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Platforms scramble as ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy video spreads misinformation like wildfire

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Image Credits: Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images

A video about the coronavirus featuring a well-known vaccine conspiracist is spreading like wildfire on social media this week, even as platforms talk tough about misinformation in the midst of the pandemic.

In the professionally-produced video, a solemn interviewer named Mikki Willis interviews Judy Mikovits, a figure best known for her anti-vaccine activism in recent years. The video touches on a number of topics favored among online conspiracists at the moment, filtering most of them through the lens that vaccines are a money-making enterprise that causes medical harm.

The video took off mid-week after first being posted to Vimeo and YouTube on May 4. From those sites, it traveled to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter where it circulated much more widely, racking up millions of views. Finding the video is currently trivial across social platforms, where it’s been reposted widely, sometimes with its title removed or reworded to make it more difficult to detect by AI moderation.

According to Twitter, tweets by Mikovits apparently don’t violate the platform’s rules around COVID-19 misinformation, but it has marked the video’s URL as “unsafe” and blocked the related hashtags “#PlagueOfCorruption and #Plandemicmovie. The company also hasn’t found evidence that her account is being amplified as part of a coordinated campaign.

Update: On Friday, Twitter clarified to TechCrunch that the company is assessing individual clips from the video when they are shared to Twitter in order to determine if the snippets violate the platform’s rules. The company will also add a warning label to links on Twitter to the full video hosted elsewhere. Twitter is choosing not to remove these links across the board as it says many users include links as context when disputing the video’s claims.

Over on Facebook, the video indeed runs afoul of the platform’s coronavirus and health misinformation rules—but it’s still very easy to find. For this story, I was able to locate a copy of the full video within seconds and at the time of writing Instagram’s #plandemic hashtag was well-populated with long clips from the video and even suggestions for related hashtags like #coronahoax. Facebook is currently working to stem the video’s spread, but it’s already collected millions of views in a short time.

On YouTube, a search for “Plandemic” mostly pulls up content debunking the video’s many false claims, but plenty of clips from the video itself still make the first wave of search results.

Coronavirus conspiracies like that bogus 5G claim are racing across the internet

The video itself is a hodgepodge of popular false COVID-10 conspiracies already circulating online, scientifically unsound anti-vaccine talking points and claims of persecution.

Mikovits, who in the video states that she’s not opposed to vaccines, later goes on to make the claim that vaccines have killed millions of people. “The game is to prevent the therapies ‘til everyone is infected and push the vaccines, knowing that the flu vaccines increase the odds… of getting COVID-19,” Mikovits says, conspiratorially. At the same time, she suggests that doctors and health facilities are incentivized to overcount COVID-19 cases for the medicare payouts, an assertion that contradicts the expert consensus that coronavirus cases are likely still being meaningfully undercounted.

In the video, Mikovits accuses White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci of suppressing treatments like hydroxychloroquine—falsely touted by President Trump as a likely cure for the virus. While her claims appear to have landed at the perfect opportunistic moment, her beef with Fauci is actually longstanding. As Buzzfeed reported, in a book she wrote six years ago, Mikovits accused Dr. Fauci of banning her from the NIH’s facilities—an event Fauci himself was not familiar with.

Mikovits also touches on a popular web of conspiracy theories fixated on the idea Bill Gates is somehow implicated in causing the pandemic to profit off the eventual vaccine and makes the unfounded claim that “it’s very clear this virus was manipulated and studied in the laboratory.”

In other interviews, Mikovits has suggested that face masks pose a danger because they can “activate” the virus in the wearer. In the “Plandemic” clip, Mikovits also makes the unscientific claim that beaches should not have been closed due to “healing microbes in the saltwater” and “sequences” in the sand that protect against the coronavirus.

To the uninformed viewer, Mikovits might appear to ably address scientific-sounding topics, but her own scientific credentials are extremely dubious. In 2009, Mikovits authored a study on chronic fatigue syndrome that was retracted by the journal Science two years later when an audit found “evidence of poor quality control” in the experiment and the results could not be replicated in subsequent studies. That event and her subsequent firing from a research institute appear to have kicked off her more recent turn as an anti-vaccine crusader, conspiracist and author.

With the coronavirus, usually distinct conspiracy groups turn to a shared interest

With “Plandemic,” Mikovits seems to have positioned herself successfully for relevance in the pandemic’s information vacuum—her book sales have even soared on Amazon. Toward the end of the clip, her interviewer even cannily sets up a future outrage cycle at the inevitable crackdown from social media platforms, where the video flouts rules ostensibly banning harmful health conspiracies like the ones it contains.

“It’s other people shutting down other citizens and the big tech platforms follow suit and they shut everything down,” Willis says with steely concern. “There is no dissenting voices allowed any more in this free country.” 

As we’ve reported previously, the coronavirus crisis is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and potentially lethal misinformation— a fact that the “Plandemic” video’s apparent mainstream crossover success demonstrates. Widespread uncertainty and fear is a powerful thing, capable of breathing new life into debunked ideas that would have otherwise kept collecting dust in conspiracist backwaters, where they belong.

The pandemic is already reshaping tech’s misinformation crisis

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