Kim Cohen’s Instagram page chronicles her bikini-clad adventures around the world, along with the occasional inspirational quote and photo of her Yorkie, Peanut — standard content for a travel blogger and influencer like herself. But in mid-March, as much of the world awoke to the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, Cohen’s more than 100,000 followers noticed a drastic change in her feed: The 34-year-old abruptly pivoted from sharing filtered beach selfies to blasting out terrifying coronavirus conspiracy theories.
In lieu of her typical brand-sponsored posts, Cohen has spent the past two months railing against supposed collusion between the media and a cabal of “deep state” actors, trying to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health officials, championing bogus science and amplifying falsehoods about the purported health effects caused by 5G technology. Her social media channels have morphed into open fan pages for QAnon, a violent conspiracy movement that falsely claims the virus is a lab-engineered bioweapon.
The cabal has “been trying to depopulate humanity for a very long time,” she cautioned in April, after branding herself an expert on government operations, “frequencies and energies” and the human immune system. “This is why we have diseases. Legit.”
Cohen is part of a growing group of Instagram models, influencers and so-called mommy bloggers who’ve outed themselves as coronavirus skeptics or deniers, a trend covered by outlets including BuzzFeed and Business Insider.
Akin to celebrities in the eyes of their audiences — with whom they’ve built up trust over time through streams of intimate, relatable content — these women are uniquely well-positioned to open people’s minds to dubious and false information. It’s a sobering sign of far-right ideologies creeping in from the fringes of social media amid a colossal “infodemic” that’s causing real-life harm.
In recent weeks, HuffPost has reviewed the Instagram accounts of more than a dozen seemingly radicalized influencers who have been propagating COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Only a few returned requests for comment, including Cohen, who accused this reporter of being “part of the DeepState agenda.”
For 30-year-old Anna Wood, another Instagram influencer with just over 100,000 followers whom she calls her “love beams,” the shift toward conspiratorial content happened more gradually. Back in March, she started dropping QAnon references in between her regular meditation posts and encouraging her audience to question official accounts about the burgeoning pandemic. By April, she had uploaded her first video arguing that the media and “powers that be” were inciting coronavirus hysteria to exert greater control over society. Since then, she has come out with a series of posts pushing dangerous and inaccurate claims, including that wearing face masks can make you sick.
“If you go down some rabbit holes and you look into this, you discover that there’s a reason why the mainstream media only feeds you really, really negative news,” she mused in a video this month. “There’s a reason why they’re not telling you how to keep your immune system high.”
Aptly titled, influencers can hold remarkable sway over their followers — and not just through brand endorsements (though the influencer marketing industry is projected to hit a staggering $15 billion by 2022). People tend to develop feelings of personal connection to the public figures they follow closely online and view them as “trustworthy” and “credible,” according to a 2018 study.
These one-way pseudo-friendships are products of what’s known as “parasocial interaction,” and are intensified when social media stars divulge personal information or give their audiences behind-the-scenes peeks into their lives — the very nature of “influencing.”
In addition to making a living, many influencers leverage their online stature for good by soliciting donations for charitable causes or raising awareness about various social issues. The newly minted coronavirus propagandists appear to see themselves in a similar light: They present themselves as free thinkers who, in the midst of a global crisis, are finally breaking their silence on supposed government depravity.
“Something awakened me spiritually and I’ve been questioning the narrative for years.”
“This is not what my platform has been about, but I’m a very big and firm believer in following your gut,” lifestyle influencer Jalynn Schroeder, a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced on Instagram in March before transitioning her 50,000-follower page into a vessel for QAnon’s many virus-related claims.
“My platform is all about sharing my journey … I have been very clear that I am not sharing things as fact or truth — everyone, including my followers, needs to do their own research and come to their own personal conclusions,” Schroeder, 32, added in a statement to HuffPost.
“Something awakened me spiritually and I’ve been questioning the narrative for years,” 33-year-old Christian mommy blogger Alissa Hummel echoed to her own followers earlier this month, after sharing a series of conspiratorial anti-vaccine posts and linking to the widely debunked “Plandemic” film. “I am aware some of the things I post (in between recipes, DIYs, and girl mama stuff) is a little more intense for some, but this is me.”
