On June 14 2020, posts asking readers to do a web search for the phrase “322 COVID” began circulating (particularly in QAnon circles), with an implication that the act would reveal that the novel coronavirus was a “scamdemic” and a hoax.
“Google ‘322 COVID'” Rumor Examples
In addition to forums and message boards, Twitter users quickly urged others to “Google ‘322 COVID'”:
322 COVID pic.twitter.com/cegW1dRJ7M
— basilcat (@JustAnArcher) June 15, 2020
Can anyone explain this? If you type "322 Covid" in Google, it shows the same numbers for different places. @322covid
— Brian Treybig (@briantreybig) June 15, 2020
Go to Google and type '322 covid'
No way that is just a coincidence and is the clearest evidence yet the media is lying and making up the numbers.
— The Cosmic Chef (@thecosmicchef) June 15, 2020
— Deanna Sweeney (@deannasweeney10) June 15, 2020
Google 322 covid. See what you find.
— LiLi (@Gone2theBeach) June 15, 2020
On the conspiracy-friendly forum Godlike Productions, a June 15 2020 post urged others on the forum to “Google ‘322 covid'” to find “interesting results”:
A friend sent me this. Google ‘322 covid’. Interesting results! All over the country all the sudden every county has 322 new cases.
What Happens When You Google “322 COVID”
As evidenced in the tweets, a number of users googled “322 COVID,” likely obtaining a result something like this:
In just the first few results (without deeper examination), searching for the phrase “322 COVID” showed local news on various dates in various places, all reporting 322 new cases of COVID-19:
- On June 6 2020 in Wisconsin;
- On June 14 2020 in Dakota County, Nebraska;
- On June 12 2020 in Palm Beach County, Florida;
- On May 16 2020 statewide in Mississippi;
- On May 27 2020 in the state of Oklahoma;
- And a second report of 322 new cases on May 16 2020 in Mississippi.
To many of the users posting about the rumor, the repeating of “322 COVID” cases looked highly suspicious, and evidence of coordinated “fake news” about the coronavirus pandemic. However, it is worth noting a few things about the results as they displayed for us:
- At least one was the same report from two different news sources — 322 new cases reported around May 16 2020 in Missouri;
- The results spanned at least a month or more, suggesting that “322 COVID” cases was a snapshot in time during a pandemic — when numbers of new cases would appear in the news frequently across counties and states;
- The initial results involved some states (Wisconsin, Mississippi twice), and some counties — although that initially looked like a frequently repeated number, it subtly broadened the frequency with which any number might appear in search results.
“322 COVID” Cases in the News, by Location, Date and Broader Frequency
That final bullet point was pretty important in understanding one of several misleading parameters involved — location or jurisdiction. Although inclusion of Wisconsin and Mississippi (twice) might imply the number was appearing so frequently across 50 American states, there were an additional 3,141 counties in the United States. It would be nearly impossible to calculate how many other organized jurisdictions (cities, villages, parishes, or other locations) could also be used as a reference point for a number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases at any given moment.
Another flexible element of the rumor involved the chronology of the pandemic. As the first results suggested, mid-May 2020 was when the number was reported statewide in Mississippi. On March 11 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared [PDF] COVID-19 a pandemic. Posts urging others to “Google ‘322 COVID'” began appearing around June 14 2020, 96 days into the COVID-19 pandemic.
The duration of the pandemic at that time (96 days) provided further context when tacked to the other numbers we looked at, 50 states and over 3,100 counties. Bear in mind that the number of states (50) plus counties (3,141) was roughly 3,200 and it excluded cities, parishes, townships, and other jurisdictions.
We can multiply the number of states and counties alone (3,191) by the number of days in the pandemic (96) to arrive at an extremely rough number of conceivable media mentions for “322 COVID” cases to be reported somewhere in the United States as of the beginning of the pandemic.
That number (3,191 * 96) was 306,336.
“322 COVID” Cases in the News, versus Other Numbers
We selected other numbers to see if we could generate similar results to searching “322 COVID,” such as “317“:
Numbers between 200 and 400 seemed to yield a larger volume of results, likely to do with the relative size of populations and day-over-day reporting trends.
“322 COVID” Cases and Logical Fallacies
Rumors of “fake news” regarding 322 COVID cases could be described as a logical fallacy of “misleading vividness,” where evidence is isolated to make a specific and pre-determined point.
The claim was also a textbook example of “cherry picking,” in which specific evidence (“322 COVID cases”) is presented, while the parameters and contrary evidence is dismissed or not emphasized:
[Cherry picking occurs when] only select evidence is presented in order to persuade the audience to accept a position, and evidence that would go against the position is withheld. The stronger the withheld evidence, the more fallacious the argument.
Why “322 COVID” Cases Became a Popular Conspiracy Theory
It didn’t take very long for posts urging people to “Google ‘322 COVID'” to begin appearing everywhere, seemingly impressing social media users with the quickly obtained supporting search results. It’s unclear how or why the specific number of “322” was derived for the claim (although there are hints in the conspiracy theorist crowd at connections to Bible verses and the Skull & Bones fraternity), but searching most numbers between 200 and 400 and “COVID” returned similar results. Each report of 322 COVID-19 cases seen in the results occurred in a state (of which there are 50) or a county (of which there are 3,141), across 96 days of a pandemic between March 11 and June 14 2020. It’s true searching “322 COVID” yielded a number of case reports from those counties and states, but the same was true for nearly any number between 200 and 400 on any given day during the COVID-19 pandemic.