New COVID-19 conspiracy theories gain traction as old ones re-emerge
Conspiracies ranging from killer vaccines to
Conspiracies ranging from killer vaccines to “proven” cures exacerbate global vaccine hesitancy
By Hans Hanley
The delta variant of the novel coronavirus, which was originally identified in December 2020, has ravaged much of the world over the summer of 2021. By the end of July, at least 80 percent of new US COVID-19 cases were reportedly the delta variant. As the variant causes new spikes in cases while vaccination rates plateau in many countries, millions of people remain vaccine hesitant. This hesitancy, however, has been magnified by a steady stream of new conspiracy theories appearing on social media, pro-Kremlin outlets and websites focused on propagating COVID-19 misinformation.
In 2021, three particular COVID-19 conspiracy narratives have become increasingly popular. The first alleges that COVID-19 vaccines are made of deadly chemicals and kill more people than they save. The second posits that there are already cures for COVID-19, making vaccination unnecessary. The third narrative, a rehash of an older conspiracy from 2020, argues that the vaccines are part of a global identification system. The DFRLab found that prominent pro-Kremlin disinformation sites SouthFront and GlobalResearch, as well as users on Twitter and Facebook, have all contributed to these conspiracies. To document these conspiracies’ spread, the DFRLab created a database of 146 different websites that are solely dedicated to COVID-19 misinformation and tracked their spread.
Killer tests and treatments
A video posted in July 2021, purportedly proving the existence of a controversial disease diagnosis known as morgellons, made the rounds on TikTok, gaining almost 220,000 views. Morgellons is an unproven skin condition where fibers or other particulates emerge from skin sores. COVID-19 conspiracy theorists have battled fiercely over the past eight months to prove the disease exists in the context of a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming that the fibers in COVID-19 test swabs are alive, causing the condition. The TikTok video rehashes a June 2021 Facebook video that also claimed COVID-19 test swabs are alive and cause morgellons. This conspiracy, which has been debunked multiple times, is one of several conspiracy theories claiming that COVID-19 tests and treatments maim and kill people.
Perhaps the most popular and pervasive conspiracy is that COVID-19 vaccines are in themselves deadly. One article from pro-Kremlin conspiracy site GlobalResearch.ca argued that deaths from the vaccines are 407 times higher than all other vaccines combined, while another claimed vaccines are actually leading more people to contract COVID-19. GlobalResearch.ca is not new to COVID-19 conspiracies; as the DFRLab previously reported, the website has played a key role in spreading misinformation on COVID-19 and other topics.
Emblematic of the killer vaccine theory is the video “Covid Vaccine Secrets,” initially posted by a nonprofit known as Children’s Health Defense. Founded in 2016 by vaccine opponent Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the organization advocates against the vaccination of children, including through the promotion of misinformation. The video was quickly picked up by at least 21 other misinformation websites and alt-tech platforms, which rebranded and spread the video under the new title, “If People Get Jabbed After Watching This They Are Beyond Saving.”
The video, after initially being reposted on May 20, 2021 on the alt-tech platform BitChute and other misinformation sites, was soon shared widely on Facebook. According to analysis conducted using the tool CrowdTangle, the video has been shared on Facebook nearly 20,000 times. The video further was recently promoted on GlobalResearch.ca.
In line with the “killer vaccine” conspiracy theory is the false claim that the Pfizer vaccine is actually made of graphene oxide, a toxic compound. The conspiracy asserts that the Pfizer vaccine is actually 99.9 percent graphene oxide. The Pfizer vaccine, however, does not contain graphene oxide. This theory claims to be based on an unofficial report from the University of Almeria in which a professor examined a “sample of unknown origin.” In response, the university put out a statement expressing support for vaccines and disavowing the professor’s unofficial report.
A segment from a show hosted by Stew Peters, a known conspiracy theorist who often promotes bizarre and far-right material and whose Twitter account has over 96,000 followers, appears to have popularized this erroneous belief.
Similar to the Children’s Health Defense video, the video of Stew Peters asserting that the Pfizer vaccine contains graphene oxide was uploaded on BitChute on July 6 and subsequently pushed on Twitter. Throughout July, a single upload of it, posted on BitChute, gained over 55,000 views. This piece of misinformation became so widespread that the Associated Press performed a fact check on July 8, 2021.
Despite the AP fact check, at the end of July, GlobalResearch.ca continued to run stories about graphene oxide. The site even promoted stories about how the vaccinated have become magnetic due to the graphene oxide, that graphene oxide is in masks as well as the vaccines, and that graphene oxide in the vaccines is causing blood clots.
