Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
With research by Jasmine Geonzon and Cydney Hargis
Since the World Health Organization designated the omicron variant of the coronavirus a “variant of concern” last Friday, right-wing media have rushed to spread unfounded conspiracy theories, raising suspicion about the variant’s origin and denouncing the public response as a money and power grab.
Last week, news of the omicron variant’s many mutations began to cause concern among public health experts and government officials, prompting travel restrictions in numerous countries. While knowledge of the variant remains limited, research suggests that its mutations indicate a potentially increased risk of reinfection. As of now, the scientific community simply doesn’t know key pieces of information, like whether the illnesses caused by the variant are milder or more severe than earlier variants, or whether it can evade current vaccines. According to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the process of answering these questions could take another two or three weeks.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, President Joe Biden said that the new variant was “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and that the public response would be done “not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.”
Right-wing media responded to the news by pushing narratives which suggest that the mere announcement of omicron’s existence has sinister motives driven by money and power. They also used the new development to ramp up their opposition to basic public health measures.
Throughout the pandemic, right-wing media have repeatedly undermined public health measures by attacking vaccines and masks and by downplaying the risk of previous coronavirus variants. With research on omicron still ongoing, conservative media took the opportunity to mislead their audiences about both the new variant and the emerging public health response. Here are some of the ways right-wing media continue to spread unfounded skepticism in response to the omicron variant:
Right-wing commentators claim the variant is a political distraction
- Right-wing commentator John Cardillo sarcastically invoked “coincidences” while discussing new developments about the virus, claiming that the “omnicrom” variant was announced to counter claims that low vaccination rates in Africa were somehow connected to low case counts.
- Human Events senior editor and prolific conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec implied that the new variant was announced in order to distract from the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the alleged accomplice of the accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein who killed himself in 2019.
- Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo appeared Monday on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom and seemingly tied the announcement of the omicron variant to the Biden administration’s efforts to bring down the price of oil. (Bartiromo has long been one of Fox’s worst conspiracy theorists.
MARIA BARTIROMO (FOX BUSINESS ANCHOR): This omicron variant was quite convenient for the move in oil prices. Oil prices sold off 13 percent. In a day, 13 percent is extraordinary.
...People are wondering why we had such a reaction. Remember President Biden wants to try to get oil prices lower and he did not have any luck with his releasing 50 million barrels from the strategic petroleum reserve. That did squat to the price of gasoline and yet once the omicron variant and all the panic that ensued happened on Friday, that did the trick to send oil prices lower.
- Fox host Pete Hegseth claimed on Tuesday night’s edition of Fox News Primetime: “So what is a failing political party to do in order to get back in America's good graces or regain political advantage? Maybe create a panic and try to exploit it? Could the left be using omicron to continue their forced vaccine push on freedom-loving Americans?”
Right-wing pundits also claim the omicron variant is a scheme to sell more vaccines
- Conservative host Candace Owens tweeted a message on Saturday claiming that drug companies would keep developing a never-ending series of vaccines, accentuating her point with a series of clown face emojis. (Even if this scenario did turn out to be true — and there is some reason to be optimistic that it might not — that would make the COVID-19 vaccines no different from other shots for seasonal flu variants.)
- Posobiec tweeted on Sunday that “the variants and boosters are just a new form of consumerism,” adding that “Pfizer is just using [multi-level marketing] tactics on a national scale.”
- Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe said: “Profits and power - the two reasons our response to COVID has been so moronic.” (Boothe previously said on a Fox show that she was refusing to get vaccinated “as a giant middle finger to Joe Biden's tyranny.”)
- Fox News host Laura Ingraham claimed on Monday that “two shots plus a booster, that whole special drink wasn't an easy sell — enter omicron.”
They falsely claim the variant is part of a scheme for new lockdownsRight-wing commentator Jesse Kelly claimed on Friday that the COVID-19 response had been “all about power and money,” further adding: “The leaders of the West love coronavirus. Love it. They have a vested interest in keeping it going forever.”
- Ricochet editor Bethany Mandel sarcastically congratulated “public school unions who got a new variant just in time to extend their Christmas holidays.”
- On Monday morning, Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro warned of a “global lockdown with every new possible variant” and further added: “Hard not to watch what's happening in terms of government response to Omicron and not conclude that the lockdowns are a feature, not a bug.”
- Even after Biden said on Monday afternoon that he was not looking to enact widespread lockdowns, some Fox figures continued pushing paranoid rhetoric about such lockdowns or other forms of purported government tyranny on the channel:
- Fox Nation host Lara Logan said on Monday night’s edition of Fox News Primetime: “People see that there's no justification for what is being done. So, as they're being exposed, and the control is slipping away, lo and behold, another variant surfaces, and nobody should be surprised by that, because there will be more variants until the end of time. We'll never be free of them.”
- In response to the White House’s call for vaccination as the way to avoid lockdowns, Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson suggested the omicron variant was part of a “campaign to demonize a group of powerless Americans — to transform them into kulaks, objects of state-sponsored hate in their own country.” (The term “kulak” referred historically to small peasant landowners in Russia, who were violently persecuted by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.)
- On Tuesday morning, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade dishonestly claimed: “President Biden, if he wants to go back to the well on mandates and restrictions and lockdowns, he didn't learn anything from his off-year election.”