO, may end up being closely involved in its development. The anti-vax movement, Roose writes, is highly organized and media savvy. By contrast, the messaging of authoritative official health sources can be clunky and poorly suited to online discourse. As Renée DiResta, a researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory, wrote in a recent column for The Atlantic, “All too often, the people responsible for protecting the public do not appear to understand how information moves in the internet era.”

The pandemic is particularly fertile ground for conspiracists. There is not, as yet, an authoritative, established scientific consensus about the virus and its spread, leaving wide informational gaps for nonsense to fill. And the fact that the coronavirus is, as I wrote in March, an “everything story,” affecting every single aspect of our lives, lends itself conveniently to a conspiracist’s habit of thinking in terms of sweeping theories with unifying explanatory power. Yesterday, The Atlantic launched “Shadowland,” a series of pieces, on themes broader than the coronavirus, examining America’s vulnerability to paranoid thinking. In an introductory note, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, writes that “the conspiracy theorists are winning.” That, he believes, poses an “existential threat.”

Deep, insightful coverage of our poisoned information ecosystem is welcome. Still, conspiracy theories are highly fraught terrain for the reality-based press. By debunking theories, we risk reinforcing their appeal, and furthering their spread. “Throw a fact check at a subversion myth, and it will transform into proof for believers,” Whitney Phillips wrote for this magazine’s recent disinformation-themed issue. “After all, trying to disprove the existence of a Satanic plot is exactly what a Satanist would do.” Journalists must decide, on a case-by-case basis and in real time, which theories are widespread—and harmful—enough to demand rectification, and the best way to go about doing that. It isn’t an easy task. It’s especially hard when lives are on the line.

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Below, more on the coronavirus:

Other notable stories: 

  • For CJR, Howard Polskin, a watcher of right-wing media trends, explores how the Washington Examiner became a “traffic monster.” Hugo Gurdon, the site’s editorial director, has embraced “a model of the newsroom as an editorial factory,” Polskin reports. “Leaving aside its robust opinion section, the rest of the Examiner website is peppered with lots of short, easy-to-digest, fast-to-produce news stories.”
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reports that staffers at BuzzFeed increasingly feel animosity toward the Times; one BuzzFeed editor said it feels like the Times is “trying to murder us.” “BuzzFeed feels like the Times has a knack for rereporting certain stories and then publishing similar features of their own with minimal or no credit,” Pompeo writes. The Times has also poached several BuzzFeed stars, including its former editor, Ben Smith.
  • For the LA Times, Stephen Battaglio profiles Soledad O’Brien, the former CNN anchor who likes to excoriate other journalists on Twitter. O’Brien “believes her tweets are a service in an era when news is often interpreted through a partisan prism,” Battaglio writes. For O’Brien, “journalistic cowardice is a crime and should be pointed out.”
  • In 2018, authorities in Iran arrested Hassan Fathi, a newspaper columnist, after he gave an interview to the BBC. Last week, he began an 18-month term in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling for Fathi’s release, noting that the spread of COVID-19 makes his imprisonment a “potential death sentence.”
  • And on Tuesday, at 11am Eastern, Covering Climate Now, the climate-journalism initiative led by CJR and The Nation, will host a webinar focused on climate coverage amid the pandemic. If you’d like to take part, you can register at this link. (The webinar is for journalists only. Following the webinar, CCN will post a recording on its website.)

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.