Coronavirus Conspiracies Abound

As COVID-19 spreads, so does disinformation about the virus. The mingling of state-sponsored propaganda and independent fake news media has created a dangerous combination perfect for spreading false information. Here’s what to look out for and how to stop it.

Wherever there is a crisis, there will be those there to exploit it. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. As every country struggles to contain the virus, which has infected more than 800,000 people at the time of this article, the flow of disinformation has proven just as difficult to reign in. Theories ranging from coronavirus being a biological weapon to the United States invading Europe under the guise of aid are spreading throughout the web and pose almost as much of a threat as the virus itself. 

 

COVID-19 as a biological weapon  

Since news of the outbreak in the Wuhan province in China first made headlines, many have been quick to falsely speculate that the virus was invented in a laboratory with the intent to weaponize. State propaganda in the East as well as fake news quacks in the West have used this narrative to their advantage. 

Chinese propaganda has mainly focused on boasting the country’s international image in the wake of the outbreak. The claim that COVID-19 was developed as a biological weapon supports their narrative that the virus didn’t originate in China and instead was developed by the West with the nefarious goal of hurting their country. U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated references to it as the “Chinese virus” and subsequent racist rhetoric hasn’t helped. 

To add to this, many Chinese media outlets have portrayed the Communist government and especially Xi Jinping as strong and swift in their actions containing the virus. Platforms like WeChat and YY have been heavily censored to quiet criticism. They have also pushed for an apology from the U.S. due to its role in spreading anti-Asian sentiments. 

Iran and Russia have taken a far more conspiratorial stance than China. Hossein Salami, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, asserted that the coronavirus was a U.S. weapon targeting Iran and China, and Russian state-sponsored media was quick to repeat this. Also adding fuel to this story was Russian member of parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who said that the U.S. engineered COVID-19 to win its ongoing trade war with China. 

 

Disinformation has been a key tool in Putin’s hybrid warfare arsenal. The aim is to foster doubt in political leadership in the European Union and the United States and to exacerbate internal divisions, especially in weak states.”

 

Russia is not new to this game. In recent years, it has regularly used biosecurity programs established in former Soviet states as fake evidence of Western powers setting up a network of bioweapons labs to encroach on its borders. It’s even recycling this narrative from the 1980s, when it claimed the U.S. military was behind the AIDS pandemic. Disinformation has been a key tool in Putin’s hybrid warfare arsenal. The aim is to foster doubt in political leadership in the European Union and the United States and to exacerbate internal divisions, especially in weak states. This is particularly evident in the Western Balkans, where the COVID-19 bioweapon theory has been very prevalent and could be used against political leaders in upcoming elections in Serbia and North Macedonia, which just joined NATO.

What’s even more dangerous is that now fake news websites are joining in on the game. 

 

Fake news coronavirus conspiracies look more credible 

What makes the coronavirus case unique is that now there are a host of fake news evangelists and charlatans also spewing the same nonsense as the more legitimate sources. Both Western and Eastern websites are guilty of this. 

 

“The power of propaganda lies in its mingling of truth with untruth, as well as the repetition of its false narratives over and over until it finally infects the mainstream consciousness.”

 

Some fringe media are using the same narrative as Chinese, Iranian and Russian propaganda. Fake news outlet InfoWars, headed by American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, has been saying that COVID-19 is a biological weapon since the beginning of the outbreak. Others are taking direct aim at the EU and NATO. One fake news story circulating in the Czech Republic was that the U.S. was using the crisis as an excuse to invade and lockdown Europe. Closer investigation showed that these sources were purposefully mislabeling a NATO military exercise. 

Like a biological virus, fake news requires a healthy conduit to transport its message to more and more cells. The power of propaganda lies in its mingling of truth with untruth, as well as the repetition of its false narratives over and over until it finally infects the mainstream consciousness.  

An example is Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai. At first glance, this man appears to be a credible source. He has a Ph.D. and several degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a biologist and entrepreneur. However, according to his Twitter feed, he also believes the Deep State is using COVID-19 to manipulate world markets. Eventually, his beliefs were repeated by Fox News commentator Sean Hannity on his show, thus giving these claims more legitimacy in the public’s eye. 

 

How to combat coronavirus conspiracies 

Many political leaders and institutions like the World Health Organization have already taken actions to quell the amount of fake news surrounding the pandemic. The WHO is working with Google to suppress fake news results in web searches, and social media companies are working to identify and remove such content from their platforms. Many political leaders have also been vocal about debunking many of the false claims in a timely matter.

 

“Individuals must always question the source of the information they consume.”

 

However, it takes consistent villiagance on the personal level as well as the political level to combat the spread of false information. While state leaders must continue to counter false narratives, especially in weaker states, individuals must always question the source of the information they consume. In the same way that people have been instructed to diligently wash their hands and practice social distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19, people must wash away the false narratives that threaten safety and stability during this pandemic.

About author: Nicole Ely

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