- A hoax alleging that Oprah Winfrey was arrested Tuesday night in Boca Raton on charges of human trafficking went viral on Twitter, trending overnight with keywords like "Oprah raided."
- The hoax stemmed from untrue conspiracies posted by QAnon believers that were picked up on Twitter by people who were quick to believe that Winfrey's arrest could be the latest bizarre 2020 news story.
- Winfrey herself felt she had to deny the hoax on Twitter, suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting quarantine are making the internet even more conspiratorial than usual.
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An online hoax that Oprah Winfrey was arrested on charges of human trafficking shot to viral status on Tuesday night, prompting Winfrey herself to tweet that it wasn't true.
"Just got a phone call that my name is trending," she wrote, although her tweet did little to convince hardcore conspiracists in her replies. "And being trolled for some awful FAKE thing. It's NOT TRUE. Haven't been raided, or arrested. Just sanitizing and self distancing with the rest of the world. Stay safe everybody."
The Boca Raton Police Department also tweeted to confirm that Winfrey had not been arrested there and that her property there has not been searched or raided by the police.
QAnon beliefs have become more bizarre – and more persuasive – as the coronavirus pandemic news cycle normalizes the unexpected
Winfrey's condemnation of the hoax continued to stoke a fire that had started with QAnon, the unsettling large population of online conspiracists who follow an increasingly bizarre, unsubstantiated belief system that, in short, suggests President Donald Trump is secretly orchestrating a takedown of a global elite pedophilia ring, in what QAnon believers have termed a "Great" or "Greater Awakening."
QAnon has pushed the debunked "Pizzagate" narrative and helped further conspiracies about the death of Jeffrey Epstein into mainstream belief. Now, with the timing of the global coronavirus pandemic, at least some QAnon believers think the "Great Awakening" is coming, and bringing down A-list celebrities with it.
That's how the theory that Winfrey had been arrested and that her property had been raided came about, and it seemingly spread quicker than QAnon leads usually do, thanks to the strange and anxiety-inducing online environment that's been culminating as a result of widespread quarantining.
Michael Coudrey, a conservative social media consultant and Twitter personality, analyzes trends like the Winfrey arrest hoax frequently. He told Insider that the QAnon movement has increasingly radicalized, despite many of its predictions never coming to fruition, like when the conspiracists believed former Attorney General Jeff Sessions would hold corrupt government officials accountable and his tenure ended up being ineffective in the view of many conservatives.
"It's transitioned into this kind of vast criminal enterprise conspiracy that has not only been wrong on many, many occasions within the last year or so, but it's flat out pushed a lot of these kinds of hoaxes," Coudrey said. "It's unfortunate, because disinformation of this caliber really affects the American population, as you're seeing with this."
Winfrey's name, along with keywords like "arrested" and "raided," trended on Twitter overnight on Tuesday, thanks to amplification of the QAnon theory by a few factors. The initial false reasoning that she'd been the latest A-lister to get implicated in a global pedophilia ring appears to have started on Facebook, where long posts linking various elements of the QAnon belief system together started to go viral.
More people are online more often thanks to the coronavirus and resulting quarantines. Reddit, which hosts multiple huge conspiratorial subreddits, has reported a surge in traffic. Colleges and universities are moving classes online, while school closures and social distancing have rapidly increased the use of online videoconferencing. Amazon is hiring 100,000 new warehouse workers to handle the increase in online shopping as people hunker behind screens.
Not only has "coronavirus" understandably taken off on Google search trends, but so has "coronavirus conspiracy theory," which Google Trends data shows peaks in the evening and overnight. Once Tom Hanks announced he and his wife Rita Wilson had tested positive, "tom hanks coronavirus conspiracy" became a breakout search term, along with "ceos stepping down 2020 conspiracy" – the elements found in the Facebook QAnon rants that eventually led to the Winfrey arrest hoax.
It's possible that because more people are online at all hours looking for information and updates about the coronavirus – or just because they're bored due to quarantine – these types of conspiratorial, false "explanations" are becoming more popular, too.
The fact that the QAnon belief system ties together multiple complex global trending news events from the past year, even though its logic is inconsistent and often utterly unbelievable, makes it even more appealing. By stitching together Pizzagate, the 2016 election, the 2020 election, pro-Trump sentiment, Epstein, Epstein's death, anti-vaccine fears and now the coronavirus, QAnon offers a uniquely compelling worldview that has attracted plenty of support.
Other factors that amplified the hoax include the pre-existing surrealism of the 2020 news cycle and meme potential
In terms of the fake Winfrey arrest story, once the QAnon theories hit Twitter, there were even more factors that amplified the hoax. The "Oprah" and "Oprah arrested" tags were filled with memes of people reacting to the trend without questioning it, or assuming that it would soon be verified by news sources.
Given the rapid pace of shocking breaking news that has swept platforms like Twitter over the past week, it's unsurprising that people would buy into Winfrey's arrest hoax without more suspicion than they'd usually have, and the most popular memes reflect the insanity of the 2020 news cycle.
There's also the amplification factor of people who saw the fake news and reacted to it by recalling Winfrey's role in shifting public opinion against Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. Many of the resulting memes and popular posts hinged on anger toward Winfrey for the perceived hypocrisy.
Because Winfrey is such a massive public figure, the resulting meme potential of her inclusion in a conspiracy – whether it's true or not – no doubt encouraged people to share their reaction to the hoax. Even those who aren't QAnon believers had something to say about it, promoting the trending topic even more.
"I think a lot of people are pretty bored right now," Coudrey told Insider. "I think a lot of the meme accounts will pick it up, not even because it's in the realm of reality but because it's in the realm of comedy and entertainment, so it's kind of crossed these lines in many regards."
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