A conspiracy theory about Microsoft founder Bill Gates and a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus has been circulating for weeks on social media platforms, getting high engagement numbers, and has since been pushed by both Fox News host Laura Ingraham and a Newsmax correspondent.
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread throughout the United States, Gates, who runs an organization that focuses on public health worldwide and has warned of the threat of epidemics for years, has been leading efforts to and spoken out about finding a vaccine. That has included spending billions of dollars to find a cure via his foundation and doing interviews on shows including Fox News Sunday and The Daily Show about the need for a vaccine.
Gates on March 18 also participated in a Reddit “AMA” (“Ask me anything”) Q&A, where he encouraged a “national tracking system” for the coronavirus and “some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it.” Scientific American reported in December that Gates had been funding efforts to create an invisible ink that could go into people’s skin to see who has been vaccinated. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology bioengineer said the ink could provide data that is useful in fighting disease around the world, noting, “If we don’t have good data, it’s really difficult to eradicate disease” (though the outlet also quoted a bioengineering professor admitting it could raise privacy concerns).
During this time, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, white nationalists, and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory have spread a baseless conspiracy theory on multiple social media platforms, far-right sites, and message boards claiming that Gates’ effort to help develop a vaccine is some kind of nefarious attempt to control, follow, or even depopulate the world’s population via a “microchip” of some sort (the “depopulation” claim is based on a major misreading of Gates’ past remarks).
A review by Media Matters found that the conspiracy theory first seemed to gain traction around March 17, when a YouTube video about the virus mischaracterized Gates’ work to develop trackable vaccine data as “implanting everybody with a global ID” and compared it to tattoos on Holocaust victims. The video received more than 120,000 views. On that same day, conspiracy theory outlet Infowars published a piece and video of an Infowars host suggesting Gates was using the situation to “reduce the world’s population,” citing the invisible ink, and tied it to claiming the government would give out a “color-coded wristband that will be used for traveling Americans during an impending COVID-19 lockdown.” The Infowars article subsequently spread in Facebook groups and showed up as a meme on Instagram.
Following Gates’ AMA and his “digital certificates” comment, the conspiracy theory spread on March 18, moving to message boards including 4chan’s “/pol/” and the conspiracy subreddit on Reddit, where a user called Gates’ Reddit posts “pretext for introduction of certificate of movement” and a plan to be “fully enslaved by the Deep State.” On Telegram that evening, white nationalist Faith Goldy wrote that Gates’ posts were “underreported” and that a “microchip implant ID” would be harmful to “nationalists.”
The following day, as the conspiracy theory continued to circulate on 4chan, it was picked up by NewsPunch, a disinformation site formerly known as YourNewsWire, which accused Gates of pushing for technology that will be “adopted for its ‘convenience and safety’ and then overnight will become mandatory for you and your family – or else.” That piece, too, circulated on social media and as a meme, along with other memes accusing Gates of using a vaccine to work with “globalists” for a “new world order.”
On March 21, another YouTube video was uploaded saying Gates wants to implant microchips in people and calling them a “mark of Satan” that could be used for “identifying us to the United Nations.” The video has received nearly 1.8 million views and at least 1.2 million Facebook engagements, according to the tracking tool BuzzSumo. That includes shares in QAnon Facebook groups and on a major anti-vaxx Facebook page.
Throughout the rest of March, more videos popped up on YouTube (despite the platform’s pledge to crack down on coronavirus misinformation) accusing Gates of wanting “eugenics” and “population control” and claiming he is the antichrist and that he essentially supports genocide; they racked up another 1.6 million views combined. The videos included a clip from anti-Semitic conspiracy theory outlet TruNews and a video whose title called the virus a “hoax” (those videos received hundreds of thousands of Facebook engagements combined).
Videos on social media platform TikTok pushing the conspiracy theory in late March and early April also racked up many views (despite the platform’s anti-misinformation policy). One video that received more than 230,000 views included in the caption “#fvaccines” and accused Gates of pushing for everyone on the planet to have a “digital ID … by combining mandatory vaccines with implantable microchips.” (Media Matters removes identifying information from videos created by or featuring minors to protect their identity.) Another video that received tens of thousands of views claimed Gates was “evil” and connected him to a plan to “get everybody microchipped” via vaccines.
The conspiracy theory continued to spread following news in early April of Gates’ spending for a coronavirus cure. Another major white nationalist Telegram account shared a post saying Gates wants the population “extinguished,” and multiple accounts on Facebook and Instagram, including QAnon and anti-vaxx accounts, shared a meme urging people to take “no vaccine from some shady ass nerd that wants to depopulate the planet.” Ben Garrison, a far-right and pro-Trump cartoonist, drew a cartoon pushing the conspiracy theory that portrays Gates as a Nazi, which was also posted on the backup site of the pro-Trump subreddit “r/The_Donald.”
That afternoon, Emerald Robinson, Newsmax’s White House correspondent, tweeted a thread accusing Gates of “control[ling] global health policy” and saying that his “plan” was to use “vaccines to track people.”
On the morning of April 7, Fox host Laura Ingraham, while quote-tweeting an anti-vaxx musician's post about Gates’ AMA, said “globalists” see the pandemic as a “perfect vehicle” for their “dream” of “digitally tracking Americans’ every move.”