Late Tuesday night, as results trickled in from Democratic primary elections and the number of people infected by the novel coronavirus continued to climb, Oprah Winfrey's name began trending on Twitter.
An unhinged conspiracy theory had taken root, claiming that she was arrested for her role in a global sex trafficking ring. It reached a point where Winfrey felt compelled to address the rumours, which quickly spread across the internet as people bored and trapped at home searched for some form of entertainment.
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"Just got a phone call that my name is trending," Winfrey wrote on Twitter early Wednesday morning. "And being trolled for some awful FAKE thing. It's NOT TRUE. Haven't been raided, or arrested. Just sanitising and self distancing with the rest of the world. Stay safe everybody."
The allegations were reportedly propagated by online devotees of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that "centers on the idea that an anonymous government official, or 'Q,' has been secretly sharing messages and symbols that serve as evidence of a hidden plot to overthrow Trump", as the Washington Post's Tony Romm and Colby Itkowitz previously reported. Followers, most of them enthusiastic supporters of President Donald Trump, believe many elite politicians and celebrities belong to an international cabal of paedophiles and will soon be arrested.
Over the past few days, QAnon adherents have been sharing a viral Facebook post that claims coronavirus is "the biggest covert US intelligence operation that the world has ever seen" .The author predicted the disease would provide cover for the arrests of prominent individuals including actor Tom Hanks, who was recently released from an Australian hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and Winfrey.
The conspiracy theory gained steam on Sunday, when one Facebook user posted photos of caution tape surrounding a Mediterranean villa, claiming it was Winfrey's home in Boca Raton, Florida, and that authorities were "excavating the property and digging up the tunnels". (Winfrey owns many houses, but none of them are in Florida.) On YouTube, a man going by "Tank" gave a live dispatch from a random parking lot, claiming to have received word that "Hollywood paedophiles" were being arrested and Winfrey's house was suspected to be "some kind of child trafficking location."
Another user posted a video of armed police officers kicking in the door of an ordinary-looking bungalow, claiming it was leaked body camera footage from the "raid" on Winfrey's home.
Under ordinary circumstances, the easily debunked story might not have spread beyond the usual fringe online communities. But with most of the country under self-imposed quarantine and eager for a distraction on Wednesday night, the conspiracy theory reached a captive audience. By early Thursday morning, "#opraharrested" was trending alongside "OPRAHDIDWHAT".
Finally, Winfrey stepped in to dispel the rumour, prompting HuffPost and New York Magazine reporter Yashar Ali to tweet, "I can't believe Oprah had to even acknowledge the existence of a QAnon hoax".
Director Ava DuVernay, a friend and occasional collaborator of Winfrey's, wrote: "Trolls + bots began this disgusting rumor. Mean-spirited minds kept it going. #Oprah has worked for decades on behalf of others. Given hundreds of millions to individuals + causes in need. Shared her own abuse as a child to help folks heal. Shame on all who participated in this."
At a time when many tech platforms are struggling to fight the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus, some observed that seeing people spread a hoax didn't exactly inspire confidence.
"Folks believing that Oprah story just made the necessity of relying on each other for survival feel a lot more daunting," tweeted the writer Jamilah Lemieux.