It was the second week of March when everything changed. Schools, restaurants and retail stores started shutting down en masse, the NBA and NHL suspended their seasons, cities nationwide began banning large gatherings, and after halting travel from Europe, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency as the coronavirus ripped through the U.S.
Suddenly realizing that 2020 would be a year like no other, Americans stockpiled necessities and braced for the worst of the burgeoning pandemic. But no one could have anticipated the parallel “infodemic” that would crush an already reeling nation and undermine its recovery. Misleading information has flourished online — often pushed by Trump and his allies — and social media platforms have failed to contain it.
This is actively prolonging the crisis. While residents of other virus-plagued countries have returned to a sense of normalcy after banding together to stop the spread of the virus, the U.S. is in the midst of its third wave, and continues to shatter its own daily infection and death records. Systemic failures have accelerated this tragedy: Swaths of the population are still refusing to wear face masks and are flouting social distancing rules — convinced that the pandemic has been exaggerated or fabricated altogether.
2020 offered ideal conditions for an “infodemic,” the term the World Health Organization uses to describe the deluge of false and deceptive information clouding the pandemic.
Locked down and isolated, people spent far more time online this year, and Big Tech wasn’t ready. For months, social media sites have teemed with wild hoaxes about the virus’s origins, severity, supposed cures and so on — promoted by opportunistic grifters and profiteers, and oftentimes, the platforms’ own recommendation algorithms. Meanwhile, in his pursuit of reelection amid his disastrous pandemic response, Trump relentlessly downplayed the threat of COVID-19 while feeding a stream of partisan falsehoods to the American electorate. He is the single greatest source of coronavirus misinformation, Cornell University researchers found.
The results have been devastating: Frontline health care workers are being harassed online and in-person by coronavirus truthers accusing them of faking the crisis. People are drinking bleach, wrongly believing it will treat or prevent the disease — which the president himself suggested. As the U.S. death toll soars past 340,000, hordes of protesters are demanding an end to the shutdowns (with support from Trump). And as baseless and often ludicrous anti-vaccine conspiracy theories continue to proliferate online, tens of millions of Americans will likely refuse to be immunized against COVID-19, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
This year revealed just how powerful — and harmful — disinformation can be. Below are 2020’s five most dangerous conspiracy theories derailing America’s pandemic recovery.
1. The Coronavirus Isn’t Real
Despite overflowing morgues and hospitals, mass grave sites and desperate warnings from leading public health authorities, a sect of the population still believes the virus doesn’t really exist, or that it’s no more dangerous than the flu. There’s a frenzy of mind-numbing theories as to why world leaders would invent or overhype a global pandemic, but most relate to power. By creating a crisis, these conspiracy mongers surmise, governments can enact authoritarian rule by mandating lockdowns and vaccines.
QAnon, the far-right cultist movement that rode the pandemic to new heights, has been a major peddler of these beliefs. Among other cruel acts, QAnon influencers have incited their followers to show up at emergency rooms with cameras in search of evidence of inflated admission numbers, causing the hashtag #FilmYourHospital to trend on Twitter.
Coronavirus denialism has pushed some health care workers to their breaking points.
“Some people are out there who are ... going on these videos and then telling us it’s fake while we’re saving lives,” Dr. Hadi Halazun, a cardiologist treating COVID-19 patients in New York, told NBC News in May. “I felt like, ‘What are we doing this for?’”
Brian Lee Hitchens, a 46-year-old taxi driver from Florida, used to be one of the many Americans who believe the coronavirus is a hoax. He’d read online that the illness was either made-up or posed no real health risk, so he and his wife, Erin, decided not to wear face masks or practice social distancing. Both ended up contracting COVID-19. Hitchens made headlines in May when he spoke out about the severity of the disease and warned other skeptics to take it seriously. Erin later died from complications tied to the virus.
2. The ‘Plandemic’ Was Orchestrated By Powerful Elites
Who can forget when “Plandemic,” the falsehood-laden video starring discredited medical researcher Judy Mikovits, went massively viral in early May? The film is one of the highest-profile pieces of disinformation surrounding the pandemic; it garnered millions of views almost overnight as social media platforms scrambled to take it offline.
In the now-infamous film, which gripped viewers with its professional-looking production, Mikovits rattled off a litany of false, baseless and misleading claims. She brazenly asserted that wearing face masks “literally activates your own virus” (it doesn’t), that vaccines are “a money-making enterprise that causes medical harm” (they’re not) and that microbes in the ocean and soil “sequences” can heal coronavirus patients (nope).
