Is there any truth behind the Covid-19 conspiracy theories?

The coronavirus is a genetically engineered bioweapon made by the Chinese. Or possibly the Americans. It originated in a lab in Wuhan. Or possibly an American military lab. No, actually it’s a hoax. But even though it’s a hoax it’s also caused by 5G masts broadcasting electromagnetic waves. It is part of a scheme devised by Bill Gates to introduce mass global vaccination as a Trojan horse for totalitarian world government. Dr Anthony Fauci – the mild-mannered director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a prominent member of the White House’s coronavirus task force before being sidelined by Trump – is in on it. And so is the World Health Organization.

Believe all that, and you’ll believe anything. But a lot of people, it seems, do.

Conspiracy theories flourish in times of paranoia, uncertainty and fear – and the coronavirus pandemic presents all three. It has arrived out of the blue, driving whole nations into a state of paralysis, laying waste to the global economy, and carrying with it a panoply of dystopian threats and fears – the curtailing of civil liberties, involuntary quarantine and restrictions on movement.

There is disagreement about exactly what the virus is, how it originated and how best to deal with it – affirming the screenwriter William Goldman’s maxim that ‘nobody knows anything’.

If ever there was a time when certainty was needed, it is now. But this, it seems, is also a moment when trust in institutions, government and the media is at a dangerous low – opening the door wide for conspiracy theories and their seductive promise of an apparent map to the unmappable; a hidden ‘truth’, or a pacifying lie.

A recent study by researchers at Oxford University into conspiracy theories shows how ideas that would otherwise have been confined to the fringes have now become mainstream, reflecting a distrust in official explanations and accounts. And which may, in turn, discourage people from following Government health guidelines. Fourteen per cent of those surveyed agreed ‘moderately’ or ‘completely’ that the coronavirus is a hoax, 38 per cent that it’s man-made, 26 per cent that it’s a deliberate attempt to ‘reduce the size of the global population’. Thirty-nine per cent thought that the Government is misleading the public about the cause of the virus, and 44 per cent were prepared to believe the ‘mainstream media’ is ‘deliberately feeding us misinformation about the virus and lockdown’.

The study was led by Daniel Freeman, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, whose principal area of research is paranoia and mistrust. Freeman says he was ‘surprised and concerned’ by the results of the survey. ‘These are beliefs that are false and wrong. Belief affects action, and in this case may well affect how people are adhering to guidelines, and future uptake of vaccines and other interventions.’

Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, and an authority on conspiracy theory, says that such ideas appeal to people when they experience feelings of uncertainty, powerlessness and anxiety. ‘People are looking for explanations for the crisis, and they are sometimes looking for someone to blame,’ she says. ‘People’s psychological needs for certainty and security are likely to be very frustrated – and conspiracy theories might appear to offer some kind of solace.’

Covid brings together a particularly inflammable assortment of fears about technology, medicine, information and power.

Take 5G. Claims about the link between the introduction of 5G technology and Covid first appeared on social media in late January. One theory is that 5G suppresses the immune system, making people more susceptible to the virus. Another holds that the virus is actually a form of radiation poisoning transmitted through radio waves (a theory that 21 per cent of the respondents to the Oxford University survey were prepared, to some degree, to entertain).

Both have been roundly dismissed by scientists and doctors, and as ‘the worst kind of fake news’ by NHS England medical director Stephen Powis. But this has not prevented a spate of arson attempts on cell-phone masts, and BT engineers being physically assaulted. In April the TV presenter Eamonn Holmes prompted an investigation by Ofcom when he cast doubts on media reports refuting the myth that 5G causes the virus ‘when they don’t know it’s not true’.

Central to most conspiracy theories is the invisible presence of a powerful, secretive, often occult cabal bent on global domination. It is the hidden ‘they’, and its cast of characters changes over the years. But foremost among them is the Illuminati – the secret society founded in 1776 in Bavaria by an anti-clerical law professor named Adam Weishaupt. Despite it being stamped out in the late 1780s, conspiracy theorists have continued to hold the Illuminati accountable for everything from the French Revolution to the assassination of John F Kennedy. Present members include Prince Philip, the Pope and Beyoncé (allegedly).

Over the years other targets have emerged: the Rockefellers, the Bilderberg Group, the financier George Soros and the Rothschilds; no conspiracy theory can get very far without demonising those who have been the victims of such ideas for centuries: the Jews. (Around one fifth of those questioned in the Oxford survey were prepared to endorse to some degree the proposition that ‘Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain’.)

