Ghislaine Maxwell meets Omicron in a new conspiracy theory

Isobel Cockerell

 

When the news of Omicron broke as we were eating Thanksgiving dinner, the sleeping beast of internet conspiracies began to stir out of its turkey-induced stupor (or at least, that’s how I imagine it). By the weekend, the beast was in full fervor once again. 

The conspiracist Telegram groups I follow started flashing up: “Omicron = moronic,” was a clever anagram created by one user in a group called TRUTH PILLS. Others said “This is what evil looks like,” or claimed Omicron was not a variant but a “scariant” and “in fact an increase of 5G affecting the body” — referring to fringe and totally false claims that 5G is a health hazard. The reintroduction of masks, many agreed, constituted “a compliance test.” 

The response within numerous 50,000-strong groups was unanimous: “WE DO NOT COMPLY!” they wrote. 

By Saturday, the hashtag #donotcomply had begun trending on Twitter. Among those who jumped on it were lifestyle influencers and right-wing pundits, including the debunked British television nutritionist Gillian McKeith and the actor and “anti-woke” activist Laurence Fox.  

We also noticed another hashtag, #holdtheline used increasingly by the anti-vaccine campaigners. That left journalists like us scratching our heads. #Holdtheline is the tagline that promotes freedom of press and expression worldwide and it was started by the Filipino journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa. She used the hashtag to stand up to President Duterte’s oppression, and we’ve been tweeting it out (and encouraging others to do so) alongside calls to the Filipino government to drop all charges against her. The apparent hijack of the #holdtheline hashtag by the anti-vaxxers left journalists with a very 21st century kind of dilemma: do we keep tweeting it in hope to overtake the anti-vaxxers or do we drop it to avoid spreading the conspiracist message?

Marc Owen Jones, a disinformation researcher and author who studies conspiracy trajectories, says conspiracies take root when newsworthy events capture attention, and Omicron was no exception. 

Jones has analyzed the current factions on Twitter who are divided over the new variant and explained that the polarization is highly partisan, with those rallying against Omicron tending to be Trump supporters who usually have words like “MAGA,” “conservative” or simply “God” in their profiles.

That in itself may not be terribly surprising, but some of the new conspiracy theories are. For example, one of the most bizarre links made by the newly-formed anti-Omicron troops is between the new variant and the sex trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the former girlfriend of convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Her trial starts this week.

As Jones explains, this “overlaps with QAnon conspiracies about a democratic pedophile ring run by Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein.” The theory is still taking root, but it supposedly implies that the variant has been designed to distract from the trial.

The lessons from these bizarre takes are clear — that the campaign is already well underway to undermine health messaging around Omicron. That QAnon continues to thrive. And that the Infodemic is far from over.

GLOBAL WEEKLY ROUND-UP

Look on the bright side: we can all now pronounce Omicron and think ourselves true scholars of the Ancient Greek language. In case you weren’t following the WHO’s steady procession through the Greek alphabet, they have quietly skipped over two letters — “Nu” and “Xi” — to name the latest mutation. They spurned “Nu,” apparently, because it sounds like “new,” and I can already hear newsreaders stumbling over “the new Nu variant.” And they passed on Xi, because it’s a rather common Chinese surname with one particularly well-known owner. Meanwhile, our ever-industrious friends in the world of conspiracies have trotted out a chart adorned with fake Johns Hopkins University stamps, which supposedly predicts when each new variant will come out. The chart, which we’ve spotted before, is, of course, fake and so are the dates on it: according to it, Omicron was not due to hit the planet until May 2022. 

Amid skyrocketing Covid-19 infections and fresh lockdowns in Europe, the Italian government recently issued a temporary vaccine mandate for the Christmas holidays. Only vaccinated people or those who already had Covid can access restaurants, theaters and stadiums. So what do you do if you are an anti-vaxxer in need of a “Green Pass”? That’s right — you throw a corona party. It is apparently a real thing in Northern Italy, the stronghold of the anti-vaccine movement. I imagine corona parties are a bit like American Chicken Pox parties, but probably with better snacks. And possibly a lot more lethal too. Last week, an Austrian man is reported to have died after contracting the virus at one of these parties. 

Staying on the subject of health passes: in China, the health code algorithm has changed, causing widespread chaos and locking down hundreds of thousands of people. A viral WeChat post described the oppression of being given the fateful amber code, which now flags anyone within 2,600 feet of a positive case and forces them to quarantine. “That barren screen and those stern warnings made me feel like I’d been whisked away to a desert island,” the user wrote. Meanwhile in Russia, the government is reportedly planning to drop the term “QR code” because it has become too divisive. They want to go for something more “positive” like a “health passport.” According to government research, people now associate QR codes with something awful, something “satanic.”

Satanism is the flavor of the week in Russia. A Russian monk who claims Covid-19 doesn’t exist has been given a 3.5 year prison sentence on charges of encouraging suicide among his followers and urging people to “die for Russia.” Russian independent media reports that Father Sergey’s true crime may have been his outspoken views about Vladimir Putin. When the pandemic began, the 66-year-old priest criticized Putin’s virus control efforts as part of a “Satanic” new world order.

And last but not least, we recommend this piece from The Continent, a new weekly newspaper from our editorial partners, the Mail & Guardian, showcasing some of the best reporting from across Africa. The story looks into Kenya’s new vaccine mandate. Less than 5% of the population has been vaccinated there, but the government is preparing to ban unvaccinated people from public services — everything from schools, to hospitals, to public transport. How exactly will that work? Reporter Soila Kenya dives in with her first piece for the magazine.

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