Moustafa Ayad, Ciarán O’Connor
The COVID-19 Cut-and-Paste Conspiracies Plague Monkeypox Discourse
By Reporting about monkeypox outbreaks in Europe and North America is reviving the spread of a set of cut-and-paste COVID-19 conspiracies that have seeded the most virulent forms of disinformation over the past two years. Conspiracy theories citing the same claims, themes and public figures that were central to many of the most far-reaching COVID-19 conspiracies are again being peddled online, demonstrating how COVID-19 disinformation continues to plague the information space.
Online conspiracy circles are characterizing the monkeypox outbreak as another attempt by global elites, working with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to curb individual freedoms and impose “totalitarian control” over their lives.
This dispatch provides a first look at some of the conspiracy claims surrounding the monkeypox outbreak, noting their overlap with narratives first seeded during COVID-19. It tracks the most prominent narratives of the COVID-19 conspiracy ecosystem and how they have been evolved to attach to any public health crisis. Through analyzing content in conspiracy communities on Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, BitChute, 4Chan and TikTok — platforms where we have seen the most egregious COVID-19 conspiracies take shape — we now see a clear shift to focus on Ukraine, as well as the deployment of copycat narratives around the monkeypox outbreak.
The focus on COVID-19 conspiracies waned in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there was a significant shift in many online conspiracy communities, who turned to focus on international support for Ukraine. More specifically, they have zoomed in on the US’s support to the Azov battalion which they claim is a sign of US alignment with Nazis, and a set of adjacent issues such as the purported US-run biological labs in the country.
With the emergence of monkeypox cases in Europe, Canada, Australia, and the US, these communities are once again skeptical of the timing, the virus itself and the provenance of the disease. Many of these communities, and the influencers within them, are now acutely aware of the successes of their “plandemic” disinformation playbook, which sought to delegitimize public health officials, and their institutions. Successfully analyzing how communities are now using the monkeypox public health challenge to disseminate disinformation for the same purpose will help reduce their harmful impact and ultimately save lives.
Overlap of monkeypox and COVID-19 conspiracy narratives
The provenance of the monkeypox outbreak has been hotly debated in conspiracy circles. Several narratives point to the Wuhan laboratory allegedly responsible for the “release of COVID-19”, while others allege it is a long-standing plan to attack gay communities and pin the blame on Russia. Some narratives suggest that NATO developed the monkeypox in Ukraine-based labs, and that Bill Gates prophesized a set of “germ wars” using smallpox which the current outbreaks can be linked to.
Figures such as Bill Gates and George Soros, who were the focus of much of the disinformation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, are once again being identified as the bogeymen behind this most recent act of alleged “bio-terrorism”.
On Telegram and Twitter, for example, ISD researchers found numerous instances of Bill Gates-linked conspiracies. By and large, these are an extension of the same narratives pushed by conspiracists during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, they seek to delegitimize the fact that the current outbreak of monkeypox is a natural occurrence. Instead, they firmly implicate Bill Gates, as well as institutions such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO). They accuse them of being involved in a widespread conspiracy to depopulate the planet and impose forms of totalitarian martial law, indicative of the “New World Order”.
In the same way that these communities weaponized COVID-19 into a vehicle for hatred of Asian nationals, they are now using the monkeypox outbreak to attack Africans, LBGTQ+, and immigrant communities across the world. As we mark the somber two-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, it is important to note how Floyd has become a symbol for racist trolling in conspiracy and white nationalist communities online.
At onset of the news surrounding the monkeypox outbreak, Floyd’s image was used not just as a racist troll, but his name was as well. On Telegram, polls attempting to rename the disease into “Floydbola” have garnered thousands of responses. Attempts to rename the disease as such have also been used as fundraising ploys. The racist responses to the emergence of monkeypox in Europe and elsewhere have been coupled with widespread anti-LBGTQ+ narratives that demonize gay men are the source of the outbreak. This narrative has found its way from Telegram to Twitter influencers on the far right.
Monkeypox outbreaks have once again led to an onslaught of misinformation, often tied to the same tropes used by a range of conspiracists and far right actors during the COVID-19 pandemic. This narrative analysis shows that the accompanying business of laying seeds of doubt, spewing hatred and pumping out content that seeks to delegitimize health institutions globally, is gaining traction.
World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly – Same old ‘Corrupt Elites’
Accusations that organizations including the WHO, United Nations and NGOs were corrupt, unelected, and unaccountable were central to many COVID-19 conspiracy narratives. Ever-expanding theories accused them of using the pandemic as a cover to distract society in order to covertly push through regulations that would further strip people of their rights and liberties. This framing, a common characteristic of many conspiracies, is now being used in emerging monkeypox conspiracy narratives, namely the WHO ‘pandemic treaty’ conspiracy.
The WHO “pandemic treaty” conspiracy is based on the meeting of the World Health Assembly, the main decision-making body of WHO, between 22-28 May. WHO member states are meeting at Assembly to agree on the priorities and policies for the coming year. As part of this, an agenda item related to improving the world’s preparedness and response to public health emergencies, like pandemics, includes a proposed amendment put forward by the US to the International Health Regulations.