The thesis of Plandemic and its sequel, “Indoctornation,” was a deeply misguided warning: Powerful people, institutions and corporations — including infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, the CIA, Google and even fact-checkers — are complicit in the COVID-19 outbreak and stand to profit from it.
As QAnon supporters and other groups blasted the videos across the internet, journalists raced to debunk them. But for many viewers, the damage was done: A month after Plandemic’s release, a Pew Research survey found that a quarter of American adults were convinced that there was at least some truth to the claim that powerful elites had intentionally planned the pandemic. Soon after, an Axios-Ipsos poll revealed that 31% of Americans believed that the reported toll of U.S. coronavirus deaths was being inflated.
“Q,” the anonymous online poster and ostensible leader of QAnon, has also floated the idea that the virus was engineered as a bioweapon to hurt Trump’s reelection chances.
3. Doctors And Scientists Are Hiding The Cure
The next major disinformation campaign struck in July. A group of people in white lab coats calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” staged a press conference on the steps of Capitol Hill, during which they accused doctors nationwide of withholding a cure for COVID-19: the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. The group claimed that the numerous clinical trials showing that the drug offers no benefits to coronavirus patients and poses unnecessary risks are “fake science” funded by “fake pharma companies.”
Far-right media outlet Breitbart livestreamed the group’s conference, which racked up tens of millions of views within hours. Trump, who has been hydroxychloroquine’s biggest cheerleader throughout the crisis, also promoted video of the conference on Twitter. As the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths surged and his reelection prospects dwindled, he allegedly pressured health officials to distribute the drug despite their concerns about its safety.
As HuffPost reported at the time, a conservative dark-money group was behind the explosively viral press event. America’s Frontline Doctors appears to be connected to parties involved in the Save Our Country Coalition, which was launched by the Republican donor-backed Tea Party Patriots, and which previously helped to coordinate massive protests against coronavirus lockdowns.
One of America’s Frontline Doctors’ most prolific members, a religious minister and pediatrician named Stella Immanuel, has warned against having sex with demons and cautioned that watching Harry Potter films makes society “accept demonic activity and witchcraft as normal.” The group is now organizing anti-vaccine demonstrations.
4. 5G Wireless Technology Causes COVID-19
Around the world, growing numbers of people are convinced that 5G — the next generation wireless network technology — is responsible for the coronavirus crisis. As evidence, they point to the pre-pandemic installation of 5G towers in Wuhan, China, where the global outbreak originated. Many have also incorrectly speculated that exposure to 5G frequencies weakens people’s immune systems, making them more likely to die from COVID-19.
As the Federal Communications Commission stressed in a statement earlier this year, 5G technology “does NOT cause coronavirus.” Not only has the virus devastated countries without access to the technology, 5G radio waves simply aren’t strong enough to harm the human body. (HuffPost’s parent company, Verizon Media, is a subsidiary of Verizon, a major developer of 5G technology.)
The 5G hysteria quickly exploded into violence in the U.K., where radicalized arsonists have torched dozens of phone towers. 5G conspiracy theorists there have also threatened, harassed and physically assaulted the masts’ maintenance staff. Someone reportedly spat in the face of a broadband engineer in London, who then fell seriously ill with suspected COVID-19. Another worker was even stabbed five times and hospitalized.
Anxiety about 5G has taken off in the U.S., too. Among other celebrities and influencers, American actor Woody Harrelson spread 5G conspiracy theories to his millions of Instagram followers in April. The FBI is also reportedly investigating whether Anthony Warner, the man accused of blowing up an RV outside of an AT&T facility in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning, acted out of fear of 5G.
5. Bill Gates Wants To Vaccinate, Microchip And Track You
Gates has been at the heart of a dizzying number of conspiracy theories this year. Chief among them is that he will somehow inject recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine with location-tracking devices, prompting fact-checking groups to publish such asinine posts as, “No, Bill Gates isn’t partnering with ID companies to implant microchips in humans.”
Crowds of American demonstrators have gathered to demand Gates’ arrest, accusing him of attempted acts ranging from mass brainwashing to population control to enslaving all of humanity — almost entirely in relation to the hundreds of millions of dollars he has donated to vaccine development efforts. The hashtag #ExposeBillGates trended on Twitter as a result of coordinated efforts by anti-vaccine activists.
Once again, QAnon has been one of the biggest pushers of anti-vax conspiracy theories. But it’s not just fringe figures buying into the nonsense: A stunning 44% of Republicans believe the microchip conspiracy theory is true, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found in May.
Conspiratorial narratives about the supposedly nefarious interests of key figures and institutions surrounding vaccines are now causing just as much vaccine skepticism as safety concerns are, according to a new report from First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation.