By Vesislava Antonova
Vesislava Antonova is an experienced journalist, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her journalistic career started as a radio reporter at the Bulgarian National Radio. She worked for around 15 years for Capital Weekly. She’s a member of the National Council for Journalistic Ethics in Bulgaria.
The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a few prominent conspiracy theories. One of the most popular ones draws a connection between the building of 5G infrastructure and the spread of the virus. Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros, who has often been the target of other conspiracy plots – from wanting to topple Victor Orban’s government and engineering the refugee crisis, to organising and funding protests against racism and police brutality in the United States – was labelled as the mastermind behind the new Coronavirus, which has killed more than one million people worldwide.
In recent months, however, the main target of a disinformation campaign is none other than the billionaire Bill Gates, accused of developing an evil plot for world domination. Regardless of the fact that Microsoft’s founder donates billions of dollars for hunger and poverty relief, as well as for improving access to healthcare and education in developing countries, he became the go-to villain of conspiracy theorists from all over the globe. According to them, Gates has intentionally caused the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by greed to enrich himself by selling vaccines and medication.
Since the start of the pandemic, social networks, a petri dish for disinformation and propaganda, have become the main conductor for disseminating false information concerning Gates. A series of doctored images and false news articles in various languages gained traction online and labelled Gates as the “father of the pandemic”. The situation became so dire that Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg made a promise that his platform would tackle the spread of disinformation.
According to one of the rumours, Gates is in charge of “elites”, whose goal is to impose a new world order and to turn the Earth’s population into “laboratory mice and slaves”. Other scenarios, which would make even the best of Hollywood’s directors look like rookies, claim that Gates is deliberately trying to destroy the world’s population and to make vaccines obligatory in order to “microchip” people and thus reduce them to submission.
The famous Russian director Nikita Mihalkov chimed in with this conspiracy chorus. In his show Besogon on Russian television, he directly accused Gates of trying to use a COVID-19 vaccine as a cover for a plan to control the world’s population through microchip implants.
How it all began
In reality, Bill Gates is among the people who, through analysis and sound arguments, have been sounding the alarm about a potential pandemic for years.
In a remarkable speech during a TED conference in 2015, Gates said something which probably alarmed many in the audience: “When I was a kid, the disaster we worried about most was a nuclear war. If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.” While he warned that viruses represent a serious threat to humanity, the video wall behind him was showing a 3D image of a giant influenza virus, whose spherical shape, covered with structures like spokes, resembles the now well-known SARS-CoV-2.
Gates’s conclusions are unsurprising. Anyone who dives into infectious diseases research and look ups infectious disease rates will easily come across data which shows there has been a steady rise of new cases in recent years. It is enough to visit the European Commission’s website, where surveillance and disease data is available for consultation on all types of viral infections, by year and by the number of patients.
Scientists from across the globe have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of a pandemic, but it was hard for people to understand the seriousness of the situation. Until today when the world is suffering a global health crisis caused by COVID-19. There have been more and more pandemics in recent decades, as underlined in a World Health Organization report.
Gates has also been trying to raise awareness on this subject. For years he has been writing articles, vlogging, and participating in scientific forums around the world to draw attention to the danger of pandemics. This is why the foundation which he co-founded with his wife Melinda, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been donating billions of dollars to the World Health Organization, WHO, as well as for better health care access and vaccine development.
In October 2019, the Foundation partnered with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security to create a simulation of a hypothetical coronavirus pandemic, which revealed that institutions worldwide are not ready to tackle a similar real-life problem. When earlier this year the world actually faced a pandemic, the experiment became a breeding ground for yet another wave of conspiracy theories — that the military and secret laboratories are responsible for everything.
We have seen such unfounded interpretations during the AIDS, SARS, and MERS epidemics, among others. The organizers of the event were forced to issue an official statement, explaining that their pandemic exercise was not a prognosis for the current pandemic, but just a simulation aimed at attracting attention to the measures needed to face such a health emergency.
Meanwhile, the theories connecting Gates and his foundation with the creation and spread of the virus have multiplied online. A rumour which gained traction at the end of January speculated that Bill and Melinda Gates’s charity has not only engineered the new corona virus but has also patented it. The reason behind this false allegation is the fact that the Foundation had provided funding for a British research institution which in turn is also accused of having caused the current pandemic.
At first, this claim was shared by anti-vaccine groups as well as conspiracy theory websites and far-right activists. Of course, neither the British center, nor the Gates family has anything to do with an alleged creation of the novel coronavirus. The laboratory which specializes in researching animal viruses and diseases does indeed have a patent on a coronavirus, one which attacks birds and has nothing to do with SARS-CoV-2.
During a demonstration against the measures to combat COVID-19 in Germany, Gates’s name and his hellish plan to make vaccination compulsory were listed alongside a plot by the global elite to use the pandemic to reorganize the world order. These conspiracy ideas are welcomed by nationalist parties such as Alternative for Germany, which cleverly takes advantage of people’s fears in order to gain supporters.
