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The two stories are unrelated.
The first day of the Maxwell trial received extensive media coverage, as have the Epstein allegations.
Viruses mutate over time and are unpredictable and omicron, first detected in mid-November, is not the first coronavirus variant to gain worldwide attention.
The sex trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell began in New York with opening statements on Nov. 29. Maxwell faces six federal charges and is accused of grooming young girls for her partner, the late Jeffrey Epstein, to abuse.
The trial is being widely covered in the media, from cable news giants CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to major newspapers such as The New York Times and Washington Post.
But that hasn’t stopped complaints that a media coverup is afoot.
A Facebook post states, "If you think the Omicron hysteria popping up 2 days before the Ghislaine Maxwell trial starts is ‘just a coincidence,’ then you don’t know who she was trafficking underage girls to. They don’t want us paying attention!"
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The "omicron hysteria," refers to media coverage of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus that was first detected by health experts in South Africa in mid-November. Health leaders in western Europe have since announced they’ve identified samples of the variant that predate those discovered in southern Africa. The variant has been confirmed in 20 countries, including Canada, and was suspected in three others as of Nov. 30, according to the Washington Post.
The day after Thanksgiving, President Joe Biden announced air travel restrictions for travelers coming from South Africa and seven other countries starting Nov. 29. Multiple countries have enacted travel bans in response to the variant, drawing criticism from the World Health Organization.
Biden said the variant is "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," and urged Americans to get vaccinated and get booster shots. No case had been confirmed in the U.S. as of Nov. 30.
The WHO said the variant was first reported to it on Nov. 24 from a specimen collected on Nov. 9. It called omicron "a variant of concern" on Nov. 26, noting a high number of mutations which may be associated with "immune escape potential and higher transmissibility." It said the global risk "is very high," but noted there are "still considerable uncertainties."
It’s still unclear how big a threat the new variant is. In countries with lower vaccination rates, the virus can sweep through the unvaccinated population and give the virus more chances to mutate, according to Tara Reid, an epidemiologist with Kent State University.
"Occasionally, some of those mutations (individually or in combination with each other) can make a virus more ‘fit’ — more able to easily spread to a new host. This is what we’re concerned has happened with omicron in South Africa — that it is out-competing the delta variant in that country, and possibly could do so elsewhere," Smith said.
The variant is certainly a topic worthy of national media coverage. But some people think that it’s an invention meant to distract from coverage of the Maxwell trial. But the media has also given a lot of attention to the Maxwell case and the accusations against Epstein over the past two years — and there is no evidence the trial will be ignored. In fact, the story garnered national and international attention starting in 2018 due to the investigative reporting of journalists at the Miami Herald.
Major media outlets covered the first day of the Maxwell trial on Nov. 29, including CNN, The New York Times, The Associated Press, NBC News, NPR, The Washington Post and others. The case has been covered extensively before the trial, as well. Here is all the New York Times and CNN coverage, for example.
Some social media claims have misleadingly pointed to hand-drawn illustrations from the Maxwell trial as evidence that the case is not being covered on the scale that Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial received, with its televised live-stream. But Maxwell’s trial is not being televised because it’s a federal case, and federal courts have long banned cameras and recording devices from courtrooms.
John Gregory, the deputy health editor at NewsGuard, a company that tracks online misinformation, said claims that one story is being covered to distract from another are common on social media.
Users make such claims because "they're easy and evidence-free," and they don't have to back them up, he said. "It's appealing to the people who are already going to buy into that way of thinking."
Gregory said that NewsGuard looked at data over the past three days from NewsWhip, a social analytics company, and found that social interactions were consistently higher for stories about the omicron variant than they were for stories about the Maxwell trial. He said a BBC story from Nov. 27 about two cases of the variant being discovered in the U.K. garnered the most interactions on Facebook with 183,000. A Daily Wire explainer about the Maxwell trial had 17,000 interactions, the most among that topic.
"That's not an indicator of lack of coverage. You can find stories today from most major outlets," Gregory said. "The stories and coverage of the trial is there. It's just that omicron is getting more attention from readers."
He also noted that far more people are interacting with stories covering the trial than those that say the trial is being covered up, according to NewsWhip data from that same period.
It’s also not the first time that someone has claimed the omicron variant is being used as a distraction from other news. Texas U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, a former White House doctor who oversaw former President Donald Trump’s treatment for COVID-19, on Twitter called omicron the "Midterm Election Variant," writing that Democrats "NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots."
