Between the prolonged coronavirus pandemic and an unusually intense U.S. presidential election, 2020 conspiracy theorists had plenty of fuel to burn.
It will hardly end in 2021, according to those who study misinformation. Experts predict that several of these theories will enjoy unusually long lifespans into the new year. They also believe that growing amplification of conspiracy theories by partisan media outlets, social media algorithms, and politicians will continue.
“We’re moving to a new era of alternative facts,” said Yotam Ophir, assistant professor at the University of Buffalo who studies misinformation. “There is a sense that we can’t trust anyone anymore and that any argument is as good as the next.”
2020 was a milestone year for conspiracy theories for three reasons, according to experts. Extreme partisanship in the U.S. turned several nonpolitical events into political flashpoints. Partisan news sources and politicians as senior as President Trump became more willing to amplify misinformation as long as it aligns with their politics. And algorithm-driven social media destinations deepened their penchant to become echo chambers for like-minded people to confirm their biases, evolving into strategic tools for politicians and conspiracy theorists to rapidly spread misinformation and influence the populace.
All of these elements came together during a year burdened by global uncertainty and social anxiety—environments in which conspiracies thrive, Ophir said. What’s more, the real-world harm that could result from conspiracy theories tends to hit underrepresented communities harder, said Nicol Turner-Lee, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.
“They suppress some voices in communities where [the consequences] really matter,” she said. “Some of the things that were put out were emboldened by our political climate and racial division.”
Experts say several changes must be made to combat the rapid rise of conspiracy theories. There needs to be a public educational effort to help people discern real news from fake news. Social media companies have to do a better job at fighting misinformation and conspiracy theories. And the general public must genuinely question what they see and read, rather than merely seek to confirm what they hope is true. Until that happens, conspiracy theories will proliferate unabated.
Without further ado, here are three of 2020’s biggest conspiracy theories:
1. Coronavirus Everything
Conspiracy theorists suggested that the new 5G wireless broadband standard may have caused or spread the coronavirus, leading arsonists in the U.K. to set 5G towers on fire. Some conspiracists suggested the coronavirus was created in Chinese lab as an attempt to create a bioweapon against enemies. Another conspiracy promulgated in China suggested that U.S. military members visiting Wuhan brought the virus to China. Even Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates couldn’t escape conspiracist scrutiny: one theory suggested the billionaire, who has spent much of his post-Microsoft life investing in health initiatives in underserved areas of the globe, was responsible for creating the virus in order to profit off a vaccine.
For a while, many Americans bought into the mistaken idea that the coronavirus was a politically motivated hoax meant to take down President Trump—or that it was a virus akin to influenza and therefore not a big deal (even though “big deal” is relative—the flu kills anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 people each year). Both of these suggestions were amplified by conservative politicians, including President Trump.
As for treatment and prevention, conspiracy theorists suggested that masks would somehow awaken a dormant coronavirus living inside people’s bodies. (Uh, no.) Others suggested that drinking or injecting bleach would cure the disease. (An extremely dangerous proposition, according to every poison control center in the nation.) The most recent theories argue that the vaccine (which measures about 125 nanometers) contains a microchip to allow the government to monitor Americans, that the drug (which uses mRNA to provoke an immune response) will alter people’s DNA, or that people’s immune systems are far better than any vaccine.
Almost 2 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19 to date.
Over time, experts predict many of theories will slowly fade, but some fear that the latest conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccine will lead to strengthening the antivaxxer movement.
“COVID will come and go,” Ophir said. “But what about all the other vaccines? Will there be a spillage to the HPV vaccine? To the flu vaccine?”
2. QAnon Goes Mainstream
QAnon, a disproven conspiracy theory involving an alleged global child sex-trafficking ring, used to be associated with the far-fringy right. In 2020, though, it gained new life—as well as two mouthpieces in a newly elected U.S. Congress who could amplify the message further.
Some QAnon theories describe President Trump as a savior figure elected to end these nefarious activities—all of which have been perpetrated by the left, naturally—and bring alleged members to justice. (Who, might you ask? Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and a raft of other high-profile, big-ticket Democratic donors.)
The conspiracy theory should have died when it first emerged in 2016—naturally, the year Trump was elected U.S. president—but 2020 saw politicians and churchgoers alike revive parts of it. Kelly MacFarland, director of programs and research at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, says he expects QAnon to be the most long-lasting and dangerous conspiracy theory, citing a conspiracy theorist who shot at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in 2016 believing it was tied to the child trafficking sex ring.
“It’s the most dangerous because of its following and reach, its complete disassociation from truth and reality, and we have an actual real-life example [of violence],” MacFarland said.
3. A Rigged Presidential Election
Though 2020 set a new bar for claims that the U.S. presidential election was rigged, President Trump helped originate the idea before he entered the White House in 2016.
After several polls inaccurately predicted that Hilary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election, Trump suggested that the election was rigged, tweeting that there was “large scale voter fraud” occurring in battleground states. Trump went on to win the election, of course—though not the popular vote—and such claims went quiet.
But with Trump facing reelection, the theory took on new fervor in 2020. The president began building momentum early, suggesting that mail-in voting would lead to widespread fraud. Conservative commentators quickly echoed his remarks. The effort carried all the way through to Election Day, when armed Trump supporters showed up at some polling locations urging that election officials stop counting ballots. After several court cases and recounts, the theory was dismissed—but that hasn’t stopped conspirators from alleging faulty counting machines and deliberate manual miscounts.
In the wake of Trump losing the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, Trump and his allies have lost nearly 60 legal battles pertaining to election integrity. Still, Trump has not backed down from his stance that the election was a fraud and stolen from him.
“Because it has gotten so much attention from the highest level of the U.S. government, this is going to emerge as part of the pantheon of conspiracy theories,” said Joshua Tucker, co-director of New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation lab. “Whether Biden actually won the election will [be grouped] with the JFK shooting and whether we landed on the moon … which is crazy.”
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