But the virus has also brought new actors on to the stage, most notably Bill Gates. Gates is the world’s second wealthiest man – and one of its most generous benefactors. As of 2018, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had an endowment of $46.8 billion, making it one of the world’s largest private charitable organisations. In April, Gates announced that the Foundation, which has hitherto focused on HIV and the eradication of polio and malaria, would now be turning its ‘total attention’ on the coronavirus.

Gates’s commitment to mass vaccination programmes has long been the subject of conspiracy theories among the anti-vaxxing movement. In 2011 he credited vaccines with ‘reduc[ing] population growth’ – spawning theories that he had inadvertently ‘admitted’ that he was using vaccines to kill or sterilise people in developing countries. What Gates was actually saying was that evidence shows that by reducing child mortality rates through vaccination programmes, families would be more prepared to practise birth control.

But the pandemic has brought another twist – this time alleging that Gates has actually been involved in developing and spreading the virus in order to introduce a mass vaccination programme that will be used to introduce total surveillance and enslavement by ‘global microchipping’.

This theory has proved particularly seductive to some fundamentalist Christians in America, who see it as proof of prophecy in the Book of Revelation. Gates as ‘the anti-Christ’ has since become a popular meme in the murkier depths of social media.These theories are not confined to the fringes, either. On 14 May, politician Sara Cunial made a speech in the Italian parliament claiming that Gates’s ‘real reason’ for developing a vaccine for Covid-19 was ‘absolute domination’ of the world’s population and called for him to be tried for crimes against humanity. A video of Cunial’s speech shared on social media went on to be viewed more than one million times.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll in May, suggested that an astonishing 44 per cent of Republican voters in the US believe the conspiracy theories about Gates. But the Oxford University survey shows a susceptibility to theories about Gates in this country too: eight per cent of those questioned agreed ‘a lot’ or ‘completely’ that Gates has created the virus in order to reduce the world population.

Understandably perhaps, Gates has not commented on the theories but Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, has expressed concern about the proliferation of conspiracy theories online and the damage this could cause to public health.

‘At a time like this, when the world is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis, it’s distressing that there are people spreading misinformation when we should all be looking for ways to collaborate and save lives. Right now, one of the best things we can do to stop the spread of Covid-19 is spread the facts.’

The phrase ‘rabbit hole’ is often used in the context of conspiracy theories – and rightly so. Once you enter, it’s easy to lose yourself in a labyrinth of paranoia, delusion and pseudo-science. The virus has brought to the fore a cast of conspiratorial voices, including scientists and clinicians such as Rashid Buttar and Judy Mikovits.

Mikovits has become something of a heroic figure among conspiracy theorists, depicted as a whistle-blower, courageously speaking truth to power; her rise to prominence provides a fascinating case study of how theories peddling misinformation about the coronavirus are spread – and exactly who spreads them.

Mikovits was research director at the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI), a private research centre in Nevada, when in 2009 she co-authored a paper in Science (the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) that reported that an obscure retrovirus, XMRV, found in mice, was the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Subsequent research showed that Mikovits was wrong and the paper was retracted. Two years later the WPI filed suit against Mikovits for allegedly removing lab notebooks and keeping other proprietary information on her laptop, on flash drives, and in a personal email account. She was arrested on felony charges, although these were eventually dropped due to complicating factors related to the family that runs the WPI. Mikovits attempted to bring a civil suit against the reserch centre but a judge ruled that her complaints and opposition papers ‘read like novels, replete with unsubstantiated factual and legal theories’.

Mikovits, who has since claimed she was the victim of a conspiracy by ‘the deep state’ to silence her, recently published a book, Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science, promoted as ‘a behind the scenes look at the issues and egos which will determine the future health of humanity’. She is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary called Plandemic. At the beginning of May, a 26-minute trailer for the film was released on YouTube and quickly went viral.

In the video, a softly spoken Mikovits claims that the virus originated between the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and a lab in Wuhan, and asserts the familiar theory that a ‘circular cabal’ is using it as a cover to profiteer and entrench its power.

The virus, she claims, is nothing more than ‘a severe cough’, and that wearing face masks will actually help ‘activate’ the virus and reinfect the wearer over and over.

Mikovits’ claims have been comprehensively debunked by clinicians and by Science magazine. She did not respond to requests by the Telegraph Magazine for an interview.

