How Bill Gates became a favorite target of far-right conspiracy theorists
As millions of homes in Texas lost electricity amid a rare snowstorm last week, some conspiracy theorists baselessly placed blame for the incident on a billionaire philanthropist nearly 2,000 miles away in Washington state.
“What's happening in Texas was a planned attack,” reads a February 18 message in a popular conspiracy theorist Telegram channel with 159,000 subscribers. “Bill Gates is attempting to block the sun in order to keep the Earth more cool.”
Days later, on Monday night, Tucker Carlson dog-whistled to conspiracy theorists, telling Fox News viewers that “your body” is “Bill Gates' body now,” because the Microsoft founder is helping to fund global COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
“Bill Gates has gained extraordinary powers over what you can and cannot do to your own body,” he said on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
Gates, who has for years been targeted by conspiracy theorists, has emerged as the top subject of misinformation for those seeking answers in the chaos of the last year.
The false allegations, which have spread on social media, include the claim that Gates wanted to force COVID-19 vaccinations on people that would contain a microchip which would allow Gates and Microsoft to track humans, and that he is trying to “block the sun.”
Elise Thomas, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who has researched conspiracy theories and disinformation, told Insider that Gates has always been used as a scapegoat for various issues by conspiracy theorists. But the pandemic “ramped it up,” and made Gates part of the “central cast of conspiracy villains alongside people George Soros, or Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton.”
While he's frequently been portrayed as a villain- figure for fringe conspiracy theorists due to his work on global public-health measures, the claims are becoming increasingly common.
Wide-ranging pandemic misinformation has often targeted Gates
Gates' historic focus on public health has put him in the crosshairs of conspiracy theorists during the pandemic.
Gates warned the world of a potential pandemic in a 2015 TED talk. “If anything kills over 10 million people over the next few decades, it is ly to be a highly infectious virus rather than war,” he said. The video of the talk has been viewed 33 million times.
Clearly, his warning was largely ignored by the general public. But with the news of the novel coronavirus emerging in China, conspiracy theorists used Gates' 2015 warning — a prediction public-health experts made for decades — as a sign that he knew about the pandemic in advance.
Far-right extremists, including QAnon figures, began linking Gates to the virus in January 2020, The New York Times reported.
After a conspiracy theorist claimed Gates knew about the pandemic in advance, Alex Jones' conspiracy-theory website InfoWars ran an article claiming that the Gates Foundation “co-hosted a pandemic exercise in late 2019 that simulated a global coronavirus outbreak.
” The foundation, largely focused on global public health issues, had participated in a 2019 event hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security that practiced preparedness for a “very severe pandemic.
” But InfoWars' warping of that truth immediately spread wildfire.
From February to April 2020, conspiracy theories linking Gates to the virus were referenced 1.2 million times on social media and TV broadcasts, according to an analysis conducted by Zignal Labs for The New York Times.
The misinformation evolved to include the microchip claim and other related conspiracy theories.
“It's important to note that there's never just one version of a conspiracy theory — and that's part of their power and reach,” Thomas and researcher Albert Zhang wrote in an analysis for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year.
“Each individual can shape and reshape whatever version of the theory they choose to believe, incorporating some narrative elements and rejecting others.”
By May 2020, 44% of Republicans believed the unsubstantiated claim that Gates was “plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a pretext to implant microchips in billions of people and monitor their movements,” according to a poll from Yahoo News and YouGov.
Conspiracy theorists love finding scapegoats to blame
It's no surprise that conspiracy theorists recycled Gates as a villain throughout the crisis in Texas. Winter Storm Uri, which some scientists believe is linked to climate change, sent the state into turmoil.
“When something terrible happens, people seem to have a need to identify individuals and groups who they can blame,” Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent who researches conspiracy-theory beliefs, told Insider via email. “They want a simple answer to a complex problem, and this simple answer often takes the form of a conspiracy theory.”
Some conspiracy theorists claimed that the Texas snow was fake and engineered by the government, drawing on false claims that were inspired by Gates' work related to climate change.
A Harvard research project called SCoPEx that is looking for a way to dim the sun to lower the Earth's temperature and stave off climate change used funding from Gates, as the science journal Nature explained in 2018.
Such geoengineering planet-cooling attempts have “long generated intense debate and, in some cases, fear,” Nature said.
Over the next two years, right-wing websites and social-media users began to pick up on that information and twist it to claim that Gates himself was going to dim the sun, ignoring the real science and oversight behind the complex experiment.
TikTok users attempted to prove that snow was not real. (It was.) Screenshots/TikTok
When Texas was in crisis, the conspiracy theory was adapted to allege that Gates had already dimmed the sun, providing a false explanation for the storm.
“The people who are blamed are often 'scapegoats' who represent powerful groups or organizations,” Douglas said. “Conspiracy theories that involve scapegoats such as Bill Gates are successful because there is a clear and identifiable person to blame. People then think they have the answer and the solution is then to curb the power of this individual and their group.”
In the case of the QAnon conspiracy theory, specific figures Clinton and Huma Abedin have baselessly become central villains used as scapegoats in varying moments.
Right-wing media helps promote these conspiracy theories
Right-wing news outlets are helping promote the idea that Gates is a villain.
As Gates has donated $1.6 billion to the global response to the pandemic, Tucker Carlson's Monday night claim that he can control your body absolutely feeds into these conspiracy theories.
As the coronavirus conspiracy theories about Gates spread last year, other right-wing pundits helped promote them.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham shared a conservative website's article about Gates in April 2020 that falsely claimed he would use COVID-19 vaccinations to “introduce a worldwide digital ID” that would store personal information.
“Digitally tracking Americans' every move has been a dream of the globalists for years. This health crisis is the perfect vehicle for them to push this,” she said.
There's already an “ongoing nexus or flow of ideas back and forth between the conspiracy communities” and right-wing news outlets, Thomas said.
Because of the political tensions throughout the pandemic — as the Trump administration fought to downplay the severity of the virus — and an issue climate change, people will “abuse the uncertainty” in order to “promote their agendas,” Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo who researches media persuasion, told Insider in a previous interview.
Thomas said the connection between right-wing news outlets and conspiracy-theory communities may only “intensify” in the future as issues surrounding politically-charged climate change continue.