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.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

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 adults in the United States 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 — like 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 cited it in a County Commissioners hearing in late June when voicing their opposition to mandatory mask enforcement. "Six 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 Christina Gomez, one of the residents who attended the hearing. She even mentioned Bill Gates by name, asking the commissioners why he is not in jail.

Molly, 24, who lives in Kentucky and asked us not to use her last name says earlier this spring, her sister told her she did not intend to get the COVID-19 vaccine because she believed it contained microchips. Molly says 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 says 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 [is] responsible for some terrible things going on," Hart says. "And he connected 5G with the coronavirus pandemic." Hart says he stopped seeing him after this.

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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. Last December, a team of MIT 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 says he's baffled by the idea that his project involves tracking chips. "There's no microchips at all," he says. "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 says 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 says. "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 and 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, says 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 says. "Sometimes it's George Soros. Now it's Bill Gates. So, they just move that person over."

But why Bill Gates this time?

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

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

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 says 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, U.K., on Monday, April 6, 2020. Telecom towers that enable 5G wireless communication were set on fire in the U.K., apparently by people motivated by a theory that the technology helps spread the coronavirus.
A fire-damaged telecom tower stands in Birmingham, U.K., on Monday, April 6, 2020. Telecom towers that enable 5G wireless communication were set on fire in the U.K., apparently by people motivated by a theory that the technology helps spread the coronavirus.
Darren Staples/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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

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 says 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 says.

Enough traction that over seventy cell phone towers were set on fire in the United Kingdom in April and May because of their alleged link to the spread of the virus.

"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," Kate Starbird says.

And experts like 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.

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