Fighting misinformation and conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus has almost been as hard as battling the pandemic itself. And a new survey has found that one baseless conspiracy theory about Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is taking hold.
According this conspiracy theory's believers, Gates is planning to use a future COVID-19 vaccine to implant microchips in billions of people in order to monitor their movements. And despite lack of evidence, it's gained supporters particularly among Fox News viewers and Republicans, the survey found.
Gates, who's directed his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund medical research and vaccine programs around the world, dismissed the wrongful conspiracy theory in a phone call with media Wednesday.
"I've never been involved any sort of microchip-type thing," he said, according to an account of the call by Business Insider. "It's almost hard to deny this stuff because it's so stupid or strange."
Still, a lot of people believe it. The representative survey of 1,640 US adults by YouGov for Yahoo News found that half of respondent Americans who say Fox News is their primary television news source believe the conspiracy theory. It's the largest group responding this way, followed by self-described Republicans and "Voted for Donald Trump in 2016" -- 44% of both those groups said they believed the conspiracy theory was true. Twenty-six percent of respondent Republicans said it was false, and 31% said they weren't sure.
Representatives for Fox News, the Republican Party, the White House and the Trump 2020 campaign didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Yahoo and YouGov's survey didn't find that everyone believed these conspiracy theories though. Just 24 percent of independents, 19% of Democrats and 12% of people who "Voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016" believed the conspiracy theory about Gates. Instead, forty-five percent of independents, 52% of Democrats and 63% of Clinton voters said they don't believe it. The rest said they were not sure.
The survey findings underscore the level at which conspiracy theories have overtaken public perception of the coronavirus. The virus, which has infected more than 1.6 million people in the US and killed nearly 100,000 Americans, has upended daily life since it was first detected in December of last year. Governments around the world have ordered citizens to isolate themselves and shelter in place in an effort to slow the virus' spread and reduce strain on hospitals and morgues.
As people adjust to these efforts, they've also begun reading and spreading conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. Such theories address everything from the political ambitions of people involved in the response to whether the coronavirus is as deadly as governments and health agencies are reporting to how and where the virus originated (experts say it came from wild animals). So many people wrongly believed 5G wireless played a role in spreading coronavirus that they vandalized nearly 80 cell towers in the UK over it.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all said they're responding to conspiracy posts, adding links to more information and in some cases pulling down content that the companies believe could lead to people unknowingly harming themselves.
Gates has become a center for attention among conspiracy theorists in part because of his high profile efforts to vaccinate people around the world, as well as his recent media appearances over the past couple months. He's also criticized government responses to the crisis, such as in a March editorial published in The Washington Post.
"There's no question the United States missed the opportunity to get ahead of the novel coronavirus," he wrote in a column published March 31. "The choices we and our leaders make now will have an enormous impact on how soon case numbers start to go down, how long the economy remains shut down and how many Americans will have to bury a loved one because of COVID-19."
One analysis done by The New York Times and media watcher Zignal Labs in April found misinformation about Gates was the most widespread of all coronavirus falsehoods.
Aside from conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, Yahoo and YouGov's May survey also found that only half of Americans now say they intend to get vaccinated "if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available." Twenty-three percent of people say they won't, and 27% say they're not sure.