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Conspiracy theories need just the right ingredients to take off within a population, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been a breeding ground for them. A Pew Research Center survey in May asked people if they had heard the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 outbreak was intentionally planned by people in power. Seventy-one percent of U.S. adults said they had, and a third of those respondents said it was probably true. NPR's Monika Evstatieva reports on how fear, wealth and social media all play a role.
MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: One version of the conspiracy theory goes something like this - COVID-19 is part of a strategy by global elites like Bill Gates to roll out vaccinations around the world that would include tracking chips, and those tracking chips would be activated later by 5G, the technology used by cellular networks.
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CHRISTINA GOMEZ: So when the 5G comes out - what? We've got to get scanned? We got to get temperatured? Are you insane? What happened to Bill Gates? Why is he not in jail?
EVSTATIEVA: That's from a widely shared video of a county commissioners meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla. But many others have heard it, too, from their loved ones.
MOLLY: And I was like, you wouldn't get a vaccine for COVID-19? And she was like, not if there's going to be microchips in it. And I was like, that's not true.
EVSTATIEVA: That's Molly in Kentucky, who asked this not to use her last name. Otis Hart in New York heard it from his therapist.
OTIS HART: He said that things like 5G are responsible for some terrible things going on, and he connected 5G with the coronavirus pandemic.
EVSTATIEVA: So how did this particular conspiracy theory come to be? Let's break it down. The first ingredient of a good conspiracy is a plausible element, not necessarily true but plausible. In this case, it's the tracking chips. Last December, a team of MIT researchers published a paper in Science Translational Medicine, a medical journal. It explained how something called quantum dots could be delivered to the skin by a micro needle patches to record vaccinations.
KEVIN MCHUGH: There's no microchips at all. I don't even know where that comes from. All that quantum dots are are they produce light.
EVSTATIEVA: That's Kevin McHugh, the lead researcher of the project, now at Rice University. He says the dots signals that a patient has received the vaccine so that an accurate record is kept.
MCHUGH: It's really difficult to determine who has received what vaccines in the developing world because there's not good recordkeeping. So the idea was can we actually have something that could inform a health care worker what vaccines have been administered and therefore which ones are still needed?
EVSTATIEVA: The technology, tested on rats, has not yet been used with humans. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the project, which brings us to the second ingredient of a good conspiracy theory - a real person, someone who is powerful and rich.
KATE STARBIRD: OK. A rich person controls the world, and they want to do bad things so they can continue controlling the world. Sometimes it's George Soros. Now it's Bill Gates.
EVSTATIEVA: That's Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington. She has studied misinformation during crisis events.
STARBIRD: For some of these conspiracy theories now, there are multiple pieces that we've seen before. So they've just, like, moved that person over.
EVSTATIEVA: But why Bill Gates this time? Steve Brill is the founder of NewsGuard, a company that tracks false information. He says, on one hand, the Gates Foundation has funded global vaccination research and drives for years. But also Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft.
STEVEN BRILL: So you have the anti-vaxxer movement targeting Bill Gates as well as the anti-tech movement.
EVSTATIEVA: There anti-tech movement brings us to the final ingredient of a good conspiracy theory - an element that makes it go viral - in this case, the fear of 5G and the power of social media. Joseph Downing, at the London School of Economics, tracked down the exact account that turned the 5G element of the theory into a trending topic on Twitter.
JOSEPH DOWNING: So we've got it here, the @5gcoronavirus19, which sent out 303 tweets in seven days. So you've got somebody here who understands a way of manipulating the social media landscape.
EVSTATIEVA: The account was taken out, but it managed to create such momentum that other platforms picked it up from there. Downing says for someone to be able to do that, they don't need to have a huge following. They just need to know how the algorithm works.
DOWNING: One thing that we found that was really important was rather that people were tagging President Trump in their tweets, and that was enough to gain traction for the conspiracy theories.
EVSTATIEVA: Enough traction that over 70 cellphone towers have been set on fire in the U.K. because of their alleged link to the spread of the virus. Here's Starbird again.
STARBIRD: In the COVID-19 one, we can see when a large number of people begin to believe these things and take actions that are harmful to either themselves or their communities. Then those theories are translated into harm.
EVSTATIEVA: Experts like Brill and Downing agree - a society so divided because of misinformation can lead to disruptions in elections, in health care and even create distrust in the entire democratic system. Monika Evstatieva, NPR News.
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