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Bill Gates is the top target for coronavirus conspiracy theories

Bill Gates
Gerard Miller | CNBC

Bill Gates has been one of the most outspoken public figures about the coronavirus pandemic. But the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder has also become a leading target of various conspiracies that have popped up around the spread of Covid-19.

Conspiracy theories falsely linking Gates to the coronavirus' origins in some way or another were mentioned 1.2 million times on television or social media from February to April, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Zignal Labs, a media analytics company, released on Friday.

That's roughly 33% more than the second most popular coronavirus conspiracy theory topic during that time, which linked 5G wireless technology with the viral pandemic. 

In fact, in April, conspiracy theories linking Gates to coronavirus — including some claiming Gates had prior knowledge that there would be a coronavirus pandemic, or another claiming the billionaire wanted to implant the global population with vaccine microchips to fight the Covid-19 disease — peaked at 18,000 mentions on TV and social media per day, according to Zignal Labs. 

Gates is a regular presence in television and podcast interviews in which he's weighed in on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $250 million pledge to help the world develop an effective coronavirus vaccine. He's also, at times, been critical of the timing of the U.S. government's response to the global pandemic.

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"The U.S. is past this opportunity to control (COVID-19) without shutdown," Gates said during a TED Connects online video interview in March. "We did not act fast enough to have an ability to avoid the shutdown."

Gates also said this week that President Donald Trump's decision to defund the World Health Organization (WHO) is "as dangerous as it sounds." 

Conspiracy theorists have also seized on the fact that Gates has been outspoken about the broader threat a global pandemic could pose for several years, with some claiming that fact as evidence the billionaire knew, specifically, about coronavirus ahead of time. 

For example, Gates — who has reportedly stockpiled food in his basement to prepare for a pandemic, according to his wife, Melinda — gave a TED Talk speech in 2015 warning people that an infectious virus was a greater risk to humanity than nuclear war. That speech has seen 25 million new views on YouTube in recent weeks, according to The New York Times, and various anti-vaccination groups and the conspiracy group QAnon now reportedly cite the video as supposed evidence of Gates' foreknowledge of the event.

On YouTube, popular videos falsely linking Gates to the spread of coronavirus have been shared millions of times, the Times notes, while Zignal Labs found that more than 16,000 Facebook posts spreading misinformation about Gates and coronavirus were liked and commented on almost 900,000 times this year.

YouTube and Facebook responded to the Times' report by noting that the companies are working to stop misinformation about coronavirus on their platforms. 

In March, CNBC reported on Facebook's efforts to remove "false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations." Facebook also said at the time that the social networking giant would give free advertising space to the WHO to share information on the virus from health experts.

The Poynter Institute's PolitiFact website has also actively tried to swat down various conspiracy theories linking Gates to coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Gates himself declined to comment for the Times' report. However, Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told the newspaper it is "distressing that there are people spreading misinformation when we should all be looking for ways to collaborate and save lives."

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