The rapid global spread of coronavirus has been matched by a deluge of myths and conspiracy theories carried on social media. With people stuck at home, communication networks from WhatsApp to TikTok have provided the ideal distribution system for ill-founded theories and bogus claims.
One of the first conspiracy theories to appear was that the coronavirus had been developed in 2014 and patented by the US, which stood to benefit from the pandemic by releasing an expensive vaccine.
Obscure social media personalities from around the world, including one well-known Arab TV anchor, relayed the story by showing a printout of the first page of the patent, which featured the word coronavirus, then building their imaginary story around it.
Yet, if one took only a few minutes to retrieve the document, it would have shown that in fact the patent was for part of a vaccine to prevent a corona-type virus spreading from birds to their eggs, and destined for the poultry industry.
Few bothered to check or debunk this information, but hundreds of millions must have shared it. I received it in different formats and languages from French to Arabic, and from all over the world. Having time to spare in the present situation, I spent hours arguing on the topic and the stupidity of the claim, as I have for similar claims described below.
Another conspiracy theory also targets the US, with some social media personalities showing written reports on pandemics prepared by US government or intelligence agencies going back a decade or more.
But, again, there is a simple explanation. This is not the first time the world has been hit by a pandemic. In 1918, Spanish Flu claimed millions of lives, while the SARS outbreak in 2002, MERS in 2012 and the Ebola virus in 2014 caused widespread alarm. Intelligence agencies as well as think tanks have been working for years on reports outlining potential scenarios; most media outlets have also published similar material since 2002. There is nothing secret about it, and many are available online.
After the SARS epidemic, President George W. Bush delivered a speech outlining a response to major outbreaks. However, even as the US is severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic, conspiracy theorists have found a way to spin the situation — and, surprisingly, many people have gobbled it up like medicine.
Finally, one of the main conspiracy theories attempts to link the spread of coronavirus to the development of 5G networks, which are claimed to reduce immunity levels. Here, also, videos have been shared by social media personalities, not experts, showing 5G maps overlapped with maps of coronavirus cases.
Yet, as we all know, “correlation does not mean causation.” Simply by checking that there is no 5G in severely hit Iran or learning that Australia has had 5G since May 2019, but cases appeared only in 2020, one would have started to put these dubious declarations to rest.
However, people spreading this information ignore scientists, experts and regulators, instead choosing to focus on sensationalism, or what feeds their resentment toward countries or public figures.
So, what is the reason for this global phenomenon? Are state-sponsored organizations pushing these stories? Most importantly, why do so many people believe these claims? And, finally, why aren’t governments able to debunk these theories easily?
All conspiracy theories work the same way. Genuine information is taken out of context, isolated, and fake information added. Then, the final ingredient is an erroneous analysis, usually delivered by a confident-looking and savvy social media personality. And there you have the recipe for a conspiracy theory. It might even end up on the screens of a renowned media outlet, giving it a final legitimacy.
Despite all this, people choose to believe and to forward the link or video. With coronavirus, it might be reassuring to think that this terrible situation is caused by a hidden power or evil organization and not by “nature.” Fear is what the conspiracy theorist ultimately exploits for political gain or simple momentary destabilization.
Fear is what the conspiracy theorist ultimately exploits for political gain or simple momentary destabilization.
Khaled Abou Zahr
Across the world, most groups or individuals pushing these theories are the same. Whether from the extreme right or left, they were doing it before the coronavirus pandemic and will continue doing it afterwards. It is always about sowing doubt, and attacking the legitimacy of governments, legacy institutions and traditional sources of global stability.
In the current competitive global climate, Russia and China have been accused by US voices of being involved in the spread of these bogus claims. Yet, regardless of their role or not, the preferred target of the conspiracy theorist will continue to be the US because of its leadership and stabilizing global role.
The only clear solution to the problem is a return to common sense among people, and open communication and collaboration between the world’s powers. A difficult ask in these strange times when uncertainty, doubt and fear are spreading among people and leaders — fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
Khaled Abou Zahr is the CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.