Contact tracers play an incredibly important role in helping to track the spread of coronavirus. So important, in fact, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended as many as 100,000 be hired in an effort to prevent an uptick in infections. They are tasked with communicating with people who have tested positive for the disease to determine where they have been and who they may have exposed to the virus. However, not everyone is so welcoming of their services. According to a report from the online disinformation tracking think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), conspiracy theorists are spreading lies and misleading information about the role of contact tracers and warning people not to cooperate.
According to researchers, there have been two major drivers behind contact tracer conspiracy theories. The first is a video titled "Beware the Contact Tracers." The video was uploaded to YouTube in April by a Canadian QAnon influencer and claims that contact tracing programs are somehow tied to the Clinton Foundation and Bill Gates. It has amassed more than 325,000 views and is still available on YouTube, with little more than a generic disclaimer about COVID-19 information. ISD found that the video has also spread significantly on other platforms, receiving 16,000 interactions on public Facebook pages and groups, including 4,800 shares over a two-week period in May.
The second spike in contact tracer disinformation online appears to have been driven by former Republican congressional candidate and QAnon follower DeAnna Lorraine. On May 14, she posted a video on Twitter in which she criticized the bipartisan supported COVID-19 Testing, Reaching, and Contacting Everyone (TRACE) Act. In the video, she tied contact tracing efforts to Bill Gates, billionaire and conservative boogeyman George Soros, and the Clinton Foundation. Lorraine's video, which is still available on Twitter and does not bare a fact-check, had been viewed nearly 75,000 times and retweeted more than 5,000 times at the time of publication.
These major drivers of conspiratorial thinking surrounding contact tracing have resulted in the spread of four major falsehoods regarding the public health efforts, according to ISD research. A number of social media posts and YouTube videos have suggested that contact tracers intend to force people into FEMA camps, a longstanding conservative conspiracy. Others have warned about the involvement of Big Tech companies, particularly in the form of device-based contact tracing like the programs proposed by Google and Apple that would be able to identify people who have come in close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. While ethicists do warn that there are legitimate concerns regarding how these forms of contact tracing programs are implemented, the conspiratorial fears that these services represent some form of mass surveillance appear unfounded. Likewise, many of the conspiracies tie in fears of globalism and control by "elites," with the common thread often being characters like Bill Gates, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George Soros. While the Gates Foundation has largely turned its focus toward coronavirus research, conspiracy theorists believe these efforts have something to do with attempts to introduce mind-controlling chemicals in the form of a vaccine or inject tracking microchips into people. Finally, some of the conspiracies suggest that contact tracing is just a scheme for Democrats to interfere in the 2020 election. This idea has been pushed forward by the One America News Network (OANN), which has become a favorite information source of President Trump.
While these theories are wildly disproven and often nonsensical, it hasn't stopped them from gaining followers in some circles. Anti-vaccine communities and far-right conservative groups have taken to these theories and started threatening contact tracers online. ISD has documented death threats made against contact tracers. In some cases, profiles of individuals working as tracers have been shared online within these conspiracy-driven groups. Some users have suggested shooting contact tracers if they show up at their door, and have compared the tracers to the "Gestapo" and claimed they are part of an authoritarian or fascist takeover.
Tracking and slowing the spread of coronavirus requires the essential work of contact tracers. Studies have shown that contact tracing efforts have successfully slowed the spread of the disease. That job will become infinitely harder if people distrust or even attack the workers who are trying to keep them safe.