On Facebook, you don’t have to look far for people spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
Just searching “coronavirus” will take you to a host of legitimate resources: pages for the CDC, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association. But add a word like “truth” and suddenly you’re on a different planet: groups that exist as safe spaces for coronavirus skeptics to share theories of what’s really going on.
They have names like “COVID-19 FALSE FLAG,” “COVID 19 SCAM the FAKE CORONA” and “cool story, but corona virus is a hoax.” Some are private, and require you to answer certain questions to join. Here, for example, is the application you find at “COVID-19 Pandemic: Biggest Hoax in Human History.”
A few things are accomplished by this process. When a group has swelled to a couple hundred members, it’s at greater risk of attracting “trolls” — in this case, people who do believe experts about coronavirus and disrupt the conspiracy-mongering. It’s worthwhile to try to keep those voices out. If an undesirable (like a web writer investigating this community) still wants in, they have to do the imaginative work of establishing a complementary mindset. For my last response in the questionnaire above, I wrote: “The health insurance and medical supplies industries, which profit from COVID mania, have the cooperation of doctors who know they can be financially punished for contradicting the narrative.”
This idea doesn’t make any sense, but to the right reader, it could feel intuitively true. Note this in the prompt: There is no right answer.
And here’s what you get as a member:
“No right answer” turns out to be the governing principle of coronavirus denialism — and perhaps one reason it’s been difficult to crack down on dangerously inaccurate content amid the pandemic. In this digital ecosystem, it doesn’t matter why you believe COVID-19 is a lie sold to us by nefarious elements, or what you think is actually happening, so long as you reject the mainstream scientific consensus and hate Dr. Anthony Fauci. You can talk about Bill Gates implanting nanotech with mandatory vaccines, or how this is a dry run for the implementation of Sharia law.
You might easily hold both views at once, because nobody is going to make you reconcile them in a coherent way. For every post or meme that bears a “False Information” label and links to fact-checking sites, there are dozens that elude this moderation, often as they do not present a debunkable statement. How exactly are you supposed to disprove the notion that face-mask enforcement is a prelude to some requirement that women wear the Muslim niqab?
And, well, can you even parse an image like this one? The confusion is the message.
For a demographic that harps on the culture of “fear” keeping other people obedient to authority, the coronavirus truthers indulge many fears of their own. The Deep State, the Illuminati, Muslims, Democrats, Silicon Valley… any and all fringe-favorite masterminds could be behind the operation, or maybe a few are in on it together. At least a couple dozen folks are anxious at the prospect of a “communist pharmaceutical takeover.”
The misinformation is so diversified (yet interconnected and overlapping) that you are bound to find your personal bogeyman at the bottom of the rabbit hole. These memes and talking points are made to frighten while appealing to your “common sense,” to flatter your intellect as it suckers you in with specious “logic” and emotional whataboutery. Sometimes it’s as simple as casting cautious individuals as the crazy ones: After all, it’s not normal to be hoarding sundries and wearing latex gloves when you shop at Target.
The conspiracists throw around phrases like “the toilet paper mind control experiment,” and anti-maskers fire back at anyone calling them “selfish” by shaming them for leaving grocery stores bare in March. If you support shutdowns or extensive public safety guidance, you’re helping sex traffickers and killing thousands by way of mass unemployment.
That there is no single, stable myth about COVID-19 to push back on means niche premises have flourished. The Facebook groups are small and splintered; the virus skeptics are far from a monolith. One sees the outbreak as an attempt to steal the election from Trump, another as evidence of China’s bioweapons program.
They’ve succeeded in spreading their chosen message thanks to a chaotic U.S. response. We’ve been so bad with testing, disseminating best practices and coordinating lockdown measures that every false positive or unexpected new piece of data may look like a telltale inconsistency in some ornate web of lies. At the end of the day, there’s no need to convince someone of a specific alternate world — what matters is heightening paranoia and eroding trust in traditional sources of information. That can be achieved by exploiting justified suspicion of elites, corrupt government and rapacious industry, or by indicating the state of the nation and asking, “Doesn’t this seem ridiculous to you?”
After that, the mark is free to choose their own adventure, and blame our collapse on whomever they like. More than projecting a false truth, the memes strike at the foundation of shared reality. They are “just asking questions,” and we’re so short of adequate answers that we’ve given free rein to consider all the wrong ones — which, despite their extreme variation, unify a segment of the population against the efforts to mitigate a catastrophe. If you don’t recognize them as patriot heroes for it, that’s your problem.