Inside the COVID-Denialist Internet Bubble

For nearly two months, President Donald Trump downplayed the looming coronavirus threat before finally acknowledging the crisis at hand. But by the time the president shifted his stance, many of his supporters on the fringes of the internet had already adopted—and amplified—his initial skepticism, framing the pandemic as just another flu bug or a liberal media hoax.Now that the virus has circled the globe, killing thousands of people and crashing the stock market, what are these people, who live off a steady diet of perceived grievances and conspiracy theories, thinking? Are they, like Sean Hannity and other prominent Fox News hosts, no longer dismissing the novel virus as an overblown, politicized event, or are they steadfast in their denial—and even coming up with more fanciful theories as time goes on? Given the dire situation, it seems worth knowing if the severity of the pandemic finally has penetrated the bubble of the most extreme coronavirus scoffers; if these people and their followers are ignoring safety measures because they believe the pandemic is a false flag to take away their guns or a Deep State plot to take down Trump, then they risk contributing to the disease’s spread. So, this past week, I created a faux Twitter account and set about building my own information bubble. My objective: Inhabit the world of far-right figures and conspiracy fanatics, survey the landscape and see where it leads me. I wanted to not just look into, but live in, the information universe seemingly giving comfort to people who want to believe this is all just an overreaction.Initially, my guiding principle for choosing which accounts to follow was they had to have expressed skepticism about the seriousness of the virus and the need for an all-out response. I started by following a few highly trafficked personalities that I was already familiar with, such as pro-Trump acolytes Bill Mitchell and Sidney Powell, as well as Jordan Sather, a “professional shit stirrer” (as Rolling Stone put it) in the bizarre QAnon conspiracy movement, which holds that Trump is doing battle with nefarious Deep State forces.Every time I punched in a new name, Twitter helpfully recommended like-minded souls to follow. I was served up names both less familiar (like a former CIA officer on a “mission to expose the Deep State/Shadow Government”) and very familiar (hello, Laura Ingraham and Sebastian Gorka). Some of them occupied very different parts of the info-verse from each other, but they seemed united in the urge to defend the president and his handling of the crisis. I stopped adding to my bubble when it hit close to 70 accounts. Over the week, I could see a clear line emerging between people who live within the conservative landscape broadly speaking—like Ingraham and Mike Huckabee, who can’t resist trolling liberals, but really aren’t questioning the risks of COVID at this point—and the people who’ve left the mainstream world behind for good. The former are looking for ways to pick holes in mainstream-media consensus and criticisms of the president, but they’re still reality-based. With the others, though, it’s impossible to imagine what combination of circumstances might pull them back to reality.After spending long stretches in this fevered silo, I’m sorry to report that even a devastating pandemic can’t dent the human appetite for conspiracy ideation. Given the anxious, uncertain times we find ourselves in today, perhaps this is not surprising. Scholars say that people who feel a lack of control in their lives sometimes turn to conspiracies to help make sense of random, unfathomable events. “When disasters and tragedies take place, conspiracy theories may be more appealing—or less terrifying—than the reality of what has taken place,” Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan explained in an email. That said, I was surprised to learn that some of the most notorious conspiracy promoters, like Infowars’ Alex Jones, did not deny the severity and spread of coronavirus. (He is banned from Twitter, but people I followed managed to lead me to his website, where I could watch his streaming broadcast.) To be clear, Jones, who is notorious for erroneously suggesting that numerous mass shootings were staged, has not changed his ways; he is still spewing ridiculous conspiracies about the pandemic’s origins and impact.Jones’ acknowledgement that the virus is more serious than an ordinary flu bug stands in contrast to some other far-right figures and QAnon promoters in my bubble who furiously argued otherwise—even after Trump’s own reality check. This divergence highlighted something else that struck me: just how many conspiracy narratives are being floated in response to the pandemic, as if they’re being tested to see which ones stick. ***It was on Tuesday, March 17, hours after a White House press conference about the virus, that I launched my faux Twitter account. One of the first retweets that flashed across my laptop screen was from a libertarian activist (@erasethestate), who misleadingly compared flu and coronavirus statistics, something Trump had previously done numerous times. But this was also the same day that the president shed his cavalier approach to the pandemic. Would coronavirus minimizers like @erasethestate take their cue from Trump and abandon that disingenuous tack?Hardly. Bill Mitchell, a vocal Trump supporter with 547,000 followers, showed up often in my feed to bemoan the coronavirus “fearporn.” He was emblematic of many in the far-right sphere of my bubble who faulted the media for “hyping” the pandemic. Mitchell, like @erasethestate, also frequently conflated the high number of flu deaths and hospitalizations with those for coronavirus—failing to mention that the latter is believed by medical authorities to be more contagious and lethal. It will be interesting to see when or if Mitchell ever revisits his obstinate stance, illustrated vividly in this tweet:
I don’t care if I’m the last pundit on Earth saying the wild over-reaction to #COVID19 is bullsh*t, it’s bullsh*t.100%, pure grade A, solid gold bullsh*t.History will agree with me.— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii)
