Near the Port of Los Angeles last Wednesday, San Pedro train engineer Eduardo Moreno intentionally derailed the freight train he was driving, smashing through several concrete barriers and a parking lot. The crash occurred within 800 yards of the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship currently stationed in the Port of Los Angeles assisting with the city’s COVID-19 response.
Though no one was injured in the incident, Moreno confessed to law enforcement that he carried out the crash on purpose and that he was motivated by a belief that the USNS Mercy was not being used to alleviate pressure on the city’s health system, but that it “had an alternate purpose related to Covid-19 or a government takeover.” His stated goal, he told police, was to “wake people up.”
Moreno isn’t alone in his paranoia. In late March the White House’s National Security Council, Senator Marco Rubio and other government officials were forced to debunk rumours and conspiracy theories that a declaration of martial law was imminent in the United States. Afterwards, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said that Russia and other groups are attempting to “sow discord on any controversial issue… as part of a disinformation campaign.”
While differing elements of the US government were aligned in pushing back on the martial law theory circulating over text messages and social media, the importance of consistent and sharp messaging is only becoming more important – and difficult – during the coronavirus pandemic. A public health crisis like COVID-19 requires collective action, discipline and endurance in both communication and community action. This will be incredibly difficult in an age of social media and the growing ‘weaponisation’ of conspiracy theories by both foreign and domestic actors, to which the United States seems especially vulnerable.
The internet has always provided a useful platform for conspiracy theories. This current pandemic has breathed new wind into the sails of one in particular: QAnon. Its believers are celebrating the Navy’s deployment of hospital ships as a sign that the Trump administration is clawing America back from the grip of Satanic pedophile elites.
The QAnon conspiracy, which emerged online in 2017, centres on a belief that a deep state cabal of political and celebrity elites have taken over America, and that they use their power to traffic children for the purposes of Satanic ritual abuse. Followers also believe however, that President Trump has been working behind the scenes to expose and arrest these criminals – with this anticipated slew of arrests often referred to as “the storm”.
These ideas are propagated by an anonymous source identified only by the letter Q, who posts cryptic strings of messages online, initially through the forum 8chan – defunct as of 2019 – and now through its successor 8kun. Starting off as an online oddity, the theory has gained such popularity amongst certain Trump supporters that Q signs and merchandise have had to be banned from Trump rallies.
The anonymity of websites like 8kun make it difficult to know the exact size of Q’s following, but the biggest QAnon Facebook groups boast tens of thousands of members, and large numbers of QAnon supporters can still be found at public events, such as last year’s Fourth of July celebrations in Washington D.C.
The theory has motivated real-world violence too. In July 2019, New York 24-year-old Anthony Comello murdered alleged mob boss Frank Cali, motivated by a belief in QAnon. A year prior, an armed man blocked off a bridge spanning the Hoover Dam, demanding the Department of Justice release evidence of the conspiracy.
Although such beliefs can seem bizarre and even morbidly amusing, they take on a renewed gravity during times of crisis.
It has been well-documented how Russian information warfare operatives took advantage and stoked political division and conspiracy theories in the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election. The operatives created competing fake Facebook events and pushed narratives based on existing conspiracy theories on social media. Most recently, US intelligence officials reportedly briefed Congress on a false Russian-backed circulated narrative that the 2016 election interference originated in Ukraine – a talking point many Republicans used in defending President Trump during his impeachment hearings.
Even China has begun to adopt parts of the Russian playbook. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted claims that the pandemic originated from US military personnel who brought coronavirus to Wuhan in the first place. US officials predictably condemned these statements as “misinformation.” Chinese state news outlets have also run undeclared political ads on social media criticising the Trump administration and celebrating Beijing’s response to the virus, bypassing Facebook’s strict rules on political advertising.
For many governments across the world, the ability to maintain control over political and social narratives in the online realm has become a growing national security concern. In Australia, the government responded in 2017 by forming the Information Warfare Division within the Department of Defence. In January, the Washington Post reported that the US Cyber Command is considering deploying information warfare tactics against Russian officials if they are deemed to be interfering in the upcoming 2020 election.
Indeed, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently warned that US adversaries are “trying to take advantage” of the coronavirus pandemic through targeted disinformation campaigns. But there is only so much these - largely military - organisations can or should be doing in combating disinformation and weaponised conspiracy theories in Australia and particularly in the United States. Laying the foundations of the information space starts at the top. President Trump’s well-documented success in turning conspiracy theories against political opponents or using them for short-term tactical advantage over the past five years may have laid the groundwork for foreign actors to spread confusion, dissent and disunity during the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet coronavirus conspiracy theories are not a unique phenomenon limited to the United States. In Australia, officials have warned against the spread of coronavirus misinformation through WhatsApp text groups. Search trends also reveal an increased interest in conspiracy theories linking coronavirus to newly installed 5G towers in recent weeks. As the pandemic continues to unfold, controlling the narrative will become a life or death issue, but in the United States and Australia.