In reality, contact tracers carrying out the essential work of tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus are key public health responders to the pandemic. But online, they are being compared to the German secret police and facing death threats, according to a new report shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank researching online disinformation, has found dozens of Facebook posts and YouTube videos spreading hoaxes and lies about contact tracers have received hundreds of thousands of views since the beginning of the pandemic.
And it's worried that the posts present a danger to public health.
“We very quickly started to see a pretty concerted effort to direct existing conspiracy theories and disinformation tropes toward the contact tracing narrative,” Chloe Colliver, head of digital analysis and policy at ISD, told BuzzFeed News.
The new ISD report showed four types of activity around contact tracing falsehoods: claims about “FEMA internment camps,” big tech involvement, global elites, and the 2020 US elections. Although contact tracing has spawned fears of increased surveillance worldwide, it has also been essential in tracking and slowing the spread of the virus.
ISD has also uncovered death threats against contact tracers posted to Facebook. One, posted to a group called Reopen Missouri, features an image of a gun with the caption, “Public Service Announcement...When the Contact Tracer arrives at your door...This is the proper greeting.” Another post asks, “Question, who will shoot at Contact Tracers if they try and Force You To Comply?” The first reply: a GIF of a man enthusiastically waving a raised hand.
ISD highlighted two major drivers of anti–contact tracer conspiracy theories.
The first was a video from a Canadian QAnon influencer, titled “Beware the Contact Tracers,” posted to YouTube and shared across Facebook. The video was viewed over 300,000 times and spread through Facebook, according to ISD's research.
ISD believes the second spike came from former Republican congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine, who tweeted a video in which she criticized the COVID-19 Testing, Reaching, and Contacting Everyone Act (HR 6666) by seeming to imply a nefarious contact tracing connection between Microsoft founder Bill Gates, financier George Soros, former president Bill Clinton, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Written by Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, the TRACE Act aims to increase the capacity to map the spread of the coronavirus. It has also been a major driver of anti–contact tracing sentiment.
BuzzFeed News asked Facebook about the disinformation themes highlighted in ISD's report and sent three examples of explicit threats against contact tracers.
“Based on the screenshots provided to us, these posts would violate our policies. We’re working to determine if the content truly exists on our platform — as we’ve discovered no evidence yet — and will remove it if it does,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
A quick search of the platform showed at least two of the examples are still live. One has either been removed or deleted, but the page that posted it remains online.
Thirteen hours after this article was published, Facebook said the company removed examples sent by BuzzFeed News but did not address larger issues of threats against contact tracers on the platform.
According to YouTube, several of the videos highlighted in the report did not break the company's policy, but the social media network said it was removing comments that did not adhere to its harassment policies.
Reached for comment, a CDC spokesperson clarified that contact tracing is done primarily by phone and noted that the institute is happy to help platforms like Facebook and YouTube direct users to credible information about the process. The “CDC will work with social media platforms to explain exactly how contact tracing works to hopefully alleviate concerns about how contact tracing is conducted," the spokesperson said.
News outlets have debunked false rumors about the bill, including claims that it allows for people to be forced into “quarantine camps” or “FEMA camps.” Some of the posts highlighted by ISD compare contact tracers to German secret police. In reality, participation is entirely voluntary, Reuters reported.
But correcting bad information like this and stemming its spread is difficult, particularly when it's seeded to communities that already have affinities for anti-vaccination propaganda and QAnon conspiracy theories. “There’s clearly a legacy issue with the residual presence of those groups that have been allowed to proliferate and to grow significant audiences over the last couple of years,” Colliver said, noting that these groups have also been targeting people genuinely worried about the economic costs of the coronavirus lockdown.
“The Reopen networks … were full of members who weren’t ideologically particularly extreme, but are concerned about the economic or social repercussions of coronavirus lockdown,” Colliver said. “They’re being exploited by actors who have extremist agendas or conspiratorial world views.”
The conditions are ripe for anti–contact tracing sentiment to continue spreading across borders, Colliver said. The UK and Germany both have communities that have similar ideological beliefs to groups spreading these conspiracies across the US.
While there’s no evidence of covert state-sponsored activity egging on contact tracing distrust, the Russian propaganda outlet RT has been running divisive stories on the topic, Colliver said.
“It's just their favorite kind of thing,” she said. “And it's a gift on the plate for them, really.”