As the lethal outbreak of coronavirus continues to spread around the world and the U.S. government warns that it will almost certainly also spread within the United States, right-wing media outlets and online accounts are spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories which could have deadly consequences.
The strain of novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that was first detected in the city of Wuhan, China. It swiftly spread and has now been detected in 53 countries, including the United States. So far, the outbreak has led to nearly 3,000 deaths and more than 82,000 cases worldwide, according to The New York Times.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the disease behind the current outbreak as part of “a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats.” The CDC adds that “rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people.” Earlier patients in the COVID-19 outbreak appeared to have a link to seafood and animal products, but the virus has since been shown to spread person-to-person.
On January 30, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” and on January 31, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency in the United States.
As the impact of coronavirus continued to be reported, concerns began to arise that it was driving xenophobic attacks toward people of Asian descent. In New York City, a man assaulted a woman wearing a face mask while calling her a “diseased b****.” On a Los Angeles subway, one man declared that “every disease has ever came from China.” In another incident, a Costco worker in Washington state told an 8-year-old child to “get away” because she believed he may be “from China.” Across the country, there has been an uptick in physical and verbal attacks toward Asian Americans.
In addition to xenophobic sentiments, conspiracy theories and agenda-driven narratives began to arise on the internet and throughout right-wing media, adding more panic and confusion to an already chaotic situation. These conspiracy theories include claims that the Chinese government created coronavirus at a lab in Wuhan; that the United States is using the virus to attack and undermine China from within; and that coronavirus was previously created and patented by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.
The virus has also triggered anti-Semitic sentiments, medical and scientific disinformation, and fearmongering from the religious right about the end of the world. In the United States, President Donald Trump and his allies in right-wing media have also absurdly argued that Democrats and the media are politicizing coronavirus for their own gain to make him look bad and cause panic in the stock market, which has plunged in reaction to the potential pandemic.
Conspiracy theory: COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab
One of the most prominent conspiracy theories circulating within right-wing media is centered on the thinly sourced fringe theory that coronavirus was leaked after the Chinese government manufactured it in a lab in Wuhan. Many supporters of the conspiracy theory cite a January 24 study published by The Lancet, which showed that some of the first few patients who contracted this disease were not exposed to a seafood market in Wuhan. This finding contradicted the initial theory about the spread of COVID-19. But the study also did not offer any alternative explanation, and later, The Lancet published a letter from public health scientists condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
Even though the conspiracy theory lacks evidence and has been dismissed, right-wing conspiracy theorists continue to amplify it.
Some of the most egregious examples include:
- On January 23, the U.K.-based and conservative-leaning Daily Mail published a piece that stated, “Scientists warned in 2017 that a SARS-like virus could escape a lab set up that year in Wuhan, China, to study some of the most dangerous pathogens in the world.”
- On January 24, The Washington Times’ Bill Gertz wrote an article claiming, “The deadly animal virus epidemic spreading globally may have originated in a Wuhan laboratory linked to China’s covert biological weapons program, according to an Israeli biological warfare expert.”
- Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News executive chairman and ex-White House adviser, hosted Gertz multiple times to discuss his article promoting the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory. Bannon also has ties to a Chinese billionaire-in-exile who has pushed false conspiracy theories about coronavirus.
- On January 26, Gertz published another Washington Times article, in which he repeated the claim he had attributed to the “Israeli biological warfare expert” in his January 24 piece. Gertz also claimed that although China has denied “having any offensive biological weapons, … a State Department report last year revealed suspicions of covert biological warfare work.” Gertz’ article earned over 165,000 interactions (shares, reactions, and comments) on public and private Facebook posts. Notably, it was shared on pro-Trump Facebook pages and groups, including ForAmerica and Bannon’s official Facebook page.
- On January 29, ZeroHedge, a far-right, pro-Trump blog, doxxed a Chinese scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, claiming that they were the creator of COVID-19. On January 31, Twitter permanently banned ZeroHedge for the false claim, telling Buzzfeed it violated “our platform manipulation policy."
- During a January 30 Senate Armed Services Committee meeting, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) suggested that COVID-19 may have been created in a Chinese “superlaboratory.”
- The same day, Cotton also tweeted that China was incorrect in its conclusion that the virus originated in the seafood market, citing The Lancet study.
- Cotton claimed China’s alleged cover-up of the origins of coronavirus is “worse than Chernobyl,” a nuclear reactor meltdown that affected the lives of more than 3.5 million people.
- Brigitte Gabriel, founder of anti-Muslim extremist group ACT for America, shared Cotton’s comments from the committee meeting in at least two posts, earning the video over 730,000 views.
