Another virus is infecting the world in the wake of COVID-19 and it is hitting the United States with particular virulence.
A plague of conspiracy theories is attacking scientific facts about the pandemic, and replacing them with fake theories that will undermine efforts to tame it. Social media permits such misinformation to spread online with the speed of a virus, whether pushed by lone individuals, groups, or governments.
What makes these conspiracy theories particularly dangerous in this country is that some of the worst are amplified by far-right talking heads — and by President Donald Trump.
“COVID-19 has created the perfect story for conspiracy theorists,” rightly argues the Atlantic magazine, in a terrific new issue on “Truth, Lies and Conspiracies in a Time of Pandemic.” Isolated at home, anxious, distrustful of governments, many people are more susceptible to bizarre theories that claim to reveal “secret knowledge.”
Not surprisingly, state-controlled media in Russia (which has used conspiracy theories as an anti-Western foreign-policy tool for decades) are pushing the claim that the coronavirus is a U.S. bioweapon, developed to destroy China. Beijing is also promoting that theory.
Yet the pandemic has also unleashed a wave of more bizarre conspiracy theories such as the charge (also pushed by Russian media) that 5G networks are spreading the virus. This led arsonists across Europe to set cell phone towers ablaze.
In posts on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, he is being falsely portrayed either as the founder of or profiteer from the virus, who seeks to track the world’s population by inserting microchip vaccination implants into their bodies. Conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham, along with leading anti-vaccinators such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., echo these claims.
However, if you want to fully grasp the virulence of the conspiracy virus, consider the tale of the 26-minute “Plandemic” video, which describes a fake secret plot by global elites, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, to profit from the pandemic and grab political power.
Narrated by a discredited scientist, the video claims masks can make wearers sick and assails future vaccines as dangerous. According to a stunning New York Times investigation, in the week after the video’s May 4 posting on Facebook, YouTube, and other sites, it was viewed more than eight million times.
Although Facebook and YouTube had removed the video by May 7, it had already spread throughout social media, and added to the miasma of suspicion toward scientific experts. This will undermine future efforts to keep COVID-19 down.
So how does all this relate to the White House? President Trump is famously a master of conspiratorial thinking. He rose to political power by promoting the discredited “birther” conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and thus not eligible to be president.
The president’s endless Twitter feed has spread libraries’ worth of falsehoods, including claims of a conspiratorial plot by the “deep state” against him. His feed has promoted some of the movements most avidly spreading the conspiracy virus, such as the cultlike QAnon movement that is spreading widely online. QAnon has been an avid promoter of the attacks on Gates and the Plandemic video.
Trump cooked up a baseless conspiracy theory against Joe Biden over Ukraine and is trying to do the same with Barack Obama, using an “Obamagate” tagline.
Trump’s denigration of fact-based media and his political opponents as “traitors” makes it easy for videos like Plandemic to gain traction.
Most disturbing, the president’s conspiratorial mind-set will make it far harder to emerge from COVID-19 in the months ahead.
In the early days of the coronavirus, the president downplayed it and fed the belief by the conspiracy-minded that it was a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats and the media. Even now, as he endorses unproven drugs, he is casting doubt on statistics about deaths from the virus.
His son Eric claimed recently on Fox News that Democratic governors were refusing to open up their states in order to prevent his father’s rallies. After Nov. 2, coronavirus will "magically all of a sudden go away,” the younger Trump insisted. This kind of conspiracy promotion encourages the kind of behavior that may bring a virus resurgence.
And Trump promotes “reopen” rallies, in which the anti-vaccination movement is highly active. This undercuts Trump’s own claims that a vaccination will swiftly end the pandemic; the anti-vaxxers will campaign furiously against the widespread vaccinations that offer the best hope of quelling COVID-19.
But the only vaccination against the conspiracy virus is for fact-based media to keep exposing the lies that underlie this infection and the commentators who promote them. And to keep challenging the conspiratorial claims from the White House that are an even greater threat to U.S. democracy than COVID-19.