The Coronavirus Outbreak Is a Petri Dish for Conspiracy Theories

Misinformation about a new, deadly coronavirus has gone viral. Conspiracy theories and wild claims have been spreading across the global internet since Chinese officials first announced, on December 31, that a mysterious pneumonia was sweeping through the city of Wuhan. A little over a month later, the coronavirus—a respiratory illness that has killed at least 360 people and infected thousands more in over 20 countries—has become a chief concern of not just the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but for tech companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. Real human life is at stake, and information channels are clotted with hysteria and falsehood.
‘Twas ever thus. Conspiracy theories have dogged disasters and outbreaks of illness probably forever. While the Black Plague ravaged Europe in the 1300s, people became convinced that their Jewish neighbors were furtively poisoning good Christian wells for … reasons. Conspiracy theories about the Wuhan coronavirus, which range from believing the disease is a bioweapon to the result of eating bat soup, are playing an ancient chord. As always, it sounds anxious, racist, and distinctly out of tune with reality.

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Digital Culture‘Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself’ and the Meme-ing of Conspiracy Falsehoods about coronavirus fall into two major categories: conspiracy theories about the origins of the illness and misinformation about miracle cures. No one knows exactly where this new form of coronavirus came from, though it seems likely that it leapt from animals to humans. Some scientists believe the animal vector may have been bats. It is unlikely, however, that you’d get it from eating bat soup, as one conspiracy theory claimed, sparking racially tinged online outrage about supposed Chinese eating habits causing a pandemic. One of the most prominent bits of video evidence was actually a segment from a travel show shot in 2016 in Palau, not China. Bat soup is not a commonly eaten food in the region.
Other popular theories include that the virus is actually a bioweapon that somehow escaped from the secure lab at Wuhan Institute of Virology, citing a former Israeli intelligence officer who himself admits that there is no evidence to back such a theory. Then there’s the idea that a husband and wife “spy team” of scientists stole the coronavirus from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory. (A virologist was suspended following a “policy breach,” but the report theorists reference makes no mention of her being a Chinese spy or ever illicitly sending a virus to China.) Many felt that the virus was somehow a coverup or a plot, claiming that the disease was not new at all based on a variety of alleged proofs: a vaccine patent for a coronavirus, labels on cleaning products like Clorox and Lysol claiming to be able to kill it. In both cases, theorists overlooked or didn’t understand that “coronavirus” is a category of viruses, not a single sickness. The one spreading across the globe now is called 2019-nCoV, and unfortunately can’t be treated with any known vaccine or Lysol.

Of course, not everyone is preoccupied with the disease’s origins. There’s also a lot of dubious, and even dangerous, misinformation about how to treat coronavirus or prevent getting it. These notions range from bizarre yet mundane bits of advice (like avoiding spicy food and cold foods) to suggestions so awful they sound like they came straight from 4chan (like drinking bleach). At present, WHO’s only recommendations for coronavirus infection prevention are thoroughly cooking any animal products you consume, practicing good hygiene, and keeping a meter between yourself and anyone who appears sick.

2019-nCoV may be new, but the kind of conspiracy theories and misinformation that have come to surround it are not. “This falls into a pattern we see over and over again whenever there is a new disease or disaster,” says Joseph Uscinski, author of American Conspiracy Theories. In times of crisis, a combination of heightened emotions and lack of information combine to create the perfect petri dishes for conspiracy theories: fearful minds.