- On February 1, conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier talk radio host Hal Turner posted a fearmongering blog on his website claiming COVID-19 is “a MILITARY BIO-WEAPON developed by China's army.” In addition to posting out-of-context photos of a virus database, Turner’s website also suggested that HIV was somehow added to a "Bat-SARS-Like” coronavirus in a laboratory to create the current strain of COVID-19.
- The Epoch Times published another article on February 7 titled “Is the Coronavirus a bioweapon?”
- Conservative anti-LGBTQ pundit Erick Erickson featured the coronavirus-is-a-bioweapon claim on his podcast The Erick Erickson Show on February 10, linking the theory back to Sen. Cotton.
- That night, Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson speculated about the bioweapon theory, asking his guest whether COVID-19 is “not a naturally occurring virus” or was “somehow created by the Chinese government.” His theory was debunked by his guest Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a medical director of a chain of urgent care clinics.
- On February 12, pro-Trump One America News Network published a broadcast titled “Coronavirus bioweapon conspiracy theory goes mainstream.”
- On February 22, the New York Post published an article titled “Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab.” The article was written by anti-abortion activist Steven Mosher and earned more than 490,000 interactions on Facebook. Cotton shared the article on his Facebook page on February 24.
- On February 23, Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire published an article titled “Report suggests that details point to coronavirus coming from Chinese lab.”
- On February 25, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed that “we don’t know yet whether or not this was an engineered virus” and said that there is “a research lab some 300 yards from the epicenter of this outbreak.”
Conspiracy theory: Bill Gates previously created and patented coronavirus
A false rumor circulating online claims that the coronavirus outbreak is a plot by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and that the release of the virus was planned. According to BuzzFeed News, the core of the conspiracy theory hinges on a 2018 patent that was filed by the Pirbright Institute that “covers the development of a weakened form of a coronavirus that could potentially be used as a vaccine to prevent respiratory diseases in birds and other animals.” BuzzFeed clarified that this is standard for creating vaccines, and a company spokesperson told the outlet, “The patented work was completed in 2015 and is not funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” But the truth has not stopped the theory from spreading online:
- Fringe messaging platforms 8kun and Telegram pushed the claim that coronavirus was “patented in 2015 and granted in 2018.”
- Social media platform TikTok, which features short videos and is prominently used by teenagers, hosted multiple videos pushing the conspiracy theory that the virus was previously created and patented with the involvement of Gates. In one video, which received at least 41,000 views and 1,400 likes, a person showed a series of tweets pushing the false claim and said, “The info is out there, guys.”
- Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory and members of the anti-Vaxx movement also spread the rumor. One QAnon supporter tweeted that there is “big money in vaccines” and suggested that Hillary and Chelsea Clinton may be involved.
Conspiracy theory: The U.S. is using coronavirus to attack China from within
According to a study by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab posted on January 30, pro-Kremlin outlets are spreading disinformation about the coronavirus by suggesting that it was either manufactured by or is being utilized by the United States “with the goal of breaking China from within.”
Russian nationalist member of Parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky has amplified stories originating from fringe outlets pushing this narrative, claiming that the goal of the U.S. is to undermine the Chinese economy.
Claim: Democrats are politicizing coronavirus for their own gain and that’s hurting the stock market
As COVID-19 spread globally and the stock market started to negatively react to the news, Donald Trump and his allies in right-wing media argued that Democrats and the media are deliberately hyping coronavirus and panicking the markets for political gain.
Notable examples include:
- Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed on February 24, “Coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.” Limbaugh told his viewers that “the coronavirus is the common cold” and berated the media for describing the virus’s spread as a pandemic.
- On February 25, Fox host Laura Ingraham said that the media coverage of coronavirus “seemed like some of the Trump haters were actually relishing in this moment,” claiming coronavirus is “a new pathway for hitting President Trump.”
- On February 27, Fox’s America’s Newsroom hosted Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) to discuss coronavirus. Co-anchor Sandra Smith asked him to respond to “what [Trump] says is panic that is being stoked by the other side.” Barrasso complained that “it’s disturbing to see [coronavirus] politicized,” pointing to comments made by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, where candidates were asked what their response to the virus would be.
- On America’s Newsroom the same day, The Wall Street Journal’s Bill McGurn questioned whether Democrats’ proposed approach to dealing with coronavirus will “be focused on this virus, or will they light up a spending tree with other little things tucked in there?”
- On February 27, Fox Business host Charles Payne appeared on America’s Newsroom to express concern that an overreaction to coronavirus will hurt the stock market.
- Conservative radio host Bill Mitchell asked on Twitter why coronavirus is “being marketed as The Black Plague,” concluding that “Democrats get to crash the economy” over the virus.
- Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk claimed on Twitter that “Democrats are politicizing a global health crisis just to own Trump,” concluding, “They hate him more than they love America.”
