Charlotte Littlewood, Founding Director of, and coordinator of women’s projects in Palestine for, Become The Voice, PhD candidate specialising in Islamist extremism in the UK, and a former government counter-extremism coordinator
When a grave human catastrophe unfolds, you can always expect conspiracy theorists and state propagandists to get creative: a secretive elite Zionist group was behind 9/11, ISIS was a US-created group tasked to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, SARS was a US-developed biological weapon and so on. All use oversimplified explanations for complex problems that pin the blame on a chosen ‘baddie.’ With a global pandemic that threatens every state and person regardless of race, class and position of power, something very unique can be observed: conspiracy theorists espousing conflicting theories simultaneously.
“COVID-19 is a biological weapon created by (insert your enemy here.)” A simple formula used by Iran, Turkey, Russia, China, the far right and crank politicos — to name a few — that is giving unique and important insight into state relations, group biases and the impact conspiracy theories can have.
Russia and China
A Russian news outlet funded by the defence ministry published an article claiming that the coronavirus was a biological weapon being used as a part of a war against Russia and China. Russia and China — who share a communist ideology and an enmity towards Western imperialism and capitalism — alleged that the United States created the virus to target Russian and Chinese people.
In fact, Russia has alleged the West was behind the crash of flight MH17, accused the US of developing drones that spread malaria and said the coronavirus was developed in a US-funded laboratory on Russian soil. Russia even claimed that 5G technology could spread COVID-19. At least 20 phone masts were set on fire in the UK as a result of the campaign of misinformation.
On its part, China’s foreign ministry pushed a conspiracy theory that the US army had brought the virus to Wuhan during the 7th Military World Games that were held there in October 2019.
Painting the West as the enemy, conspiracy theorists try to create greater in-group loyalty by using ‘us vs them’ language. This also creates less of a likelihood that the in-group would envy the out-group. This is a common strategy used by dictatorial regimes, which often have to deal with disaffected citizens who may yearn for the West’s capitalist democratic model. The strategy is also used by power-hungry states that may want to confront the West.
Iran also shares an enmity towards the West. In general, Iranians are very quick to trust anti-Western conspiracy theories given their past experiences with the West which included a CIA operation to topple Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1952. Tensions between the two countries have only escalated in recent years, therefore, it is no surprise that Iran has also ‘inserted’ the US into the latest coronavirus conspiracy. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the US of specifically targeting his country in order to gather information about Iranian genetics.
When Russia, China and Iran align in an anti-Western conspiracy, Turkey is likely to follow suit. Eurasianist ideologues call for the strengthening of relations with Russia, China and Iran on the basis of anti-US imperialism and anti-Zionism. Eurasianist ideologue Dogu Perincek accused Western countries and their media outlets of conspiring against China and attempting to defame it. Meanwhile, Fatih Erbakan, head of the Refah Party and son of former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, was reported to have said in a speech: “Though we do not have certain evidence, this virus serves Zionism’s goals of decreasing the number of people and preventing it from increasing.”
State vs. Individual level
Conspiracy theories are particularly dangerous on the state level. Khamenei stated that any aid from the US would be refused and turned away a team from Doctors Without Borders who came to set up a 50-bed hospital — medical supplies were also refused. “It’s a high-stakes battle between science and conspiracy theories,” says Kaveh Madani, an Iran specialist at Yale University and formerly a senior environmental official in Iran.
Meanwhile, buying into conspiracy theories —on an individual level — helps people feel in control. It is a means by which to say: “look what I know that you don’t.” While on the surface this seems like an innocent motive, pinning blame on racial or religious groups can have devastating effects as it often fuels extremism. From far-right sentiments to Islamist ideologies, the coronavirus has proven to be a dangerous well to draw from.
Fuel for Hate
In India, a Hindu mob in Delhi attacked a Muslim man with sticks and shoes until he bled from his ears and nose — the mob accused the man of being part of a conspiracy to spread “corona jihad” to Hindus nationwide. Meanwhile, Muslims in the UK have been targeted, falsely accused of going against government advice and congregating in mosques — a claim debunked by the anti-Muslim hate reporting site Tell Mama.
Globally, there have been verbal and physical attacks on Asian people. In Germany, a man was arrested for threatening to cut off the head of an Asian woman after screaming ‘corona’ at her. In the Netherlands, a student of Chinese descent was beaten and stabbed after asking a group to stop singing a corona-related racially slurred song. Also, three corona-related racial assaults against Chinese people were recorded in a 24-hour period in Exeter, England.
Meanwhile, ISIS has not missed the opportunity to exploit the crisis for its own gain. It has instructed its followers to step up attacks during this period, assuring them that COVID-19 is a disease intended only for non-believers.
Destructive Role of Academics
When peddled by the state, conspiracy theories can be seen to have a manipulative aim. Meanwhile, when individuals peddle the same theories it is assumed that they are uneducated or ‘crazy’ people who lack authority. What is worrying, however, is that noted academics have also participated in fuelling conspiracy theories. These crank politicos — mostly academics belonging to Russell Group universities — have pushed anti-Western conspiracies in a bid to attack the ruling elite and imperialist powers.
One such example is Dr. Piers Robinson, co-founder of the Organization for Propaganda Studies, which uses the University of Bristol as an address. He penned an article entitled “Is coronavirus the new 9/11?” in which he lists various examples of “staged” events such as the World Trade Center attack and the chemical attacks on civilians in the Syrian city of Douma. On his part, Professor Mark Crispin Miller —a professor at New York University — wrote that coronavirus “may be an artificially-created bioweapon”.
This pandemic gives us the opportunity to observe state behaviour and the grave impact conspiratorial thinking can have on both citizens at the hands of their state and individuals at the hands of hate. Educated individuals have the responsibility of reminding people that the virus does not discriminate based on race or religion and its spread is not in any state’s interest.
We must not allow this human catastrophe to be exploited for political gain or to fan the flames of hate, lest we see more violence in the name of the ‘greater good’. Instead, we have to pull together across races, ideologies and religions in a united effort to tackle a global human crisis, going beyond the physical threat of the pandemic to the ideological threat.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Mölder Holger & Sazonov Vladimir. The Impact of Russian Anti-Western Conspiracy Theories on the Status-Related Conflict in Ukraine: The Case of Flight MH17, Baltic Journal of European Studies, Sciendo, vol. 9(3), pages 96-115, September 2019