Since the coronavirus first emerged, the prolonged pandemic has lent itself to endless headlines about the virus; from its rampant spread across the globe, border closures, worldwide lockdowns and the hunt for a vaccine.
But in times of crisis, conspiracy theories can spread just as quickly as the virus itself.
The advent of the world’s biggest public health crisis in nearly a century has also led to a year of misinformation, in which conspiracy theorists had plenty of fuel to burn and a vulnerable audience – burdened by lockdown-induced social anxiety – susceptible to fake news spread across the internet and social media platforms.
From theories that the new 5G wireless broadband caused or spread the virus, to suggestions that the virus was created as a biological weapon, here are the biggest conspiracies theories since the pandemic began.
5G: A super spreader
One of the first strange ‘explanations’ for the virus was that the rollout of 5G mobile technology was to blame. Some argued that the coronavirus was created to ensure people stayed in their homes while the 5G technology was rolled out, while others stated that radiation waves emitted from 5G weakened people’s immune systems – making them more vulnerable to infection. Other theorists claimed that 5G directly transmitted the virus.
Conspiracy theorists linked two incidents which they said were correlated; the rapid rollout of 5G networks at the same time the pandemic hit.
In the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, a survey of about 26,000 people in 25 countries, more than a fifth of respondents in Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa believed it was definitely or probably true that symptoms were “caused or enhanced by the direct, physical effects on the human body” of 5G.
But, as the World Health Organization pointed out in response to the theories, viruses cannot travel on mobile networks, and that COVID-19 spread rapidly in many countries that do not have 5G networks. Even so, this conspiracy theory — after being spread by celebrities with big social media followings — led to cellphone towers being set on fire in the UK and elsewhere.
Bill Gates to blame
Conspiracy theorists also made claims that the coronavirus pandemic was a cover for a plan to implant trackable microchips inside vaccines – with the blame pinned on Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation publicly debunked the claim, with Bill Gates himself referring to the theory as “stupid” and “bizarre.”
Gates also became a new target of disinformation after gently criticizing the defunding of the World Health Organization. It led to anti-vaxxers seizing upon a video of a 2015 Ted talk given by Gates — where he discussed the Ebola outbreak and warned of a new pandemic — to suggest Gates had foreknowledge of the COVID pandemic or even purposely caused it.
Coronavirus: A new bioweapon
For every hypothesis, research and study into the origin of the coronavirus and how it mutated, there was a conspiracy theory that it didn’t have a natural origin at all.
Online theorists claimed COVID-19 was actually engineered in a high-level biological warfare laboratory, with the blame commonly pinned on Chinese scientists, and designed to spread quickly and kill efficiently, as a modern-day biological weapon.
According to a study by PEW Research at the height of the pandemic, “nearly three-in-10 Americans believe that COVID-19 was made in a lab,” either intentionally or accidentally (the former is more popular: Specifically, 23 percent believe it was developed intentionally, with only six percent believing it was an accident).
COVID-19 imported into China by US military
In response to the notion that COVID-19 emerged in a laboratory in Wuhan, a competing conspiracy theory emerged that the US military could have brought the coronavirus to China, supplanting the traditional view that the pandemic began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
This idea was spread initially by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who tweeted at the time, that “it’s possible that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan.”
2/2 CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation! pic.twitter.com/vYNZRFPWo3— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) March 12, 2020
These comments – widely circulated in China – added fuel to rumors that US military personnel had brought the virus to China during their participation in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan last October
COVID-19: Fiction not fact
According to professional conspiracy theorists like InfoWars’ far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, COVID-19 doesn’t actually exist at all.
Instead they have spread the theory that the pandemic is merely a ploy by governments to rob citizens of their freedoms.
Earlier versions of this theory have suggested that the coronavirus is no worse than flu, although evidence now shows COVID-19 has a significantly higher mortality than the flu.