The Threat Beyond the Myths: Conspiracy Theories & COVID-19
Over the past three months our intelligence team has seen a proliferation of conspiracy theories related to novel coronavirus happening on surface web platforms and the deep and dark web.
While tracking these conspiracy narratives, we have begun to see how popular myths about coronavirus are intersecting with dangerous online extremist communities including white nationalists and QAnon followers. The rhetoric surrounding these conspiracy theories is becoming increasingly hostile, and in some cases, is deliberately targeting technology companies, medical communities, philanthropists, political and social leaders, and local and state governments. This poses a significant challenge for security professionals working to analyze threats in the digital space and prevent them from manifesting in the real world.
Here are five key trends we are seeing:
Conspiratorial videos, websites, and social media content about Covid-19 are going viral. From Twitter and YouTube to the darker corners of 4chan, everyone is talking about coronavirus. We’ve been tracking these conversations and have uncovered several persistent conspiracy narratives. The first theory is that Covid-19 was deliberately created in a laboratory by governments, militaries, or drug companies and the virus was either accidentally leaked or deliberately released as a biological weapon. Other groups have fixated on coronavirus as a “deep state” operation by America’s elite to destroy the economy, commit genocide, or track and control populations. Some prominent theories point to 5G networks or GMOs as the culprits; still other groups claim the virus doesn’t exist at all and is part of an elaborate hoax.
Coronavirus has propelled fringe theories onto a national stage. Many of the coronavirus myths listed above have their origins in older fringe conspiracy theories that have suddenly become part of the national conversation because of coronavirus. A recent Pew Research Center study indicated that almost one-third of Americans believe the conspiracy that coronavirus was created deliberately in a laboratory. Meanwhile, recent polls conducted by Yahoo News show that a high percentage of Americans, particularly Fox News viewers, believe the crisis is being used to promote vaccines for population surveillance and mind control. These conspiracies are even transcending ideological and political lines: a recent study of more than 2,000 Americans by The Atlantic concluded that almost every single respondent believed in some version of conspiracy theories.
The unprecedented attention to coronavirus conspiracy theories creates a wider funnel for people to be exposed to toxic content. Continuous coverage is creating an echo chamber where seemingly innocuous mythology is gaining momentum and intersecting with hostile narratives within the white nationalist, antivaxxer, and QAnon communities. The normalization of coronavirus conspiracies creates a pathway for ordinary Americans to be exposed to this deeper patchwork of insidious ideas or even become indoctrinated by dangerous fringe communities online.
We are seeing more threats and violent undertones starting to manifest in real life events. The global focus and heightened fears surrounding coronavirus continue to create a perfect incubator for hostility. Recently a man armed himself because of his belief that Covid-19 is a hoax that the United States Government is using as a pretext to take over the world and vaccinate him. In other instances, we see a normalization of hostility and violence directed at people or things viewed as being responsible for the spread of coronavirus. There are hundreds of reports of people vandalizing buildings, including with graffiti sharing QAnon conspiracy beliefs. Around the world there are reports of doctors and nurses being targeted by violent mobs or state security forces. In other instances, persistent conspiracies that coronavirus is linked to 5G networks has led to dozens of attacks on cellular towers. Anti-government coronavirus protests are also becoming flashpoints for threat groups including anti-vaxxers and extremists. These tactics, which involve ‘mass’ online mobilization have the potential to radicalize a broader set of individuals who would act in a violent manner without warning.
We believe that elevated hostile coverage will continue throughout 2020. We are seeing a confluence of events around coronavirus driving people towards action. As the economic slowdown continues to lead to job loss and threats to people’s identities, there are simply more people who may reach a personal tipping point that leads them on a pathway towards violence. At the same time, there are numerous groups and actors that benefit from perpetuating hostile narratives. Some of these groups include anti-vaxxers, QAnon followers, and even Russian, Iranian, and Chinese agents using propaganda about coronavirus as a wedge issue to create instability leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
As Conspiracy theories related to Covid-19 take a more prominent position in mainstream conversations, new problem sets will continue to emerge. If you would like more information on how Concentric can support your organization with timely and accurate analysis of global trends and events, please contact us here.