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Why conspiracy theories go viral during pandemics

Christopher Nehring
March 10, 2020

As countless coronavirus rumors circulate online, DW takes a look at some of history's biggest conspiracy theories during pandemics.

Indonesien Coronavirus
Image: picture-alliance/ZumaPress/Z. Maulana

Contrary to what you might have heard, the novel coronavirus was not developed in a Chinese or US military lab. Albanians are not genetically immune to the virus. And Bulgarian Prime Minster Bojko Borissov does not have a mystical aura that protects him from contracting COVID-19 — even if a fortune teller has claimed so on national television.

Countless unsubstantiated coronavirus claims have been circulating lately, ranging from the entertainingly absurd to the shockingly outlandish. YouTuber Dana Ashlie, for example, recently posted videos online to explain what she claimed was the real reason behind the virus outbreak. Ashlie, who has hundreds of thousands of YouTube and Facebook followers, claimed that COVID-19 emerged because 5G mobile technology was rolled out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak.

Read moreCoronavirus, cold, or flu symptoms: When should I see a doctor?

With COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2, dominating the headlines, it is hardly surprising that coronavirus misinformation is on the rise. That's why the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a dedicated website to dispel unsubstantiated claims about coronavirus cures and how the pathogen spreads. 

Long history of conspiracy theories 

Historically, the outbreak of pandemics has always been accompanied by the dissemination of rumors and conspiracy theories.

But what, exactly, defines the latter? Professor Michael Butter, who teaches at the University of Tübingen, says conspiracy theories tend to claim that a group is clandestinely plotting to control and destroy an institution, a country or the entire world.

The Black Death

In the 14th century, when the plague ravaged Europe, nobody knew how the illness had originated. Soon after, unfounded rumors surfaced that Jews caused the outbreak by poisoning wells in a bid to control the world. Jewish people were accused of being behind the plague — and were subjected to deadly pogroms and forcefully displaced. 

Read moreOpinion: We need to deal with our coronavirus panic

USA Grippewelle Spanische Grippe
'Spanish flu': Patients in Fort Riley, Kansas (USA), in 1918Image: picture-alliance/National Museum of Health and Medicine

1918 influenza pandemic

Between 1918-1920, the so-called Spanish flu killed between 25 and 50 million people — making it more lethal than World War I, which ended the same year the influenza pandemic began. As the origins of the virus outbreak remained a mystery until the 1930s, some people believed the pathogen had been developed by the German army to use as a weapon. 

East Germany's beetle infestation

When a Colorado potato beetle infestation in 1950 threatened to wipe out all of East Germany's potato crops, the country's socialist leadership was quick to blame the US. In an attempt to distract from its own failures, East Germany accused the US of having orchestrated the beetle infestation to sabotage its economy.

Operation Detrick

The onset of the AIDS epidemic in the US during the 1980s was accompanied by an elaborate Soviet disinformation campaign. In 1983, the Soviet secret service KGB spread the rumor that the US had developed AIDS at Fort Detrick as a biological weapon and tested it on prison inmates, ethnic minorities and gay people. It also claimed the US was deliberately deflecting blame by saying the disease had originated on the African continent.

In 1985, Russian-born German biology professor Jakob Segal even published a pseudo-scientific study to back up the conspiracy theory. And even though many biologists and medical experts dismissed the unfounded claims as nonsense, the conspiracy theory remains popular today.

Read moreCoronavirus scare: When will 'hamsterkauf' become an English word?

Saugende Zecke in der Haut
Ticks getting under the skin of conspiracy theorists?Image: zecken.de

Once again, the US is blamed

By the mid-1990s the Soviet Union had collapsed, and national health agencies had largely gotten the AIDS outbreak under control. At this time, however, Africa experienced a major Ebola outbreak. Many conspiracy theorists who had falsely claimed AIDS was created in US military labs, now claimed the Ebola virus was a bio-weapon developed by the US or Great Britain.

Another conspiracy theory in the US military and ticks. In 2019, Republican Congressman Chris Smith called on the Pentagon to release classified documents about a supposed weaponized ticks program. Smith referred to a recent book that claimed the program, which supposedly ran between 1950 and 1975, had allowed the tick-borne Lyme disease to get out of control.

Digital age amplifies misinformation

A whole host of diseases has been blamed on secret US biological weapons programs. Although some conspiracy theorists have suggested that COVID-19 is an artificially engineered Chinese bioweapon.

These, and other conspiracy theories, however, rely on arguments that are never weighted in evidence. The conspiracies tend to emerge in the early stages of a pandemic — when little is known about a pathogen's origin and spread.

The digital revolution, meanwhile, has amplified the dissemination of rumors and disinformation. Online posts are shared much quicker on social media and through messenger apps than any medical or health authority can refute them. The digital age has allowed conspiracy theories to go viral.

COVID-19 can only be contained by studying it scientifically, practicing good hygiene and ensuring those infected receive adequate medical treatment. Similarly, education and media literacy, as well as good mental health, should be promoted to be in line with how we consume information in the digital age. 

Some online trolls have even suggested downing a Corona beer to combat irrational coronavirus-related fears. While this has not been proven to help, it may provide a soothing effect in the meantime.