Nevertheless, her book went to number one on Amazon’s print bestseller list. And number two on the New York Times list.

American social-media researcher Erin Gallagher has charted how the Plandemic video spread largely thanks to what she describes as ‘a massive cascade’ of postings and shares on social media by QAnon and conspiracy-related and far-right Facebook groups with huge memberships.

QAnon is an anonymous individual, or more likely group, best known for perpetrating fevered theories on the 4chan social- media site – known for its alt-right user base – about a ‘deep state’ plot against Donald Trump. Last year the FBI singled out QAnon in a document identifying ‘conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists’, as a potential terrorist threat.

Public Facebook groups that have also pushed the film include ‘Drain The Swamp’ and ‘Chemtrails Global Skywatch’, a site with 181,000 members that pushes the long-standing conspiracy theory that lingering condensation trails from aircraft actually consist of biological or chemical agents sprayed for a variety of sinister purposes.

Plandemic was removed from YouTube for contravening its prohibition on ‘content that includes medically unsubstantiated diagnostic advice for Covid-19’. It was also removed from Facebook, Vimeo and Twitter.

But Mikovits and other prominent anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists have found a welcome on independent channels such as the British site London Real, which was founded in 2011 as a podcast by an American former banker named Brian Rose, ‘as an antidote’, as he puts it, ‘to the numbing effects of mainstream media’.

Operating out of studios in Shoreditch, the platform features an eccentric mixture of lengthy interviews with business and ‘wellness’ gurus, controversialists such as George Galloway and the gun advocate and rock musician Ted Nugent.

But since March its content has been dominated by coronavirus-related material, including interviews with Judy Mikovits 
and Rashid Buttar, an American osteopathic physician who last year was disciplined by the North Carolina Medical Board for ‘unprofessional conduct’, and who has asserted that Covid is ‘no different from the flu’, and that Bill Gates ‘owns patents’ in coronaviruses.

But London Real’s star turn has been the veteran conspiracist David Icke.

Icke, who in 1991 surprised viewers of the Wogan show by announcing that he was the son of God, has long promulgated theories about ‘a predator race’ of Satanist paedophile reptiles taking human form and occupying positions of global power, who will turn humanity into ‘a slave race’. He has also maintained that the moon is a hollowed, planetoid space station from which minds are controlled. Not, perhaps, the first person one would turn to for reliable medical information. But it is hardly surprising that Icke should have been given a new lease of life – and found a new audience – in the uncertain times of the pandemic.

Icke talks less about lizards and the Illuminati nowadays. It’s all Covid (which ‘doesn’t exist’), Bill Gates and 5G – theories that have seen him falling foul of the major social media channels in the process. His official YouTube channel, with around 900,000 subscribers, was removed in May due to ‘continued violation’ of its policies on transmitting information about Covid-19. Facebook removed his official page from its platform a few days earlier.

But he has become London Real’s biggest attraction. The platform has live-streamed four interviews with Icke. The first, in March, drew the biggest audience in the channel’s history, and went on to receive six million views on YouTube. The third, in May, streamed live in contrived high drama from what Rose describes as the London Real ‘secret bunker’, was watched by over one million viewers.

Watching Icke, bristling with bulging-eyed, messianic self-righteousness and indignation, expound his theories, unchallenged, over the course of three hours, is by turns excruciating, baffling and exhausting.

His claims include that Bill Gates has ‘purchased the entire global medical system’. Another is that ‘nano-technology chips’ in vaccines will transform us all into ‘synthetic biological humans’ that will be unable to procreate.

Behind it all is ‘the cult’. George Soros is a puppet of the cult. So is the Pope. And Mark Zuckerberg. The Covid pandemic, in fact, everything – mass migration, climate change, transgenderism – have all been manipulated by the cult in order to control and enslave us. It is the most complete architecture of paranoia and delusion it would be possible to imagine.

And who are this cult? Icke is maddeningly unspecific. But in a separate video called Who Controls the World, he reveals that it’s ‘a handful of people that you can probably get on 10 fingers’, ‘a global network of ultra-Zionist groups that answer to Israel’.

Of course! Who else would it be?

Icke, who in the past has spoken of his disdain for ‘the unquestioning, pathetic mainstream media’ did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.