It’s not clear where the Maxwell claim originated or whether it’s related to QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that holds among other things that Democrats and celebrities are part of a Satan-worshipping cabal that runs the world.
Whether it’s related to QAnon "doesn't matter," said Joseph Parent, a University of Notre Dame professor and coauthor of the book "American Conspiracy Theories." "They may be tied, they may not, but the outcome would be the same. Conspiracy theories come cheap and are easily twined."
Parent said conspiracy theories usually originate from people "politically out of power," and that people fall for such claims "because they want to believe it. Everyone wishful-thinks and most of them can come up with reasons for it."
Mike Rothschild, the author of "How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything," said "it's absolutely not surprising to see two hot-button issues (the pandemic and the Maxwell trial) tied together, even though they have literally no link."
"COVID conspiracy theories have really become the touchstone for the modern conspiracy movement, because people want to believe that there's a deep state fighting with patriot truth tellers for the fate of the world," Rothschild said. "For these people, everything that happens in the world, no matter what it's actually about, is part of the secret war that's going on that they feel like they're let into because of their devotion to alternative media."
Rothschild said the "entire pandemic was seen by many people as some kind of a distraction from something else, or as a deep state false flag to swing the 2020 election to Trump. So there's really very little here that's new, just another ‘battle’ in the endless secret war."
Most conspiracy theories take hold with people because of a need to bring order to chaos, particularly with COVID, Rothschild said.
"It will never stop until the pandemic is truly over, then it will just start up again for something else in the news," he said.
A Facebook post said that "hysteria" over the omicron coronavirus variant was timed so that it would coincide with and distract from the Ghislaine Maxwell trial.
The two events have nothing to do with one another.
Viruses mutate over time and are unpredictable and omicron is not the first coronavirus variant to gain worldwide attention. And the case against Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein has been widely covered leading up to Maxwell’s trial and that coverage continued on the first day of her trial.
It’s common on social media for some people to claim that one news topic is being used to distract from another, experts say. But in this case, it would require a ridiculously implausible level of worldwide coordination by hospitals, local and national leaders, patients, scientists, journalists and more, as the new variant is seeing a global reaction.
We rate this claim Pants on Fire.
PolitiFact senior correspondent Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.
Justice Department, "U.S. vs. Ghislaine Maxwell"
The New York Times, "Live Updates: Ghislaine Maxwell’s Trial Begins in the Shadow of Jeffrey Epstein," Nov. 29, 2021
The Wire, "This is what we know so far about the Omicron variant," Nov. 29, 2021
The Washington Post, "Where the omicron variant has been detected around the world," Nov. 29, 2021
White House statement, "Statement by President Joe Biden on the Omicron COVID-19 variant," Nov. 26, 2021
Tara Smith, Kent State University epidemiologist, interview with PolitiFact on Nov. 29, 2021
PolitiFact, "Omicron and other coronavirus variants: What you need to know," Nov. 29, 2021
BBC News, "South Africa's president calls for lifting of Omicron travel bans," Nov. 29, 2021
NBC News, "WHO criticizes travel bans on southern African countries over new omicron variant," Nov. 28, 2021
NBC News on YouTube, "Biden Delivers Remarks On Omicron Variant of Covid," Nov. 29, 2021
World Health Organization, "Enhancing Readiness for Omicron (B.1.1.529): Technical Brief and Priority Actions for Member States," Nov. 28, 2021
World Health Organization, "Classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern," Nov. 26, 2021
NPR, "The World Health Organization warns of very high risk posed by the omicron variant," Nov. 29, 2021
CNN, "Travel restrictions by country following the Omicron variant outbreak," Nov. 29, 2021
PolitiFact, "Contrast in Rittenhouse, Maxwell trial coverage due to state and fed court rules, not hidden agenda," Nov. 22, 2021
PolitiFact, "What is QAnon, the baseless conspiracy spilling into US politics?," Aug. 27, 2020
University of Notre Dame professor Joseph Parent, email interview with PolitiFact, Nov. 29, 2021
Mike Rothschild, author of "How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything, email interview with PolitiFact, Nov. 29, 2021
John Gregory, deputy health editor at NewsGuard, phone interview with PolitiFact, Nov. 29, 2021
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