“There is a cure. Why is vaccination necessary?”
The second emergent conspiracy theory has its beginning in the highly politicized debate over hydroxychloroquine, which was touted without evidence by former President Trump an others as a potential cure. The conspiracy argues that vaccination is unnecessary due to other drugs that supposedly can cure COVID-19, despite any evidence. A popular strain of thought within this conspiracy is that these “cures” have been suppressed so that large pharmaceutical companies can reap the financial rewards from the vaccines they developed.
The most popular unproven drug that has sprung up in this discourse is ivermectin, an anti-parasitic introduced by the pharmaceutical giant Merck in 1981. It was found in early 2020 that the drug could allegedly reduce inflammation, resulting in many Latin American governments even recommending the drug as a possible treatment. Many of the same countries later retracted their recommendations, however, though the Brazilian government still promotes the use of ivermectin in addition to other drugs of questionable efficacy, like chloroquine and azithromycin. Despite the drug’s initial potential, much of the hope around it has dissipated after its most promising study was withdrawn due to possible forgery of data. Additionally, sales of the drug have increased in the United States throughout 2021, even though the US Food and Drug Administration discouraging the use of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment.
Interest in the drug on social media surged in March following a large controversy surrounding an article by Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance. The article, which touted ivermectin as a cure, had been rejected by the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, creating a scuffle between Front Line COVID-19 and the journal. Separately, the drug gained renewed popularity on Twitter in June following Joe Rogan’s interview with Bret Weinstein and Pierre Kory on his eponymous podcast. Weinstein and Kory both touted the drug, arguing that it had been suppressed by a disinformation campaign by pharmaceutical companies and tech companies.
With the drug’s increasing popularity online, several French far-right politicians, including François Asselineau and Florian Philippot, even argued that there was no need to get vaccines at all because of the supposed “ivermectin cure.”
Taking advantage of the confusion over ivermectin, others argued that the drug was being suppressed by vaccine providers, because of the profit motive for more vaccine production rather than treatment production. This argument largely ignores that vaccines production and distribution throughout the world is generally government funded and the large amount of research funding funneled into the cheap steroid dexamethasone to treat COVID-19.
“A global conspiracy”
Both of these conspiracy theories, along with others, have fed into a larger narrative that there is a global conspiracy surrounding COVID-19, bolstering earlier COVID conspiracies that the pandemic was created by Bill Gates and the Gates-funded coalition “ID 2020.” The latest iteration of the conspiracy theory posits that ID2020’s “Agenda ID 2020” program, which began around the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020, is being used to implant microchips in vaccine recipients.
With the rollout of vaccines in early 2021, this conspiracy theory gained new steam on Twitter, with tweets about it spiking every few months. Similarly, on Facebook, the conspiracy spiked in popularity in February 2021 before again declining in popularity. While the theory is not as popular as it was in 2020, the conspiracy has retained power in some conspiracy circles.
Despite the wavering popularity of this particular conspiracy, several websites have attempted to revive it. The largest players outside of social media appear to be pro-Kremlin disinformation websites, specifically SouthFront and GlobalResearch.ca. Both Southfront and GlobalResearch.ca have consistently peddled COVID-19 misinformation throughout the pandemic.
Author Peter Koenig, who first posited the microchip and global identification theory in March 2020, pushed these conspiracies on both sites again in July 2021.
This conspiracy theory has also made its way off the Internet. On one occasion earlier this year, an Oslo-based soda company began printing this conspiracy theory on its bottles. Due to the recent uptick of articles circulating the Agenda ID 2020 conspiracy, Snopes was compelled to republish its initial fact check of the conspiracy on Facebook.
Due to the increased threat from COVID-19, tackling misinformation surrounding the virus has a renewed urgency, with US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has called COVID-19 misinformation “an urgent threat.” New conspiracy theories, as well as revivals of older ones, continue to find purchase online. Some of the most prominent argue that the vaccines are killing people or that there are already non-vaccine cures; these narratives are particularly pernicious as they gain traction through stirring emotions and discouraging vaccine uptake.
In addition to documenting COVID-19 conspiracies spread on these major platforms, the DFRLab is making publicly available its database of 146 websites solely dedicated to COVID-19 misinformation.
Hans Hanley is a research intern with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this case study:
Hans Hanley, “New COVID-19 conspiracy theories gain traction as old ones re-emerge,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), August 11, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/new-covid-19-conspiracy-theories-gain-traction-as-old-ones-re-emerge-c28e58539198.
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