Rose claims that the audience for his third interview with Icke was ‘the largest live stream of a human conversation in history by far’. ‘From that you can conclude a few things – that people are idiots; or you can say that people aren’t as stupid as we thought they were, that they can digest a nuanced conversation and make up their own minds.’

He says he does not personally subscribe to Icke’s views of a cult conspiring to rule the world. ‘I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist. I’m a freedom of speech advocate, and besides David Icke I don’t think I’ve had anyone on my show that anyone would call a conspiracy theorist.

‘My opinion isn’t the point. The point is, you should have the right to hear these ideas and right now you don’t.’

Rose claims that as a result of giving a platform to Icke and others, London Real has suffered ‘very sophisticated malicious attacks on our technology platform’ [he does not specify by whom]; that he has been ‘shadow-banned’ (the act of blocking followers from seeing a user’s content without the user knowing) on Instagram and warned that any mention of Covid-19, 5G or vaccines on his YouTube postings would lead to ‘a real problem’ in putting London Real content on the platform.

He denies that he is giving a voice to people who have no medical or scientific credibility and who are peddling potentially harmful misinformation.

‘Who decides these things? Who are the gatekeepers here? These digital platforms [like YouTube] are essential to freedom of information, but if they decide you’ve violated their policies, whatever they want to stop they can stop.’

For Daniel Freeman, the consequences of giving the likes of Mikovits and Icke a platform are clearly shown in the results of the Oxford University survey. ‘There is an underlying mistrust of official accounts, and a scepticism towards science, that is extraordinarily worrying,’ he says. ‘We need evidence-based strategies for countering the spread of these sorts of theories. But it’s also the erosion of the trust in experts that needs to be built up again. Because this is exactly the moment we need to rely on them.’

But the insidiousness of conspiracy theories goes deeper still. There is some irony in the fact that theories which purport to tell the truth about hidden organisations plotting to rule the world by fear, actually cultivate precisely that fear and paranoia themselves – the belief that everything we are told is designed to deceive and enslave us, that the world as we know it is a lie and fundamentally evil. There can be no more harmful conspiracy theory than that.

Five of today’s weirdest conspiracy theories

Actors were used in the video of George Floyd’s death

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis – for which white police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged – ignited demonstrations around the world, with over 50 countries participating in the Black Lives Matter protests. And with it has come a wealth of conspiracy theories, the main one being that everyone involved, including Floyd himself, are actors. Specifically, it’s what is dubbed a ‘false flag’ conspiracy, when an incident is staged by a group who want a reason to retaliate against the person or group they’ll later accuse of the attack.

Pokemon Go is a government spying programme

As soon as the hugely popular gaming app was launched in 2016, an avalanche of theories followed. The one that stuck was the claim that the game was a surveillance tool for the CIA (users had to offer up a swathe of personal information, including access to their Google accounts). Beyond this, the discovery that the game’s developer Niantic was headed up by a man called John Hanke only served to add fuel to this theory’s fire. Hanke started Keyhole, Inc – whose mapping platform eventually became Google Earth with help from the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel.

Prince Charles is a vampire

According to genealogy records, Prince Charles is related to Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century Romanian warlord and the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This has given rise to theorists claiming that Charles shares more with his ancestor than a mere bloodline. The theory was bolstered by the claim that porphyria, an iron deficiency that makes the skin particularly sensitive to sunlight, has run in the Royal family for years.

Joan Rivers was murdered for joking about the Obamas

When comedian Joan Rivers died in 2014 at the age of 81, the theorists got to work. They alleged that her death – during routine surgery in Mount Sinai Hospital – was ordered by the Obamas in retaliation for a comment Rivers made about the former president and first lady. Rivers had previously told a photographer that she believed Michelle was transgender and Obama was gay. Alex Jones, host of far-right website InfoWars and regular peddler of off-the-wall conspiracy theories, said as a result of her comments Joan was ‘deader than a doornail’.

Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring out of a pizza shop

The claim that Hillary Clinton was running a child-trafficking ring from the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong first appeared on the internet messaging board 4chan. The story originated when users spotted recurring uses of the word ‘pizza’ in Hillary’s hacked emails (‘c.p.’ meaning cheese pizza is sometimes used on paedophile chatrooms to denote explicit images of children). So potent were the bogus claims that on 4 December 2016 a gunman named Edgar Maddison Welch entered the pizzeria and fired shots inside. The restaurant turned out not to even have a basement.

Boxout by Anna Clarke