In a blog post dated March 19 entitled “31 questions and answers about COVID-19”, Gates writes the following: “The question of which businesses should keep going is tricky. Certainly, the food supply and the health system. We still need water, electricity, and the internet. Supply chains for critical things need to be maintained. Countries are still figuring out what to keep running. Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine, who has received it.”
The philanthropist talks about providing essential goods and services, and using digital certificates for people’s health status, but this did not stop internet trolls from quoting Gates out of context and using these quotes to speculate about plans for “microchipping” people and reducing them to puppets.
As with most examples of successful disinformation, in this case all the fabricated and misleading information regarding Bill Gates is built on a grain of truth, falsely interpreted and “supported” with cherry-picked quotes and exaggerated claims that border on the fantastical.
A New York Times analysis found over 16,000 Facebook status updates on Bill Gates and the virus, which have generated over a million reactions and comments, and the top ten disinformation videos about Gates on YouTube have been watched by millions.
Reality differs greatly from these online conspiracy narratives. Instead of chasing world domination, shortly after the outbreak of the epidemic in China in February, the Gates Family donated 100 billion dollars (in April Gates announced that the sum will be increased to 250 billion) for research into a vaccine for COVID-19 and patient treatment. This money is part of a WHO campaign whose goal is to collect 675 billion dollars worldwide to tackle the health emergency, wrote Forbes Magazine.
There is official information from April 15, 2020 on the Gates Foundation’s website, where detailed information about donations and the organization’s activity is available. That extra 150 billion dollars is dedicated to research in diagnostics, treatment, and vaccines, as well as for the protection of African and South Asian populations.
Every fifth Bulgarian believes that Gates is behind the pandemic
Bulgaria is also a part of this phenomenon and disinformation about Gates are reaching the hearts and minds of Bulgarians. 21% of Bulgarians are convinced that Gates is the villain to blame for the pandemic, and that through a coronavirus vaccine — which has not even been discovered yet — people would be chipped and controlled, according to a poll commissioned by 24 Chasa Daily and conducted through in-person interviews with 1,008 respondents between June 1 and 7, 2020.
Tabloid websites like Blitz are among the publications spreading conspiracy theories in Bulgaria. An article it ran, entitled “Bill Gates’s Vaccines aim to significantly decrease the world population” has been seen by approximately 21,000 people, according to its website counter. The Facebook Group “The Human and the Universe”, which has 3,256 members, is also spreading disinformation about Bill Gates and the coronavirus.
In April, a video titled “Where does Coronavirus come from. Bill Gates, 5G and China” was published on the YouTube Channel “The Naked Truth”. This fifteen-minute clip has over 11,000 views. It is a conspiracy theory in nature and aims to convince viewers that Bill Gates and a number of other influential personalities, such as George Soros and the owner of CNN Ted Turner, are behind the coronavirus and aim to reduce the number of people on the planet because it is overpopulated. The authors of this misleading video claim that during his TED talk, Bill Gates stated that “vaccination can lead to a 15% decrease in world population”. What is curious about this video clip is that it alleges that Gates plays “the good cop/bad cop” by simultaneously predicting the coronavirus infection and funding the creation of its vaccine.
At the beginning of June, Rasper, a small publishing house, posted a message on Facebook (it has just a little over 9,000 followers) calling Gates “the Antichrist” and “the indispensable sinner”. This post deals in detail with the harmful side-effects on the human body of all vaccines financed by Bill Gates’s foundation, claims for which there is no proof. Apart from the publication concerning Gates, the publishing house often posts other false claims, such as the harm of wearing a mask and exaggerations of the threat the pandemic poses.
The website Pogled uses a controversial claim made by a member of Italian Chamber of Deputies, Sara Cunial, in order to inundate its readers with a series of fabricated assertions about a plot between Gates and the WHO, about “the actual reason” behind “barring” post-mortems of COVID-19 patients (a ban on post-mortems has never existed), and about Gates’s attempts to “weaken people’s immunity” through vaccines. Clearly, this Bulgarian website wanted to exaggerate facts in a similar fashion to other outlets which also are fans of conspiracy theories.
According to the text, Cunial suggests that “the International Criminal Court should charge Gates”. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica notes that Cunial’s statement of May 14, 2020 is a comment aimed at Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte: “The next time that philanthropist Bill Gates calls you, direct him straight to the International Criminal Court”. According to the popular Italian paper, Cunial’s speech was disapproved of by some members of Parliament.
These examples offer a clear picture of the source of disinformation among Bulgarians and how some outlets and social media influence and shape opinions, leading to the results pointed out by Trend’s poll.
The story about Bill Gates is an illustration of the statement that “no good deed goes unpunished”. It is astounding that such a large proportion of the population believes theories which fall apart when placed under basic scrutiny, and which portray someone, who in fact dedicates funds and resources to combat the pandemic, as an arch-villain and the creator of the virus.
This is not a harmless trend, because apart from all known damage caused by disinformation, it can seriously discourage the desire to donate money. The next time successful entrepreneurs decide to provide relief for a serious problem, maybe they will think twice about it. It may cause their reputation more harm than good, ending them up like Gates – demonized by a massive conspiracy theory believed by millions.