As America’s self-quarantine drags on, millions across the panicked nation are glued to social media more than ever before, in part to fill the void left by zero human interaction, in part to keep up with each twist of the developing story. Which is why, when Oprah Winfrey’s name shot to the top of Twitter’s trending page at around 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday, many speculated that, like fellow super celebs Tom Hanks and Kevin Durant, the billionaire icon had tested positive for coronavirus. Luckily, Oprah is safe; rather, her name cropped up in relation to a QAnon conspiracy theory alleging that an illuminati-like group of elites are running an international pedophile operation that Donald Trump is quietly working to destroy. Hordes of QAnon followers promoted the libelous claim that Oprah had been arrested in Florida over her involvement.
Oprah herself addressed the rumors early Wednesday. “Just got a phone call that my name is trending. And being trolled for some awful FAKE thing. It’s NOT TRUE,” she tweeted. “Haven’t been raided, or arrested. Just sanitizing and self distancing with the rest of the world. Stay safe everybody.”
The source of the disinformation can be traced back to a Facebook post, according to the Washington Post, claiming that coronavirus is not a real virus, but a mass decoy effort created by the president and his allies to discreetly take down some of the world’s biggest names. These theories are typically confined to fringe Facebook groups or even more fringe message boards (QAnon originated on the Nazi-infested pages of 4chan), but a combination of factors—perhaps boredom, plus information overload—spurred thousands to spread the fake “Oprah arrested” news after screenshots of the initial Facebook post made their way to Twitter.
Before midnight hit, the story had been incorporated into countless viral tweet formats. Many accounts racked up engagements by attaching the words “Oprah Sex Trafficking Scandal” to popular memes, GIFs, and videos related to the outrageous but factually true headlines circulating around coronavirus. These reaction tweets lent the theory an air of legitimacy, and before long ignorant users—and even some verified accounts—were swapping commentary on the fake Oprah news as though it was any other subplot in the 2020 news cycle.
To make sense of why so many fell for and willingly contributed to a QAnon conspiracy, it helps to consider @dril, one of Twitter’s most nonsensical and universally beloved accounts. A “Weird Twitter” progenitor whose absurdist humor can be undetectable to the uninitiated, @dril illustrates profound truths about current events and online culture, albeit through layers of irony. “scrolling on autopilot, mouth agape, clicking fav on all tweets with at least 1 or 2 funny words in them. zero human consciousness, perfect,” reads a February @dril tweet. This particular post sums up why so many people glommed onto the Oprah rumor so quickly: It was just another unbelievable story in a year in which Kobe Bryant died in a tragic helicopter crash, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for a deadly disease, and the entire NBA season was suspended, all against the backdrop of a B-list reality star running the free world. Combine the Oprah story with “1 or 2 funny words,” and you have a recipe for virality in its purest form.
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