March 18, 2020
Not everyone in my feed was as adamant as Mitchell. For example, Sara Carter, a Fox News contributor Twitter suggested to me, wanted to have it both ways on her podcast. “I don’t know if it’s just me,” she started out saying in a recent episode. “I almost feel like there’s this strange overreaction.” Then in the next breath, she noted, “Italy is really suffering,” before equivocating again: “We are overreacting, maybe for good reason, but there’s also this issue where it has been politicized.”Carter’s fuzziness made it hard to understand where she stood. But to some extent, it’s understandable if some of her listeners and followers feel confused about what to think. If you’re obsessively following the outbreak news, watching the panic among real-world doctors, the anxiety of people watching their jobs and 401(k)s vanish, senior citizens and even 30-somethings struggling for life on ventilators, it can be infuriating to read tweet after tweet intimating that this isn’t a big deal at all. But if you haven’t been hit by the disease yet and don’t want to stay inside for the sake of people you’ve never met, there’s a measure of relief in occupying a world in which the situation is under control and the response has gone too far. While both MAGA types and QAnon enthusiasts in my bubble were suspicious about the pandemic and its root cause, they expressed different reasons. Mitchell intimated that the virus’ spread was a form of bioterrorism by China. Some in the QAnon crowd, seeing the rush to develop a vaccine to fight the virus, fingered profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies as the culprits. While he loathes Big Pharma, Jordan Sather blamed other black hats closer to home after seeing this tweet from Trump:
The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
March 17, 2020
Most people likely understood that Trump was referring to a microscopic pathogen as the “hidden enemy.” But Sather deciphered the real meaning on his YouTube show. “What could he mean?” Sather asked with a grin, as he stroked his chin. “I think you know exactly what he means. He’s talking about the Deep State cabal infecting our planet right now—quite obviously.” The QAnon movement—which spun off the deranged Pizzagate episode during the 2016 election—is obsessed with rooting out supposed Deep State actors and A-list pedophiles, who according to QAnon belief, control Hollywood and the real levers of government power. When I was in my bubble, an anonymous, QAnon adherent alleged on Facebook that Oprah Winfrey was arrested for running a child sex ring. It was preposterous and easily debunked, but the rumor circulated so widely on the internet that Winfrey felt compelled to respond on Twitter. Even crazier, according to several news reports, the Facebook post alleged that other celebrities, such as Tom Hanks, had also been arrested, but that a covert intelligence operation triggered the coronavirus epidemic to distract the world from bringing them and a Satanic cabal to justice.Toward the end of my time in the bubble, a retweet flashed across my laptop screen that contained a screen grab of something Alex Jones had said on his Infowars show. Jones helms a lucrative multi-media empire that has trafficked in outlandish conspiracies for two decades; he has been successfully sued by parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims for suggesting that the tragic event didn’t actually happen. After one of my followers tweeted a blurb from his show, I clicked on Jones’ livestream just as he was beginning of one of his trademark stream-of-consciousness monologues. “The world is going into martial law,” he says in his raspy voice, playing off the travel restrictions that have been enacted to quell the pandemic. “Criminals, armed robbers, rapists, they are all being let out of jail by the tens of thousands.” Every word of this is false, of course, as is what he says a few minutes later: “If your neighbors sees you cough, you’re being taken away for six weeks. … This is how the West dies. This is how America dies, this is how it all unfolds.”No wonder Jones isn’t denying the severity of the coronavirus; he’s using it to frighten his listeners witless—to his own advantage.Wearing a blazer and sitting behind his faux TV studio in Austin, Texas, Jones broke off from his rants every 10 minutes or so to hawk his line of dietary supplements and other products. He sells everything from toothpaste and coffee (called “Wake Up America”) to sleeping aids (“Knock-out”). I tried to listen to two of his shows on consecutive days, but I couldn’t get very far in, especially after I heard him plug his supplements as a life and death necessity for people to survive the pandemic. “Folks, they want to train you to sit there and die in your house,” he said. “Get the boost you and your family need. A lot of stuff is selling out, a lot of stuff coming in. We have the supplements now. You better get your orders in. Do not wait.” Agitated by his shamelessness, I slammed my laptop shut and reflected on the upside-down world I had created for myself on Twitter and YouTube. I felt unsettled by the realization that not even a monumental humanitarian crisis can keep some charlatans from exploiting people’s fears for profit.If you want to hear that the virus is no big deal, maybe even fake, you don’t have to build your own bubble. Here’s your shortcut: At the moderate end, among the media-skeptic pro-Trump crowd, the virus is real and it’s scary, but so are liberal overreach, open borders, government spending, breathless public-health fearmongering and criticism of Trump. At the extreme end, let’s call it Full QAnon, the outbreak is engineered by Chinese scientists, Big Pharma or criminal celebrities, and may or may not be real.This weekend, I peeked back at my Twitter bubble one last time to see if events on the ground had changed any of the hardened minds I’d been following for days. But everyone seemed ensconced in their altered or alternate realities. There was not a dent in the cocoon—for now.