Conspiracy theories, misinformation, and propaganda have spread during all pandemics since the beginning of time. Desperate to understand and give meaning to the chaos that seems to be ensuing around them, people have always tried to find the “cause” or someone/something to blame for outbreaks of disease. What we are seeing today is similar in how people have historically responded to outbreaks of disease – however, what has changed since the last officially declared pandemic in 2009 of H1N1 (swine flu) is not only the number of cases and countries the virus has impacted, but also the technological evolution of social media and the far-right online ecosystem.
Thus, understanding the role that social media and networks of connectivity have in using pandemics discursively for the radical right is crucial in examining how this discourse will evolve in the coming months.
“The medical deep state”
COVID-19, like other pandemics, has been politicized among the far-right in the United States and worldwide to stoke the fire of Sinophobia, hatred toward the left, and xenophobia toward immigrants in general. The stark differences between the ways that right wing media and official sources (like WHO) refer to the virus highlights the ways that the pandemic is being politicized. For instance, Fox News personalities like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham repeatedly refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Coronavirus” or even “the Wuhan flu.” These intentional choices in how news media are naming the virus also point to the ways that outbreaks are used to stigmatize entire groups of people. Right-wing media figures have also used the outbreak to justify the building of the border wall, to halt immigration, and to disparage the U.S.’s dependence on the Chinese economy.
From a scholarly standpoint, research on conspiracy theories as well as rumors can highlight the mechanisms by which these beliefs are not only cultivated but spread. Research has shown that conspiracy theories often emerge during times of crises as a means of trying to take back control over a chaotic world. In particular, groups that feel the most powerless and helpless in general are the ones most likely to embrace conspiracy theories.