According to a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 44 percent of Republicans believe that Bill Gates is plotting to use a COVID-19 vaccine campaign as cover for a mass microchip injection campaign. The survey, conducted May 20-21, showed substantial deviations between Democrats, Independents, and Republicans on a host of issues. Among them: A significant gap in the belief that Bill Gates is attempting to use the coronavirus to inject Americans with tracking chips. Forty-four percent of Republicans believe this, compared with 19 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Independents.
Why This Isn’t Technically Possible
Before I talk about the conspiracy theory, I want to address the technical aspect of the question. Let’s forget the Bill Gates angle for a moment. Could an injectable microchip be used to provide tracking in the manner contemplated by this theory?
Anything injected into the body has to be incredibly tiny in order to pass through your blood vessels without causing an embolism. Tiny objects cannot carry much in the way of batteries and have very limited lifespans even in the best of cases. Even assuming we could build an injectable microchip, we have no way to keep them powered for any length of time.
Similarly, there’s no way the microchips would be able to transmit information independently. The human body is not an ideal environment for data transfer, and a tiny microchip tracker wouldn’t have the power to drive a radio. There are pilot projects for injectable robots and wireless power delivery, but not a single system capable of delivering the kind of technological breakthrough required to implement an injectable chip-based tracker.
The truth is, it would be far easier for governments to require Google and Apple to install mandatory tracking apps suited to their specific nations than to develop injectable microchips that can track everyone for the purposes of enforcing coronavirus quarantine (or whatever other nefarious idea was dreamed up).
Coronavirus, Partisanship, and Belief
As the pandemic has progressed, Democratic and Republican views of it have diverged. There are various explanations for this, including the fact that the worst outbreaks have been in blue states. Anecdotal evidence strongly indicates quarantine has been observed differently in different places; where I live in New York State mask-compliance has been near 100 percent. My friends in other states indicate this is very much not the case.
Self-identified Republicans believe many more factually incorrect things about coronavirus than Democrats or independents. There is no credible evidence that coronavirus was engineered in a lab, the US has conducted far fewer tests than the rest of the world (and far fewer than it should have), Sweden’s death rates have been much higher than Norway or Denmark, and there is no evidence COVID-19 is a bioweapon (also, it’s a terrible bioweapon).
Not all the incorrect beliefs are on the Republican side. Democrats mistakenly believe that coronavirus cases have surged in red states when the actual growth has been much slower and the overall situation is still murky. 73 percent of Democrats also believe President Trump called the virus a hoax; this is incorrect. Apparent evidence that he had done so was demonstrated to be a fake video edited in a misleading manner. (This data point is not shown in the graph above.)
The reasons for the beliefs above can be tied to the inaccurate and false statements often made by the President and uncritically repeated by various media outlets, but the “Bill Gates wants to weaponize coronavirus to track everyone” is a decided outlier. President Trump has never mentioned it. Fox News hasn’t pushed it. Furthermore, the other two conspiracy theories on this list — 5G and GMOs, respectively — score much lower with all Americans. Why do Bill Gates and the supposed coronavirus link stand out?
The idea of injectable chips, specifically, plays on common fears in American conspiracy theories related to the New World Order, black helicopters, and the Mark of the Beast. There has always been a significant streak of Christian eschatology in the beliefs of the survivalist and militia movements of the 1980s and 1990s that shaped the conspiracy theory fringe of what would become the Tea Party circa 2010.
The practical explanation for the conspiracy theory is that some people have dramatically misrepresented research Gates funded into the idea of passively tracking vaccine deliveries by using nano-imprinted quantum dots that could later be read by smartphone scanner.
Nothing about the idea had anything to do with tracking. The point was to create a record that a patient had been immunized that wouldn’t depend on the often-poor record-keeping in developing nations. The invisible quantum dot pattern concept doesn’t transmit information and hasn’t been commercialized or productized. The fact that he funded it, combined with his continued interest in digital identity concepts (even though he wants these identities to empower end-users far more than the status quo) has been used to stoke the flames of the conspiracy theory.
But why do people believe an idea like this in the first place, and why this conspiracy, specifically? As to the second, I’d wager it’s because Bill Gates is a known figure in the US, he’s associated with technology (which people increasingly distrust), he was critical of the United States’ early response to the coronavirus pandemic, and he represents a single powerful figure who has been powerful for much of the lives of many Americans. He’s a singular target and focus point for a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now.
