Why COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist, and how to prevent the next ‘infodemic’
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File
WHO IS HE? A four-time failed political candidate, Nikulin is prominently quoted in Russian state media and fringe publications in the west as a biologist and former weapons inspector in Iraq who served on a U.N. commission on biological and chemical weapons in the 1990s.
COVID CLAIM: Nikulin argues the U.S. created the virus and used it to attack China. He first voiced the belief in a Jan. 20, 2020, story by Zvezda, a state media outlet tied to the Russian military. He appeared on Russian state TV at least 18 times between Jan. 27, 2020, and late April of that year.
Once the virus reached the U.S., Nikulin changed his theory, saying "globalists" were using the virus to depopulate the earth.
Nikulin has expressed support for weaponizing misinformation to hurt the U.S. in the past. On his website, he suggests claiming the U.S. created HIV as a way to weaken America from within. Russian intelligence mounted a similar 1980s disinformation campaign dubbed "Operation INFEKTION."
"If you prove and declare... that the virus was bred in American laboratories, the American economy will collapse under the onslaught of billions of lawsuits by millions of AIDS carriers around the world," Nikulin wrote on his website.
EVIDENCE? Nikulin offered no evidence to support his assertions, and there are reasons to doubt his veracity.
Former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler, for whom Nikulin claims to have worked, said he had no memory of Nikulin, and that his story sounded "sloppily fabricated, and not credible."
No U.N. records could be found to confirm his employment.
In an exchange with the AP over Facebook, Nikulin insisted his claims and background are accurate, though he said some records from U.N. work were destroyed in an American bombing during the Iraq invasion.
When told that Butler didn't know him, Nikulin responded "This is his opinion."
AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File
WHO HE IS: Montagnier is a world-renowned virologist who won the Nobel prize in 2008 for discovering HIV.
COVID CLAIM: During an April interview with the French news channel CNews, Montagnier claimed that the coronavirus did not originate in nature and was manipulated. Montagnier said that in the process of making the vaccine for AIDS, someone took the genetic material and added it to the coronavirus. Montagnier cites a retracted paper published in January from Indian scientists who had said they had found sequences of HIV in the coronavirus. AP made multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact Montagnier.
EVIDENCE: Experts who have looked at the genome sequence of the virus have said it has no HIV-1 sequences. In January, Indian scientists published a paper on bioRXIV, a repository for scientific papers that have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a traditional scientific journal. The paper said that the scientists had found "uncanny similarity of unique inserts" in COVID-19 and HIV. Social media users picked up the paper as proof that the virus was engineered. As soon as it was published, the scientific community widely debunked the paper on social media. It was later withdrawn.
Meisam Hosseini/Hayat News Agency via AP, File; AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File
WHO THEY ARE: Khamenei is the second and current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has the final say on all matters of state, including the economy, military and health divisions.
Since being elected to office in 1981, Khamenei has maintained his skeptical view of the U.S. as Iran's foremost enemy. The tensions between the two countries boiled over in 2018 when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions. At the time, Khamenei remarked, "I said from the first day: Don't trust America."
Hossein Salami was appointed by Khamenei as commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in April 2019. He leads the country's paramilitary force that oversees Iran's ballistic missile program and responds to threats from both inside and outside the country.
COVID CLAIM: Salami declared on March 5, 2020, that Iran was engaged in a fight against a virus that might be the product of an American biological attack. On those grounds, Salami ordered a Ground Force Biological Defense Maneuver to test the country's ability to combat a biological attack. Beginning March 16, the Ground Force, in close collaboration with the Health Ministry, began holding nationwide biodefense drills.
Khamenei was among the first and most powerful world leaders to suggest the coronavirus could be a biological weapon created by the U.S. During his annual address on March 22 to millions of Iranians for the Persian New Year, Khamenei questioned why the U.S. would offer aid to countries like Iran if they themselves were suffering and accused of making the virus.
Khamenei went on to refuse U.S. assistance, saying "possibly (U.S.) medicine is a way to spread the virus more." Last month, he refused to accept coronavirus vaccines manufactured in Britain and the U.S., calling them "forbidden." The Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
EVIDENCE: There is no evidence that the U.S. created the virus or used it as a weapon to attack Iran.
AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin
1. Since 2016, Russia has been widely seen as the leading foreign actor spreading disinformation. With COVID-19, China took the lead, continuing to spread conspiracies about the origins of the virus long after Moscow stopped.
2. China has landed with a bang on Western social media. The number of Chinese diplomatic accounts on Twitter has more than tripled since mid-2019, while on Facebook they’ve more than doubled. Both platforms are banned in China. With COVID-19, these accounts helped set and amplify messaging across platforms, languages and geographies.
Andy Wong, AP
3. A series of 11 tweets by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (pictured) in March, which broadcast speculation that the U.S. Army engineered COVID-19, was cited over 99,000 times, in at least 54 languages, by accounts with hundreds of millions of followers. Then Chinese state media picked up and syndicated his ideas.
4. China leaned on Russian disinformation strategy and infrastructure. Conspiracies were seeded and spread through established Kremlin proxies in the West. China, Russia and Iran also reinforced each other's messaging, cross-referencing reports and sources, deepening their echo chamber of authenticity.
AP Photo/Andy Wong
5. During the first half of 2020, there were millions of coronavirus-related interactions on Twitter with 829 accounts linked to the Chinese, Russian and Iranian governments. Chinese state media and Foreign Ministry accounts were among the most retweeted.
6. China’s foreign ministry says it resolutely rejects disinformation, but will defend itself against the aggression of hostile forces seeking to politicize the epidemic. “All parties should firmly say ‘no’ to the dissemination of disinformation,” the ministry said in a statement to AP, but added, “In the face of trumped-up charges, it is justified and proper to bust lies and clarify rumors by setting out the facts.”
In this Sept. 1, 2020 file photo, a smartphone records Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying as she speaks during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.
As the world struggles to break the grip of COVID-19, psychologists and misinformation experts are studying why the pandemic spawned so many conspiracy theories, which have led people to eschew masks, social distancing and vaccines.
They’re seeing links between beliefs in COVID-19 falsehoods and the reliance on social media as a source of news and information.
And they’re concluding COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing a false sense of empowerment. By offering hidden or secretive explanations, they give the believer a feeling of control in a situation that otherwise seems random or frightening.
The findings have implications not only for pandemic response but for the next “infodemic,” a term used to describe the crisis of COVID-19 misinformation.
“We need to learn from what has happened, to make sure we can prevent it from happening the next time,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served in George W. Bush’s administration. “Masks become a symbol of your political party. People are saying vaccines are useless. The average person is confused: Who do I believe?”
About 1 in 4 Americans said they believe the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictions and vaccine safety. Increasingly, these baseless claims are prompting real-world problems.
The superspreaders behind top COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
And 6 takeaways.