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On March 18, at 1 p.m. ET, Bill Gates logged on to Reddit for an AMA — an interview in which people asked the billionaire cofounder of Microsoft their burning questions. Gates makes fairly frequent Reddit appearances, but this one was notable because most of the questions centered around the coronavirus and one of his philanthropic causes, global health.
Gates was asked about how businesses would change because of the virus. He responded by talking about supply chain issues and the need for basic necessities, like water and electricity.
“Countries are still figuring out what to keep running,” he wrote. “Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it.”
His answer inadvertently kicked off an online frenzy. Gates has long been a target of conspiracy theorists, including those who falsely paint him as responsible for the global pandemic. It also fed into false anti-vaccination conspiracies theories, which have gained traction online and contributed to outbreaks of measles and deaths of children.
One of the first articles to pick up on Gates’s response was on a website on biohacking, Biohackinfo, which has only a few thousand followers on Twitter and Instagram. The day after the AMA, the site published a post titled “Bill Gates will use microchip implants to fight coronavirus.”
Gates did not mention microchips at any point during his Reddit conversation. Nevertheless, the article falsely claimed he was referring to a December 2019 study funded by the Gates Foundation on quantum tattoos — invisible ink that could last five years and be read with a smartphone.
“These markings were developed to provide a vaccination record and there is no ability to track anyone’s movements,” one of the study’s authors told PolitiFact, which debunked the claim. “This technology is only able to provide very limited (e.g. non-personalized) data locally. These markings require direct line-of-sight imaging from a distance of less than one foot. Remote or continuous tracking is simply not possible for a variety of technical reasons.”
The conspiracy theory's biggest boost came from a March 21 YouTube video on the Law of Liberty channel, which has 27,000 subscribers. The video, which has been viewed nearly 2 million times, cited the Biohackinfo article and compared quantum tattoos to what it called the “Mark of Satan,” while implying that Gates was the Antichrist.
The conspiracy picked up more attention on April 13, when former Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone speculated on the Answer, a Salem Media Group radio station based in Hackensack, New Jersey, that Gates had created both the coronavirus and a vaccine with a microchip in it to track the global population. “Roger Stone: Bill Gates may have created coronavirus to microchip people,” read a headline from the New York Post from the same day. The Post made no attempt to challenge Stone’s false statements, and the article is now the second-most popular piece of content on Facebook about Gates and microchips, behind the Law of Liberty YouTube video.
Russian media has picked up on Stone’s comments, too. State-funded website RT translated Stone’s comments into its Spanish edition, citing the New York Post report. Like the Post, RT didn’t provide correct information to counteract Stone’s speculation, although it did say that Gates had dismissed the theory in an interview with CCTV. The story has received over 100,000 Facebook likes, shares, and comments.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told BuzzFeed News that he was not aware of a microchip small enough to be injected in a vaccine.
“The whole idea of immunization certificates really is not the idea of a nanoparticle,” Dr. Benjamin said.
He said there are valid human rights concerns about cellphone-based or ID-card vaccine tracking, adding that testing and vaccinating were the most surefire way of protecting people from the coronavirus.
Dr. Benjamin also stressed that while there are ongoing efforts to find a vaccine for the coronavirus, it could be anywhere from a year to 18 months before it could start being given to the public, once discovered. He said that risks with anti-vaccination disinformation “are enormous.”
“Vaccines are safe and effective,” he said. “That vaccine — once produced and proven to be safe and effective — is going to be a lifesaver. It's absolutely a major part of our ability to go back out, leave our homes, go back to work, and go to big sports events.”
Nevertheless, the conspiracy has continued to spread, with the initial story receiving nearly 60,000 Facebook likes, comments, and shares, according to data from social media tracking tool BuzzSumo.
One reason the hoax may have spread so widely is that it tied into existing paranoia about Gates and his philanthropic foundation. Gates has long been accused of wanting to control the global population and other outlandish goals, including that he is the Antichrist
Theologian Paul Decock, an expert on the final book of the Bible who teaches at St. Joseph's Theological Institute in Cedara, South Africa, told BuzzFeed News that interpretation was inaccurate. In the Book of Revelation, not only those who follow Satan were said to receive marks or seals, he said, but “those who are faithful to God are also sealed [as] a sign of protection.”
He added that identifying Gates as the Antichrist was wrong.
“Almost anyone in history who stands out in one way or another has been identified as the Beast,” Decock said. “In the Book of Revelation, we cannot find a simple answer to our particular case of Bill Gates, as if the text had Bill Gates in mind. We have to discern whether Bill Gates [is] in the service of God or the service of the Devil. Therefore, it requires reflection, reasoning, discernment. In any case, for me, Bill Gates appears clearly to be on the side of God.”
Despite its scientific and exegetical inaccuracies, the Law of Liberty YouTube post has 1.3 million Facebook likes, comments, and shares, primarily from Facebook groups, according to data from social media research tool CrowdTangle. Many of those Facebook groups tout their support for US President Donald Trump, promote conspiracy theories, and oppose vaccination.
“We have clear policies against COVID misinformation and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us,” a YouTube spokesperson told BuzzFeedNews. “For borderline content, such as [this] video, we reduce recommendations.”
According to the nonprofit disinformation tracking organization First Draft, false allegations that Gates wanted to implant microchips through coronavirus vaccines have spread not only in North America, but worldwide. First Draft has found versions targeting Australians and Europeans in early April. Misinformation has also spread across WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages in Africa, with one post from a Congo-based page garnering over 8,000 shares.
“Conspiracy theories are harmful to people’s confidence in vaccines,” Dr. Benjamin said, adding, “This will not be the end of conspiracy theories around vaccines.”
The Answer is based in Hackensack, New Jersey. A previous version of this story misstated the location.