But part of the reason I think the Bill Gates/microchip vaccine theory has caught on is that it also plays on a particular type of political argument that Americans respond to, called the American Jeremiad.
The American Jeremiad
Writing in 1978, Sacvan Bercovitch described how Americans updated the ancient lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah to suit our own political vernacular:
American writers have tended to see themselves as outcasts and isolates, prophets crying in the wilderness. So they have been, as a rule: American Jeremiahs, simultaneously lamenting a declension and celebrating a national dream.
The American Jeremiad is a type of sermon or speech (the technique is widely used in secular speechmaking today, as well as in religious contexts) in which the speaker outlines a standard or principle of public life that we ought to uphold, details the ways in which Americans have fallen away from or failed to practice that standard, and then expresses a belief that by returning to these ideals and practices we can capture or create a better life for all of us.
The Gettysburg address is perhaps the most perfect example of an American Jeremiad ever written. It begins with a recognition that our forefathers “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It then acknowledges that the American people have fallen from this position: “We are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
How does it end?
“[T]hat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
100 percent American Jeremiad. Accept no substitutes.
Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech is an equally powerful but significantly longer demonstration of the same art form. You can trace them back to John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” speech given in 1630 aboard the Arabella before the Puritans had even reached the New Land. If the Gettysburg address speaks to you, hug a Pilgrim.
The idea that Bill Gates is working on a COVID-19 vaccine that will appear to save the world but secretly damn us all to an eternity of surveillance can claim some philosophical cover from the concerns of civil libertarians. But it borrows most of its conceptual punch from the Bible and its description of the Biblical Mark of the Beast. Bill Gates has talked about an unclear method of requiring citizens to present a certificate verifying that they are currently disease-free in order to enter a store. To some people, that sounds like the imposition of a mark that everyone must have in order to shop or engage with society.
The idea that we must be aware of this threat to our fundamental liberty and freedoms dovetails perfectly with the philosophical argument that the shutdown was an overblown, fearful reaction to a non-issue. It transfers the locus of blame from a shapeless virus or the vague specter of government to a single individual, and it offers a means by which ordinary Americans can reclaim their power in a time when they feel powerless. Rejecting the idea of a vaccine is painted as a demonstration of one’s faith in God or of your commitment to the sacred ideals America was founded on rather than a supposed commitment to live in fear. The overlap between these groups isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.
Arguments about the Mark of the Beast are also fundamentally arguments about purity and keeping the body sanctified. It doesn’t matter if that means rejecting the idea of a coronavirus vaccine over fears of contamination from “chemicals” or RFID chips or because of religious fears. Anti-vaccination advocates are another group of people who are strongly motivated by purity/contamination concerns, and this line of thinking often manifests itself in surprising ways in the United States.
Even though many conspiracy theorists are not explicitly religious, there are common themes of collapse and renewal to be found in the Book of Revelation and in the idea that America is under siege and in danger of fundamental collapse, and only the actions of a free and independent group of citizens dedicated to the principles expressed in the founding of the Republic is capable of saving it. In the late 1990s, those self-described groups of people were the various militia movements, with their certainty that black helicopters would soon arrive with troops and launch the New World Order. In the 2010s, we saw a very similar argument with a hefty dash of birtherism in fears over “Jade Helm.” Now, it’s COVID-19 vaccines.
What sets the coronavirus vaccine hoax apart from the idea that 5G or GMOs cause or contribute to COVID-19 is that the decision to take a vaccine is a choice. It’s very difficult to avoid both GMOs and cell radio signals, but you can make the decision not to submit to medical treatment. The fact that there’s choice involved allows the body purity arguments and the “Be a righteous citizen of the Republic by being one of the select few who knows the truth” arguments to team up and go looking for Objective Reality so they can break its legs in some dark alley. It also ties to fears about Silicon Valley and the concentration of power in the hands of the few — something Democrats also worry about, of course, but have not widely identified with Bill Gates in this instance.
As for why it’s far more attractive to Republicans than Democrats? Probably some combination of a general distrust of technology, distrust of experts, distrust of perceived liberals, distrust of those who criticize President Trump, distrust of those who have called for continued action to minimize the threat of coronavirus, and a general belief in some quarters that America took the wrong path in dealing with COVID-19. A study in 2019 suggested that populists — who tend to distrust both experts and democracy — were much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than other types of people. YouGov’s research suggests roughly 24 percent of Americans identify as populists according to their metrics; details available here.
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