- Some in right-wing media, including Limbaugh and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, have been arguing that the CDC is purposefully hyping up coronavirus because Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization, is the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who right-wing figures have vilified as a member of the “deep state.”
Medical and scientific disinformation
As researchers work to develop a vaccine and scientists express legitimate concerns about the likelihood of climate change leading to an increase in future epidemics, medical and scientific misinformation has spread, particularly online.
Some of the most egregious examples of medical and scientific misinformation include:
- Daily Beast reported on January 28 that Jordan Sather, a QAnon promoter, suggested in a YouTube video that he was going to drink the “miracle mineral solution” or “MMS” to ward off coronavirus. MMS is a dangerous bleach solution that has previously been promoted online as a remedy for other illnesses.
- On February 10, Trump made a claim about coronavirus that suggested he thinks it behaves the same as influenza does, saying that “a lot of people think that [coronavirus] goes away in April, with the heat, as the heat comes in, typically that will go away in April.” He also said that Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed with him. However, experts have warned that the novel coronavirus is too new for anyone to predict whether it will be seasonal.
- On the February 12 edition of his show, televangelist Jim Bakker promoted a $125 naturopathic “silver solution” that he claimed can cure the coronavirus.
- Zero Hedge, a fringe financial blog that also doxxed a Chinese scientist over claims they developed COVID-19 as a bioweapon, republished an unhinged screed on February 12 from Global Intel Hub that claimed coronavirus and climate change are “intertwined,” wildly claiming:
Climate Change is the scapegoat for what’s really going on: Weather Wars, weather modification, terraforming, and manipulation of the entire planet on a biological and chemical level.
- On February 24, anti-vax blogger Erin Elizabeth posted a blog post claiming that vitamin C can be a “lifesaving treatment” against infections such as sepsis, and viruses such as swine flu, and that “it’s encouraging that China is now investigating its use against 2019-nCoV.”
- Social media accounts have also been spreading a debunked claim that 5G internet, which is being rolled out across the world, damages the immune system and has thus caused coronavirus. This claim was posted on YouTube and on an anti-5G Facebook group.
Racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-trans smears
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a memo warning that extremists are using coronavirus to target groups of people. The ADL identified Telegram, 4chan, and Gab as some platforms on which these smears are occuring.
Some posts have racist attacks against Chinese people, mocking aspects of Chinese culture. Others have openly hoped that the virus will spread to predominantly non-white countries, including in Africa. Some have also expressed a desire for coronavirus to be used as a bioweapon, hoping that the disease targets Jewish people. The ADL also noted that the virus is being used to advance anti-Semitic conspiracy theories:
Extremists hope the virus kills Jews, but they are also using its emergence to advance their anti-Semitic theories that Jews are responsible for creating the virus, are spreading it to increase their control over a decimated population, or they are profiting off it. Some extremists have tied reports documenting Chinese efforts to safely dispose of victims’ bodies to cast doubt on the number of Jews who died during the Holocaust.
Media Matters’ Nikki McCann Ramírez also wrote in USAToday about the racist reactions that came out of coronavirus:
When experts declared that the coronavirus likely spread from bats, far-right figures began circulating videos showing Asian people consuming exotic animals. Former InfoWars personality Paul Joseph Watson tweeted, “Our media encourages us to eat all kinds of weird stuff because it’s ‘normal’ in other cultures,” but “some cultures are better than others.”
That evening, Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson also blamed the emergence of the virus on Chinese culture, erroneously claiming it was a result of people consuming animals “alive.”
The Australian, a national newspaper part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., published an anti-trans article on February 9 that compared coronavirus to a “global epidemic” of transgender teens. The outlet has a history of anti-trans reporting and spreading misinformation about trans youth.
Some extreme reactions from right-wing conservative Christians
Some right-wing conservative Christians have used major global crises, including pandemics, to fearmonger about the end of the world. This tactic is being used again:
- On January 27, conspiracy theorist Bill Deagle said it was the “first day of the Apocalypse.”
- During a January 29 sermon, megachurch pastor Perry Stone said, “When you see these types of tragedies, diseases, viruses and pestilences, the strange and unusual words in the Apocalypse become more clear.”
- Right-wing pastor Hank Kunneman prophesied during a February 9 sermon that God will protect the United States from the novel coronavirus because Trump opposes abortion and defends Israel.
- On February 13, Rick Wiles, an End Times pastor, said on his show that “plagues are one of the last steps of judgment” and coronavirus is God’s judgment. According to Wiles, China is a “godless communist government” and people in the United States are “transgendering little children, perverting them. Look at the rapes, and the sexual immorality, and the filth on our TVs and our movies.”