"The difference between a conspiracy theory and a scientific theory," the sociologist John Gagnon once said, "is that a scientific theory has holes in it."
The sort of conspiracy theory that Gagnon was mocking—an all-encompassing narrative that explains away any apparent discrepancies as part of the cover-up—doesn't require a crisis to exist, but they often proliferate with one. COVID-19 is no exception.
Consider Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire who, some say, has branched out from his tech empire to invent something different—the novel coronavirus—so that he can track everyone's movements.
"Whether Bill Gates played some role in the creation and spread of this virus is open for vigorous debate," former Trump campain aide Roger Stone told radio host Joe Piscopo ealier this year. "I have conservative friends who say it's ridiculous and others say absolutely."
The debate is hardly rigorous, as the theory is not based in fact. It hinges on a viral Reddit thread.
Gates and his philanthropies have long been active in the infectious disease arena. In 2015 he gave a TED Talk on the potential for a post-Ebola pandemic. "The failure to prepare could allow the next epidemic to be dramatically more devastating than Ebola," he said. "You can have a virus where people feel well enough while they're infectious that they get on a plane, or they go to a market."
In the era of COVID-19, that sounds prophetic. Too prophetic for some conspiracy theorists, who have contorted Gates's efforts around epidemics to suit a more Machiavellian narrative in which his prediction was actually a plan. They also point to his funding of vaccine research, accusing him of funneling millions toward a coronavirus cure—a fix for the disease he allegedly orchestrated—in order to plant microchips in people's bodies to follow their whereabouts.
The idea that Gates concocted the disease may have originated with a YouTuber devoted to the QAnon conspiracy theory; the conspiracist site Infowars then regurgitated it. Then came the aforementioned Reddit discussion, in which Gates answered users' questions about effective global responses to COVID-19. "Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered," he wrote, "or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it."
A popular reply—the one with the most "up votes"—expressed skepticism, sharing an apocalyptic endtimes verse from the Book of Revelation. "Not a religious fanatic," the user LatexSanta wrote; "I just think it's appropriate, given the Orwellian implications of microchipping citizens and the frighteningly easy leap to authoritarian abuse it implies."
What caused that user to leap from digital records to microchips remains unclear. Gates has no known intention to implant people with anything—he was referring to a digital platform that would expand "access to safe, home-based testing" and would help medical professionals in remote areas retrieve records. But the idea took off: According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, about 44 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats now believe the microchip story is true.
How could a fringe theory, or perhaps a mere misinterpretation, somehow seep from the crevices of an online discussion into the open air of debate?
Gates had two major marks against him from the get-go: his wealth, and the animus a small subset of the population—so-called "anti-vaxxers"—has for vaccines.
"The reasons that people were against vaccines 100 and 20 years ago are pretty much the same reasons that they're against vaccines now," says Jon D. Lee, a folklorist who has written extensively about the anti-vaccination movement. Some have religious objections. Some offer scientific arguments, which are sometimes based in a kernel of truth that's then blown way out of proportion. Fears about mercury poisoning, for example, have popped up over time. Though it's true that some vaccines contain thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound, it's about the same amount you'd find in a can of tuna.
While the core of the anti-vax movement is pretty consistent, the circumstances and specifics evolve with each passing crisis, which is what can unwittingly thrust someone like Bill Gates into the center of the debate. "Almost everything in folklore is simultaneously dynamic and conservative," says Lee. "It changes and doesn't change."
In 2020, those anxieties have merged with fears of surveillance. "Digitally tracking Americans' every move has been a dream of the globalists for years," Laura Ingraham tweeted in April, sharing an article from the conspiracy-theory site the Vigilant Citizen. "This health crisis is the perfect vehicle for them to push this." The piece she quotes claims that Gates is attempting to enshrine a global order where the tracking system "would be used to grant access to rights and services."
Emerald Robinson of the right-wing site Newsmax was more explicit than Ingraham. "Bill Gates is very interested in one area of medicine: vaccines," she tweeted last month. "Why? Because govts can mandate that people get them. And if vaccines include microchips then you have worldwide surveillance."
Gates has donated $250 million to coronavirus vaccine research—pocket change in the grand scheme of his $107 billion net worth. That enormous wealth makes him an ideal villain for these conspiratorial complaints: Just ask George Soros, David Koch, or the Rothschild family, all of whom have been accused of controlling society through nefarious channels.
"We had this in the 2003 SARS outbreak where Donald Rumsfeld," the two-time former secretary of defense, "was in several conspiracy theories claiming he was behind the entire outbreak," says Lee. Rumsfeld was chairman of the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences from 1997 to 2001.
And all this is happening at a moment when everything seems to be political. Masks are political. Social-distancing measures are political. Vaccines are political. Bill Gates is political. People are going to generate political narratives about all these things, and not all of those narratives will be based in reality.
"When you look at the nature of conspiracy theories, and you get these people together online talking to each other and feeding each other the same narratives, it ends up forming its own generative power," says Lee. "Facts are very bad at changing people's minds."