A new algorithm that identifies Covid-19 related conspiracy theories on social media and tracks their evolution, could someday help public health officials tackle the menace of misinformation. Developed by a team of scientists, the study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, provides an understanding of how such theories spread.
The study looked at four conspiracy theories that have been doing the rounds on social media sites, such as 5G cell towers spreading the virus, that the virus was engineered by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that it was bioengineered in a lab and that the Covid-19 vaccines would be dangerous.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a fertile ground for a huge number of conspiracy theories, primarily focusing on its origins and alleged perpetrators. The repercussions have also been severe - adding on to the existing confusion and paranoia and causing mistrust and xenophobia.
As cases surge globally, we take a look at all the conspiracy theories that are threatening the fight against the virus:
The 5G connection
Last year, wild theories linking the virus and 5G technology went viral, leading to cell towers being vandalised in countries such as The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
A Belgian doctor floated the theory that 5G was responsible for the pandemic. In an interview featuring the doctor, the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste said that “5G is life-threatening, and no one knows it.”
The article claimed that Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID outbreak, had installed a number of 5G cell towers and China had also turned its 5G towers on in November. While the doctor claimed that he had not fact-checked the theory, the two could be linked. The article, which was later deleted, went viral and was picked up by other people, including American singer Keri Hilson and actor Woody Harrelson.
Scientists have debunked the rumours that 5G has anything to do with the spread of the virus. Social media platforms such as Twitter have also been fact-checking and removing such content.
Bill Gates created the virus
The entrepreneur-philanthropist has been at the centre of much of the bizarre conspiracies surrounding the virus. As per conspiracy theorists, Gates and U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci created the virus in a bid to control people. This, they say, would be done by inserting microchips into people when they get their vaccines.
Gates had recently termed the misinformation, crazy and evil. Through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates and his wife Belinda Gates have given more than USD 1.75 billion to the global response against the virus.
China and the Wuhan lab
A much-believed theory, propagated by former US President Donald Trump, among others, is that the COVID-19 virus is a leaked bio-weapon created by China. An American lawyer, Larry Klayman, even filed a USD 20 trillion lawsuit against China accusing China and a high-security biosafety lab on the outskirts of Wuhan of releasing the virus. The institute, which is home to the China Centre for Virus Culture Collection, preserves more than 1,500 strains of viruses, as per its website.
Fox News had also claimed, in an exclusive report, that the virus may have accidentally been leaked by an intern working at the lab.
A team commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) visited the lab in January this year, to investigate the source of the virus. It has concluded that it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that the virus originated at the lab.
The Jewish connection
A rather extreme conspiracy theory took flight last year, spread by anti-Semitic Groups. Supporters of the theory say that the virus was manufactured by a cabal of Jews in a bid to take advantage of the markets collapse through insider trading.
Various state-sponsored television networks also created their own theories. A guest on the state-sponsored Turkish television said that the Jews have ‘organised and engineered novel coronavirus as a biological weapon just like bird flu to design the world, seize countries and neuter the world’s population.' ]
Iran’s Press TV, the country’s English language press, has also allegedly been pushing reports that claim that ‘Zionists’ have developed a deadlier strain of the virus against Iran.
The conspiracies also fuelled anti-Semitic attacks in Britain. As per The Community Security Trust (CST), which advises Britain on security matters, there had been 1,668 incidents of such attacks in 2020.
One big hoax
The myth that the pandemic is just a big hoax and is no more dangerous than a simple flu has been advocated by many, including leaders such as Trump. Ironically, many believers of the theory, including Trump, did end up being infected by the virus.
With 141,754,944 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 3,025,835 deaths, hospitals running out of beds and crematoriums and burial grounds filling up, the pandemic is anything but a hoax!
Dean Koontz predicted it
Books and movies have also become part of the conspiracy theories. A theory that went viral last year was that American novelist Dean Koontz predicted the virus in a 1981 novel titled ‘The Eyes of Darkness’.
The theory went viral after someone posted excerpts of the book online, highlighting a passage that spoke about a man-made virus produced in a lab in Wuhan called the Wuhan-400. In the book, anyone infected with the virus would die within 24 hours.
Masks make you sick
They may have been touted as a vital part of the fight against the virus, however, people have found all sorts of theories and excuses to avoid wearing one. The myth that masks trap CO2 inside, hence, forcing the wearer to inhale it, is one reason that people have come up with to avoid masking. However, this is far from true - studies have proven that masks have negligible impact on CO2 levels, even for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
On the contrary, new studies have shown that double masking can provide better protection against the virus.
The vaccine microchip
Much like the Bill Gates theory, anti-vaxxers have been claiming that the coronavirus vaccine contains a chemical or a microchip that would allow the Government to track citizens.
The post, which was shared widely on Facebook and as a WhatsApp message, last year, reads, "A project engineer who made the microchip that will soon be implemented along with the COVID vaccine WARNS US NOT TO TAKE IT. Please listen carefully to his story and his message in this video... After watching, please share also to save lives. God bless!"
US military lab
China, on the other hand, has been pushing the theory that the virus did not originate in China. The country, in an attempt to shift the narrative around its origins, has said that the coronavirus came from a US Army lab. The Chinese Government has also raised concerns about Western vaccines.