COVID conspiracies return in force, just in time for 2024

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An increase in COVID-19 cases has spawned a corresponding flare-up of conspiracy theories around the virus, a phenomenon that experts warn will only get worse as the 2024 election approaches.

The White House and President Biden’s reelection campaign will now be tasked with promoting awareness and the latest vaccines while also countering misinformation spread by anti-vaxxers, some conservative pundits and even a small number of Republican officials.

Advocates told The Hill that even though the coronavirus public emergency is over, the pandemic’s influence on American society is here to stay.

“We’re only at the tip of the iceberg for how bad this is going to get,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher.

Fear that another COVID-19 lockdown is imminent have circulated online in recent weeks as cases spiked. Hospitalizations caused by the virus have been steadily rising each week since early July, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The claim originated on conspiracist Alex Jones’s InfoWars in an Aug. 18 “exclusive” claiming whistleblowers from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Border Patrol told them the strict precautions put in place at the start of the pandemic are making a return. The website then speculated without evidence that those purported lockdowns are perfectly timed to assist with “the greatest election meddling in history.” 

Right-wing online spaces quickly glommed onto the narrative, which was then amplified by conservative publications and some GOP lawmakers, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie.

“If bureaucrats try to reinstate any COVID tyranny measures, resist them with a vengeance. Do not comply,” Massie said in an Aug. 25 post to X, formerly Twitter.

TSA press secretary R. Carter Langston told The Hill the “rumors” are “completely false,” adding that the agency doesn’t have any new requirements related to COVID-19 and has not held any meeting on the topic. Jackie Wasiluk, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said “claims that CBP has plans to independently reintroduce COVID-19 protocols are false.”

Though the claims are unfounded, they’re not new, Rothschild said.

“Misinformation about COVID is probably pretty constant,” he said. “There’s new variants of COVID that seem to ebb and flow…but the conspiracy theories about what they think is happening with COVID are very constant — and they’re constantly at a high fever pitch.”

There is always a “kernel of reality” in the conspiracy theories that stick, he added. 

For a short time in August — around when the InfoWars story was published — the entertainment company Lionsgate brought back a mask mandate amid rising cases in Los Angeles. Also last month, a Georgia college reinstated its mask mandate and an Alabama junior high school did the same.

“Those are the most durable kinds of conspiracy theories, the ones where you can’t quite say all of it is false,” Rothschild said. 

Misinformation that gains traction online is also typically rooted in deeper underlying issues, such as concerns over vaccine reliability or government overreach, said Tara Kirk Sell, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. 

“These viral rumors really resonate within those concerns, those values, those beliefs,” Sell said. “When we talk about trying to deal with misinformation, it’s not just the one piece of misinformation that you have to fight against; it’s whatever is causing these viral rumors to really resonate with people, you know — the deep-seated concerns about government and all that.”

The Biden administration has taken steps to address communications issues about COVID-19, which have been accelerated by some presidential hopefuls. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is known for his anti-vaccine views, have hit this administration on their policies to fight the pandemic.

The administration has been responding to comments on social media to correct inaccuracies, monitoring social media for rumors or conspiracy theories and encouraging public health stakeholders to engage on combating inaccurate information, among other steps, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The Food and Drug Administration in particular has been monitoring online for unapproved and health fraud products that are being promoted.

“HHS works to ensure that public health guidance and messaging are based on facts and science and that we are transparent about what we do and don’t know because we know how important it is for people to have accurate, science-based information to protect themselves and their loved ones,” a spokesperson said.

And in an Associated Press interview published Friday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that “schools should be open, period,” even if COVID-19 surges again, adding that that in-person teaching “should not be sacrificed for ideology.” He acknowledged fears about “government overreach” that could impact students’ ability to learn.

The proactive work comes after public health officials such as former chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci were attacked for their work when COVID-19 initially surfaced in the U.S. during former President Trump’s administration. DeSantis and other Republicans have repeatedly vilified Fauci over policies including mask mandates and shutdowns.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration considers its roll out of the vaccines to be a major success at the start of the administration. The massive endeavor to get shots in arms as fast as possible was spearheaded by now-chief of staff Jeff Zients.

Biden will likely be on the defense throughout the 2024 campaign with COVID-19 creeping back into the lives of Americans. DeSantis, RFK Jr., and others are sure to keep up the drumbeat that Biden and his team’s responses were a hindrance to the U.S. and that Americans should question if booster shots are necessary.

DeSantis’s administration in Florida even advised people under 65 not to get the new COVID-19 booster shot earlier this month, opposing the CDC’s recommendations that everyone over 6 months get it. The state surgeon general said that the booster is “not a good decision” for younger people and those not at risk.

“I will not stand by and let the FDA and CDC use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for new booster shots that have not been proven to be safe or effective,” DeSantis said. “Once again, Florida is the first state in the nation to stand up and provide guidance based on truth, not Washington edicts.”

To respond to disinformation throughout the campaign, the Biden campaign has shifted its strategy away from the one in deployed in 2020 in the new age of X, formerly Twitter, and alternative platforms such as Truth Social, where Trump posts. The changes in social media have made the likelihood of the campaign asking and expecting social media companies to take down content they consider misinformation slim.

The Biden campaign has launched a working group of communications and legal aides to push back on disinformation, largely around the COVID-19 push out of the White House. 

It plans to use Biden campaign officials, allies, surrogates and influencers to publicly call out disinformation as opposed to relying on help from social media companies.

Experts agree that entities and individuals need to police themselves with the amount of content flowing online.

“It’s really going to be up to us — to the individual user — to police what they put out, to really scrutinize what they see, to stem the tide of some of these things before they spread,” Rothschild said. 

“But you’re asking a lot of people to do a lot of work, and people are already busy and stressed out and stretched,” he continued. “A lot of people just aren’t going to do it, and that’s going to be a real problem.”

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