Thursday afternoon, Marla Maples, the television personality best known as Donald Trump’s second wife, shared an Instagram photo from notorious anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates cracking up like a cartoon villain. “We get rid of cash and coins,” the overlaid text reads. “We give you a chip. We put all your money in your chip. If you refuse a vaccine, we turn off the chip and you starve!”
“Education is key...Ask questions...Dig deeper…,” Maples wrote over the Instagram Story, which bore the vague header: “The digitalized economy?” If users dug deeper, clicking through to the original post, they could find two clips from an uncited video. The footage splices clips of Bill Gates talking about access to vaccination—playing, for unclear reasons, on a vintage IBM monitor—with disembodied commentary accusing the Microsoft co-founder of seeking “control over our identities...control over our transactions...and even control over our bodies.”
Maples, who dabbles in wellness influencing, has periodically mentioned the global pandemic to her Instagram following of 114,000—recommending Vitamin C IV drips, morning prayer, and an idiosyncratic hand-washing method in which she pours a mug of water on her hands without soap. But Tiffany Trump’s mother has stayed largely quiet on the political dimensions of the virus, including how her ex-husband has handled it. Her Thursday post, spotted by CNN’s Betsy Klein, fed into the unfounded, but widely-held belief that Bill Gates has hatched a plot to implement tracking devices on billions of people under the guise of a COVID-19 vaccine. (Maples did not respond to requests for comment).
The conspiracy has taken off particularly among right-wing COVID truthers (despite the fact that Trump personally asked Gates to be his science adviser). Kennedy shared the post with the exhortation to “Follow the Corbett Report !”—a far right-leaning website ranked “Tin Foil Hat” on Media Bias Fact Check’s conspiracy scale. The Corbett Report claims to cover topics from “9/11 Truth and false flag terror to the Big Brother police state, eugenics, geopolitics, the central banking fraud and more.” Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One racing driver with 18.3 million Instagram followers, shared several stories in late July pushing the Gates theory. A YouGov poll of Republicans from late July found that 44 percent believe the conspiracy, while just 26 percent identified it as false.
Conspiracies about Bill Gates’ involvement in the global pandemic have swirled in online circles since early March. Gates has been sounding alarms about viral outbreaks for years, once warning in a 2015 TED Talk that the next global catastrophe was “more likely to be a highly infectious virus, rather than a war.” In the early weeks of closures in the United States, the video spurred baseless theories that Gates had orchestrated the virus himself.
Those theories were disseminated in part by high-profile figures, who shared the claims on social media. A March report from NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny identified one such viral video on the Instagram accounts of Cedric the Entertainer, Gary Owen, D.L. Hughley, and Derrick Lewis. The video overlooked the fact that public health officials, including an Ebola researcher in the Obama administration, have made similar claims for years.
But the conspiracies quickly mutated over time. By March 19, the claim had shifted away from the mad scheme to infect the world with respiratory illness, to the notion that Gates planned to insert microchips in would-be vaccine patients to monitor and control their behavior, like that Wallace and Gromit short where an evil penguin controls Wallace’s trousers. A Reuters fact-check of the conspiracy theory found that, by March 31, the claim had been shared at least 1,000 times on Facebook and 3,600 times on Twitter.
Most of the posts linked to a blog from biohackinfo.com, a website run by two “do-it-yourself biohackers” who write under the aliases CyphR and Glyph. The article claimed Gates planned to “launch human-implantable capsules that have ‘digital certificates’ which can show who has been tested for the coronavirus and who has been vaccinated against it.” Their sole evidence came from a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ Gates participated in on March 18, in which he discussed digital contact tracing.
Gates addressed the conspiracy theories about him in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, saying, “It’s strange. They take the fact that I’m involved with vaccines and they just reverse it, so instead of giving money to save lives, I’m making money to get rid of lives. If that stops people from taking a vaccine or looking at the latest data about wearing a mask, then it’s a big problem.”
For privacy advocates, digital contact tracing—technology that tracks and monitors COVID-19-positive patients to mitigate outbreaks—has inspired legitimate concerns over how the digital surveillance works, how much data will be collected, and where it may go. Earlier this week, the crime blotter app Citizen launched its contact tracing function, SafeTrace, to immediate ire from data security professionals. But data companies don’t need to insert microchips into users’ skin to follow people around—if they have location services enabled on their phone, those companies already do.