Rebecca Pfeiffer, a 37-year-old mother of three with 104,000 Instagram followers, also seems to believe that her decision to broadcast her coronavirus skepticism is a positive use of her platform. In between her pictures modeling items from Chanel, Aerie, Lululemon and Nordstrom, she has been uploading Instagram Stories promoting QAnon and suggesting that the outbreak is a cover-up for a global child sex trafficking ring. Her many wild assertions could compromise her brand relationships, scare off followers and ultimately hurt her income, but it’s a risk she says she’s willing to take.
“With everything going on in the world, I’m ready to share some of the things that I have been following for a really long time that I think are going to be exposed to the masses very soon,” Pfeiffer announced in a series of candid Story Highlights in March. “Most of you are not gonna understand what it is you’re seeing. And I also understand that many of you are probably gonna unfollow me when you look at it. But I don’t care anymore.”
This apparent sincerity sets the influencers-turned-conspiracy theorists apart from the countless fear-mongering grifters spreading fake news in transparent attempts to capitalize on the pandemic.
A few do appear to be turning a profit, though. Danielle Paige, a self-described “spiritual teacher” who has been featured in Vogue, for example, has partnered with a company selling a “5G protection” tool. Citing an unidentified “qualified source,” she recently warned her followers that 5G radiation will cause their immune systems to fail, and claimed the $899 devices would help to “harmonize” their bodies. (HuffPost’s parent company, Verizon Media, is a subsidiary of Verizon, a major developer of 5G technology.)
Regardless of their motives, influencers wielding their digital clout to spread false and unsubstantiated information about the coronavirus are feeding into an online environment of disinformation that social media platforms are struggling to contain.
In some cases, online conspiracy theories have led to violent offline consequences: The stunning rise of baseless 5G conspiracies, in particular, has already resulted in dozens of arson attacks on cell phone towers as well as verbal and physical assaults targeting the masts’ maintenance staff. Someone even reportedly spat in the face of a broadband engineer, who then fell seriously ill with suspected coronavirus.
And as scientists race to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to ensure widespread immunity, experts fear the growth of anti-vaccine propaganda on social media will cause a significant portion of the population to refuse the vaccine once it’s ready.
Scrolling through Instagram’s thriving #Wellness community makes clear why: A startling number of wellness bloggers — who often lack medical training or accreditation — are spreading misinformation about vaccines as people turn to their pages for health advice during the worst public health crisis in a century.
Ali Le Vere, the woman behind a 111,000-follower wellness page, has used her platform to share posts that recommend debunked coronavirus treatments such as colloidal silver, villainize Dr. Fauci and suggest the COVID-19 vaccine will fatally harm those who take it.
Krystal Tini, a yoga enthusiast who built up her audience of nearly 100,000 followers (including Donald Trump Jr.) with holistic healing posts, has claimed that 5G will “activate” vaccine ingredients inside the bodies of those who have been injected, killing them.
“I, from day one, never believed the official story,” Tini declared on Instagram in mid-March, around the time that she came out publicly as a fervent QAnon supporter. “It’s all a bunch of nonsense, and they want to keep us sick.” In a statement to HuffPost, she said: “The only information you’re regarding [as] conspiratorial is anything not spewed by the mainstream media, of which they have proven time and time again, cannot be trusted!”
By revealing what they say are long-held beliefs in such conspiracy theories, these women have also pulled back the curtain on just how widespread this kind of thinking may be. Their jarring turn from lifestyle influencers to anti-science propagandists is an indication of how easily people who live their lives online can become radicalized by disinformation.
Several of the influencers have expressed their bewilderment at the level of support and affirmation they’ve received from their followers since pivoting to conspiratorial content.
“Thank you SO MUCH for sharing!” someone wrote to Pfeiffer in March — one of dozens of similar messages she has posted to her Stories. “The silent majority is here with you.”
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