As the COVID-19 crisis continues to monopolise public life around the world, conspiracy theories about the virus continue to gather steam – and pro-Kremlin media are eager to jump on the bandwagon.
Few developments in recent history have so suddenly and ruthlessly laid bare the vulnerabilities and fragility of contemporary life as the COVID-19 outbreak. Within just a few short months, the virus has profoundly transformed life around the world, with no end in sight or real possibility of a “return to normal” until a vaccine is found. The challenge to our societies is unprecedented in scope, and the consequences and impact of the pandemic still impossible to assess.
Under conditions of such uncertainty – combining health anxiety about a novel disease, economic insecurity, social isolation, and exceptionally restrictive government measures – it is no surprise that mis- and disinformation flourish more vigorously than usual. Indeed, history shows that widespread disinformation is a common feature across pandemics – a phenomenon for which human psychology and cognition are partly to blame. Uncertainty predisposes us to search for answers to help us make sense of what’s going on, which can enforce mental shortcuts and errors of logic that lead us to accept false conclusions. At the same time, the present infodemic is also exacerbated by the flawed incentive structure of the online environment and specifically social media – which favours cheap, low-quality information with strong emotional appeal over high-quality, rigorously-researched content. (To their credit, platforms are now taking steps to mitigate this problem, though with limited success.)
Conspiracy theories go mainstream… with the Kremlin’s help
Even as the EU and other countries begin to prepare their quarantine exit strategies, the infodemic shows no signs of abating. In particular, conspiracy theories around COVID-19 continue to swarm the digital landscape, metastasizing in real time and, in some cases, even spilling over into the real world – sometimes with alarming consequences. The new viral “Plandemic” video is just the latest example of this troubling trend – already viewed more than 8 million times, it claims that a shadowy cabal is using the COVID-19 crisis as a cover for profiteering and entrenching power.
It’s important to acknowledge that the bulk of this proliferation is non-malicious in intent. While the chief architects of conspiracy theories are often driven by self-serving motives like profit or desire for recognition, many of their acolytes are simply victims of deception, and contribute to the spread of these conspiracy theories out of genuine misguided belief. This is the difference between disinformation and misinformation; and the former is morally reprehensible because it intentionally preys upon people’s fears and weaknesses.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the coronavirus conspiracy boom is a natural fit for the Kremlin’s disinformation machine, which has a long track record of promoting conspiracy theories on a wide array of topics (Soros, “global elites”, Western false flag operations…the list goes on). Regarding the coronavirus, pro-Kremlin media have also been spreading conspiracy theories since the very beginning of the outbreak: our first recorded case on the topic, from January 22nd, asserts that the coronavirus was “likely elaborated in NATO biolabs”. Notably, the origin of this conspiracy theory in the Kremlin-linked media sphere is confirmed by data analytics firm Semantic Visions, which found that the first ever reference to COVID-19 being a US-made biological weapon came from tvzvezda.ru, a state-owned outlet operated by the Russian Ministry of Defence, on January 20th. This conspiracy theory was repeated yet again this week in various forms (see here, here, here, and here).
Pro-Kremlin media board the new conspiracy bandwagon
This week, it was interesting to observe the pro-Kremlin media bandwagoning on other conspiracy theories about the coronavirus that have originated and spread via other channels. Bill Gates and his evil “vaccination microchip plot” were a leading target – see for example here, here, and here. Absurdly, Gates also stands accused of paralysing 496,000 children in India with a polio vaccine and seeking to reduce the world’s population via vaccines for over 15 years. Gates has long warned about the dangers of being unprepared for a new global pandemic and has mobilised significant resources in the fight against the coronavirus, including for the development of a vaccine. As a result, he has become the punching bag for anti-vax activists – and the pro-Kremlin media appears more than happy to play along. (For more on Bill Gates and the Kremlin’s anti-vax disinformation campaign, see here.)
Related to Gates, other cases invoked the conspiracist notion of “global elites” orchestrating the pandemic – a narrative largely in line with the “Plandemic” video referenced above. For example, we saw claims that the WHO is part of the global government and the coronavirus is a pretext for a global colour revolution; that the coronavirus is a game coordinated by the pharmaceutical and media industries; and that the Freemasons have begun “chipping” Ukraine’s population. (No, no, and no.) One creative case also claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highly respected public face of the US government’s pandemic response, threatened President Trump with a “major epidemic” due to his personal sympathies for Hillary Clinton. Another alleged that “diabolical Masters of Darkness” manufactured the pandemic and are “committing mass genocide”.
A particularly disruptive variation of the conspiracy theory that the pandemic is a tool of mass control links the coronavirus with 5G technology – and in recent weeks, it has led to arson and vandalism attacks against cell towers in several European countries. But this naturally didn’t stop News Front from falsely claiming that the US Secretary of Defense admitted that 5G poses a threat to humans. (He didn’t, and it doesn’t.) Incidentally, News Front was included in Facebook’s latest takedown for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour – more on that here.
Finally, to round out the list, other coronavirus conspiracy theories this week included claims that the virus spreads on the basis of race; that there is no pandemic and COVID-19 is just like the flu; and that COVID-19 tests are likely infecting patients in Italy and Spain.