This amendment is intended to improve data access and data sharing processes among member states. Within conspiracy communities online, the amendment has been distorted and manipulated to support the claim that President Biden’s administration is willingly signing over the US government’s sovereignty on health issues to the WHO, giving the organization the authority to implement lockdowns in the future. This claim, which has been circulating online since May, has been labelled as false by the fact-checking website Snopes.
The claim has now been given a monkeypox spin. Some conspiracy communities online are claiming the monkeypox virus was leaked by the WHO to deflect attention away from its Assembly where it will, supposedly, vote to seize the health sovereignty of its 193 member states and use the threat of monkeypox to then enforce new health restrictions in these states. Conspiracy circles believe that acquiescing to shared public health approaches and protocols such as masks, vaccines, and lockdowns will result in a global population of “bots” and “sheeple”, a mixture of people and sheep with blind allegiance to a shepherd – in this case, the “corrupt elites”.
The amount of online content promoting the monkeypox narrative of the ‘pandemic treaty’ conspiracy is growing. Before the first news reporting on new monkeypox cases in early May, there was no online discussion of the narrative. Over the past week (between 16 – 23 May), there have been 189 tweets and 41 posts on Facebook pages and groups mentioning it. These posts are receiving high levels engagement, with 3,532 and 4,683 interactions respectively at the time of writing. This is concerning as it highlights the continued ability of conspiracy narratives to gain traction on mainstream platforms in spite of public health mis- and disinformation policies.
Websites: Ecosystems of Doubt
A range of websites linked to prominent conspiracy theorists within and beyond the US have already published outlandish and baseless articles that advance false claims about Bill Gates’ predicting the monkeypox outbreak. Again, these claims borrow from some of the most enduring COVID-19 conspiracies that alleged Gates was aware of what was coming in the form of the coronavirus.
Some websites have published articles which support the claim that monkeypox was engineered in a lab, whilst others accept the virus is real but are predicting that governments will use it to usher in authoritarianism. One website headlined a recent article: “Monkeypox: The New World Order Prepares Their Final Attack”. Were you to subscribe to this cadre of websites however, you would be led to believe the New World Order has been conducting their final attack every other month for the past 20 years.
Alternative video and social media platforms are also playing a significant role in the spread of monkeypox conspiracy content. They are providing the supporting infrastructure upon which much of the content is being created. Links to this content are then being shared on mainstream platforms with larger audiences, often circumventing their community guidelines in the process. At the time of writing, Bitchute hosts 582 videos related to monkeypox, with 556 of these (96%) having been uploaded between 16 – 23 May.
The tenor of these videos is clear from scan of the most-viewed clips. The top result, viewed over 60,000 times and shared over 1,100 times on Facebook, features one-time Canadian QAnon influencer Amazing Polly telling viewers the “Public Health Mafia” has been caught “red-handed planning another ‘outbreak’ from which they can terrorize the public and make bank”. The second most-viewed video describes potential monkeypox vaccines as “poison”, and the third video features Bill Gates. As was the case with COVID-19, alternative platforms like Bitchute are playing a critical role in the proliferation and aggregation of conspiracy content related to an emerging virus.
It is clear that while the subjects may change, the playbook remains the same.
March 2020 Whataboutism
Lastly, ISD has identified clusters of users on online forums popular among conspiracy and extremist communities that are comparing this period to the earliest states of the COVID-19 pandemic to spread what can best be described as COVID-19 revisionism or whataboutism.
Health authorities and news reports have, to date, advised people that person-to-person transmission isn’t common; that monkeypox is not considered as contagious as COVID-19; and that it is a fundamentally different virus to COVID-19. Yet, online users are dismissing this. Instead, their response to such content has largely followed the lines of, “They said the same thing about Covid [sic] in the beginning” (Image 8) or claims that this equates to a cover up of sorts. What we are seeing here is a demonstration of the self-sealing aspect of conspiracy theories, in which denunciations, debunks or clarifications that may dispel a rumor are instead incorporated into the conspiracy theory as further proof that there is a sinister cover up of the truth.
The prevalence of this sentiment on online forums such as 4chan, for example, is important to note as it points towards where some of the energy of conspiracy communities may be focused.
The monkeypox outbreak is a developing situation; it is possible that more cases will be discovered worldwide, and governments will have to take precautionary measures to prepare and protect their citizens. While it has not yet amounted to proof of a fully-fledged conspiracy for online conspiracy communities, we would do well to remember how influential the COVID-19 pandemic was for these communities. It provided them with blueprints for how to spin and twist any event to suit their upside-down, everything-is-connected agenda.
It is not surprising that these communities are finding ways of continuing to wage information warfare, it is, however, worrying that after three years of combatting COVID-19 conspiracies, we have yet to learn fundamental lessons on how to tackle health misinformation. It is not just cut-and-paste for conspiracy actors, but also a cut-and-paste for the lack of effective action to counter these narratives. This will likely lead to more lives lost.