SAN FRANCISCO — In July, a fake slide deck with the logos of the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum purporting to show a schedule for when coronavirus variants would be “released” rocketed around social media, racking up thousands of likes on Twitter and Instagram.
Anti-vaccine influencers posted the image, citing it as proof that the pandemic was orchestrated by powerful interests, and that new variants of the disease were all part of a shadowy plan.
Fast forward to the end of November, when South African scientists identified the omicron variant and warned that it had a high number of mutations. While public health officials around the world cautioned people not to jump to conclusions before the variant could be studied more closely, the fake image recirculated on social media, posted by people adamant that omicron was just the next step of a global conspiracy.
Other false claims about the new variant have leaped across the internet in the two weeks since it was first identified. One post in a group with more than a million members on the Telegram messaging app claimed the vaccines had caused the omicron variant, according to First Draft, a nonprofit that investigates misinformation. Another conspiracy theory posits that the variant is being pushed by governments and pharmaceutical companies to undermine ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug that vaccine skeptics have said treats COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. (There is no scientific evidence supporting that claim.)
Others have claimed the timing of the variant’s discovery suggests government officials are trying to distract people from following the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is accused of helping financier Jeffrey Epstein traffic underage girls.
The new strains of misinformation are the latest wrinkle in what has been a yearslong battle between social media companies and those taking advantage of a global thirst for knowledge and facts in the face of a void of information. While platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have banned coronavirus and vaccine misinformation, instead attempting to promote authoritative information from the government, it continues to spread.
“It’s a classic example of when you’ve got a vacuum, it gets filled very quickly with conspiracy theorists,” said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft.
Making matters worse, nearly two years into the pandemic many people are feeling fatigued. They may be even more susceptible to believing fake information about the coronavirus after the seemingly endless cycles of travel bans, lockdowns and the need for more vaccines and booster shots, according to researchers who study how misinformation spreads online.
“With this new variant and Christmas looming there are possibilities we may have to change our behavior,” said Rachel Moran, a professor at the University of Washington who studies how online information influences people’s beliefs. “That fatigue is very real; people just don’t want to deal with that.”
Statements from public health officials and media coverage of the new variant have stressed how little is known about omicron and have taken a more cautious tone than coverage at the beginning of the pandemic, Moran said. But even that steady, careful messaging doesn’t help slow down the spread of false information, she said.
“It’s not very compelling because it doesn’t necessarily make us feel better; it doesn’t attack that emotional element that makes misinformation so sticky,” Moran said.
After nearly two years of intense scrutiny, the social media companies say they have allotted more resources dedicated to taking down medical misinformation and have improved the algorithms that automatically detect it. Many prominent anti-vaccine influencers, including Florida doctor Joseph Mercola and lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have been kicked off social media sites.
Still, anti-vaccine groups sidestep new rules by using coded language, or screenshotting posts from prominent influencers’ own websites and sharing them on the mainstream platforms.
“The platforms are doing more but it doesn’t stop misinformation from circulating,” Wardle said.
The emergence of new variants was predicted by scientists. Viruses naturally change and mutate over time, and because so much of the world has yet to be vaccinated, new variants were almost certain to take off. But the narratives advanced by anti-vaccine influencers also incorporate the advent of new variants.
When omicron was first discovered, governments in Europe and North America responded by restricting travel from southern Africa, a move that officials in African countries said wasn’t backed up by science and amounted to discrimination. In light of that, some anti-vaccine influencers are claiming the omicron variant is an excuse for racist governments to block immigration and travel from African countries.
In the United States, prominent conservatives that have claimed governments and the media are inflating the impact of the pandemic to extend government power and help Democrats win elections have also incorporated omicron into their claims.
A major difference this year has been the lack of former President Donald Trump’s accounts, which previously served to blast misinformation — such as the claim that bleach can help fight the coronavirus — to hundreds of thousands of his supporters, who in turn shared it even more broadly.
But other politicians have taken up that mantel. In a Nov. 27 Twitter thread, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., claimed that relatively lower rates of coronavirus in Africa over the past two years was partly because of how people in the continent use ivermectin. There is no robust scientific evidence that ivermectin helps fight the virus. Still, Greene suggested that the omicron variant may be part of a conspiracy to discredit ivermectin. “It’s no wonder the tyrants announce a new covid variant from Africa and apply travel restrictions,” she wrote. Her tweets were reposted thousands of times by other users.
Twitter and Greene’s offices did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the tweets.
The relentless uncertainty and changes in official guidance around whether people should travel or not seem to wear on people as the pandemic enters its third year.
“People are drawn toward conspiracies because it feels like there’s an explanatory aspect to them,” Wardle said. “There’s a certainty which feels refreshing because two years of uncertainty feels just awful.”