Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Health

Anatomy Of A COVID-19 Conspiracy Theory

A pedestrian walks past anti-5G graffiti in the Flatiron District of New York in May.
A pedestrian walks past anti-5G graffiti in the Flatiron District of New York in May.

Conspiracy theories need just the right ingredients to take off within a population, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been a breeding ground for them. A Pew Research Center survey recently asked people if they had heard the theory that the COVID-19 outbreak was intentionally planned by people in power. Seventy-one percent of U.S. adults said they had. And a third of those respondents said it was "definitely" or "probably" true.

One version of this theory goes something like this: The COVID-19 pandemic is part of a strategy conceived by global elites — such as Bill Gates — to roll out vaccinations with tracking chips that would later be activated by 5G, the technology used by cellular networks.

Residents of Palm Beach County, Fla., cited it in a county commissioners hearing in late June when voicing their opposition to mandatory mask enforcement. "Six feet ... is military protocol. You're trying to get people to train them, so when the cameras, the 5G comes out, what? They are going to scan everybody? We've got to get scanned? We've got to get temperatured? ... Are you insane?" asked Cristina Gomez, one of the residents who attended the hearing. She even mentioned Gates by name, asking the commissioners why he is not in jail.

Molly, 24, who lives in Kentucky and asked that her last name not be used, said earlier this spring, her sister told her she did not intend to get the COVID-19 vaccine because she believed it contained microchips. Molly said she was shocked.

"I was like, what are you talking about? That's not true. And she's like, 'Oh well, you know so much about science.' I'm like, I know that there's no microchips in vaccines." She said the conversation spiraled into a fight. "Then I just went upstairs and cried because we are best friends. And now since this, we basically haven't talked about COVID or what's going on at all."

Otis Hart, 42, in New York City sought the help of a tinnitus therapist in May following an ear injury. At the end of his session, Hart shared that he was looking into getting a better Internet connection. "[My therapist] said that things like 5G [are] responsible for some terrible things going on," Hart said. "And he connected 5G with the coronavirus pandemic." Hart said he stopped seeing him after this appointment.

NPR talked to more than a dozen people who said they had similar experiences. So how did this particular theory come to be?

The first ingredient of a good conspiracy is a plausible element. Not one that's necessarily true, just plausible. In this case, the tracking chips. In December, a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers published a paper in the medical journal Science Translational Medicine detailing how something called "quantum dots" could be delivered to the skin to record vaccinations.

Kevin McHugh, now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University and the lead researcher on the project, said he's baffled by the idea that his project involves tracking chips. "There's no microchips at all," he said. "I don't even know where that comes from. All the quantum dots [do is] produce light."

The technology, tested on rats, has not yet been tested on humans. McHugh said the dot signals a patient has received a vaccine in an effort to keep an accurate record.

"It is really difficult to determine who has received what vaccines in the developing world because there is not good record keeping," McHugh said. "So the idea is, can we actually have something that could inform a health care worker what vaccines have been administered and therefore which ones are still needed?"

Funding for the project was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which brings us to the second ingredient of a good conspiracy theory: a real person, someone powerful — and rich.

Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington, who has studied misinformation during crisis events, said conspiracy theories use the same elements and plug in different actors.

"A rich person controls the world and they want to do bad things so they can continue controlling the world," she said. "Sometimes it's George Soros. Now it's Bill Gates. So, they just move that person over."

But why Gates this time?

Steven Brill is the founder of NewsGuard, a company that tracks false information. He said there are two reasons: The Gates Foundation funds global vaccination research and drives, and Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft Corp.

"So you have the anti-vaxxer movement targeting Bill Gates as well as the anti-tech movement," Brill said.

The anti-tech movement brings us to the final ingredient of a good conspiracy theory: an element that makes it go viral. In this case, the fear of 5G and the power of social media.

Joseph Downing, a fellow at the London School of Economics, studied the origins of the 5G conspiracy theory on social media and said he and his colleagues were able to track down the exact account that turned this conspiracy theory into a trending topic on Twitter.

The account was @5gcoronavirus19, which sent out 303 tweets in seven days.

A fire-damaged telecom tower stands in Birmingham, England, in April. Authorities have cited conspiracy theories about 5G and the coronavirus as a possible motivation for a rash of such fires in the U.K.
Darren Staples / Bloomberg via Getty Images
A fire-damaged telecom tower stands in Birmingham, England, in April. Authorities have cited conspiracy theories about 5G and the coronavirus as a possible motivation for a rash of such fires in the U.K.

"So you've got somebody here who understands a way of, in effect, kind of manipulating the social media landscape," Downing said.

It's unclear who operated the @5gcoronavirus19 account, which has since been taken down. But it managed to create such momentum that other platforms picked it up from there. Downing said someone doesn't need to have a huge following to do that; they just need to know how the algorithm works.

"One thing that we found that was really important was that people were tagging President Trump in their tweets. And that was enough to gain traction," he said.

Enough traction that more than 70 cellphone towers were set on fire in the United Kingdom in April and May because of their alleged link to the spread of the virus, Mobile UK, which represents Britain's four mobile operators, told Business Insider in May.

"In the [time of] COVID-19, when we can see [that] a large number of people begin to believe these things and take actions that are harmful to either themselves or their communities — then those theories are translated into harm," Starbird said.

And experts such as Brill and Downing agree: A society so divided because of misinformation can lead to disruptions in elections, health care and even create distrust in the entire democratic system.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a supporter of NPR.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.