Dark money and PAC's coordinated 'reopen' push are behind doctors' viral hydroxychloroquine video

The virality of the video underscores the difficulty in moderating coronavirus misinformation as treatments and public health responses have become more political.
Donald Trump Jr.
Donald Trump Jr. was left unable to tweet for 12 hours Tuesday morning after Twitter took punitive action against his account for tweeting the video. Matt Rourke / AP file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins

A dozen doctors delivered speeches in front of the U.S. Capitol on Monday to a small crowd, claiming without evidence that the coronavirus could be cured and that widely accepted efforts to slow its spread were unnecessary and dangerous.

It was the latest video to go viral from apparent experts, quietly backed by dark money political organizations, evangelizing treatments for or opinions about the coronavirus that most doctors, public health officials and epidemiologists have roundly decried as dangerous misinformation.

Donald Trump Jr. was left unable to tweet for 12 hours on Tuesday morning after Twitter took punitive action on his account for tweeting the video. "This is a must watch!!! So different from the narrative everyone is running with!" Trump Jr. tweeted at 8:13 p.m. on Monday. Twitter's press account tweeted that Trump Jr.'s tweet broke the social media company's policy of "sharing misinformation on COVID-19."

"We've removed this video for sharing false information about cures and treatments for COVID-19," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement to NBC News. Stone also noted that Facebook is directing users who have interacted with content that has been removed to a World Health Organization website debunking COVID-19-related misinformation.

YouTube and Twitter followed Facebook, removing the video as it racked up thousands of views.

President Donald Trump also retweeted a clip of the video late Monday. The tweet was later deleted, and no action was taken against his account.

The popularity of the video underscores the difficulty in moderating misinformation surrounding the coronavirus, when treatments and public health responses have become increasingly political, aided in part by right-wing Facebook groups and super PACs secretly driving the conversation on social media.

Dressed in white coats with "America's Frontline Doctors" stitched on the chest, the stars of the Facebook video claimed that business and school closings, social distancing and even masks were not needed, because hydroxychloroquine, a drug commonly used to treat malaria, could both prevent and cure the coronavirus. In fact, the FDA has warned against using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, citing serious health effects and the conclusions from randomized clinical trials that have shown little benefit from the treatment.

"We don't need masks. There is a cure!" said Dr. Stella Immanuel, a licensed pediatrician from Houston. In one of the event's most fiery speeches, Immanuel, who claims to have effectively treated 350 COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine out of her medical clinic, but declined to provide data, referred to doctors who declined to treat patients with hydroxychloroquine as "good Nazis" and "fake doctors," and called published research "fake science."

The U.S. has 4.3 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, and more than 149,000 Americans have died.

That Monday's so-called news conference had more speakers than attendees was of little matter. Livestreamed by the far-right website Breitbart News, the video spread quickly, initially through conservative, anti-vaccination and government conspiracy groups. Within hours, it had reached over 20 million Facebook users.

The event was hosted and funded by the Tea Party Patriots, a right-wing political nonprofit group led by Jenny Beth Martin, the group's co-founder, who spoke at the news conference.

The group, which collects funds through two nonprofit groups and a political action committee, has raised over $24 million since 2014 to support Republican causes and candidates.

Tea Party Patriots have been critical of measures enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Before America's Frontline Doctors, the group launched the Second Opinion Project, a website that hosted videos of doctors attacking state and local coronavirus efforts.

Videos from supposed experts bucking public health consensus have been a recurring brand of misinformation during the pandemic. In April, viral videos were eventually removed from Facebook and YouTube of two doctors in Bakersfield, California, downplaying the risk of the coronavirus and spreading a conspiracy theory about doctors purposefully misattributing unrelated deaths to the coronavirus. Dan Erickson, one of the two doctors in the clip, spoke at Monday's news conference.

In May, a "Plandemic" video from a discredited scientist promoting conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, drew 8 million views before it was removed.

America's Frontline Doctors is led by a group of 10 doctors of varying specialties, according to its website, which was registered two weeks ago. The group's leader, Dr. Simone Gold, is a "concierge immediate-needs physician," who offers private medical consultations, according to an archive of her recently deleted professional website.

Along with America's Frontline Doctors, Gold has been the face of two other contrary medical websites registered since the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S., thegoldopinion.com, and adoctoraday.com, which publishes videos of doctors criticizing state government and public health responses to the disease. Gold was also the first of over 400 doctors to sign a letter to the president in May warning that state lockdown efforts would lead to "millions of casualties."

In recent months, Gold has been a fixture on conservative media and at protests and rallies calling on reopening, and was on the panel that recommended that the Orange County Board of Education reopen schools without masks or distancing.

In April, she made several videos answering questions about COVID-19 while standing outside of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, wearing a white lab coat emblazoned with "Emergency Dept." In a tweet, Cedars-Sinai said Gold was not on its staff or affiliated in any way with the hospital.

The group's other members also include doctors seen at recent reopen protests and rallies, often organized by anti-vaccine activists. Dr. Jeff Barke has been a fixture of such rallies since April, where he's made several misleading and inaccurate claims, according to PolitiFact.

Immanuel has been a vocal supporter of Trump on social media since 2016, and used Facebook and Twitter to spread conspiracy theories, including that the coronavirus was manufactured in China. She also operates the religious organization "Fire Power Ministries" from her Houston clinic, where she posts videos expressing extreme beliefs, including falsely attributing medical issues such as miscarriage, gynecological problems and impotence as stemming from spiritual possession by demon spirits.

America's Frontline Doctors did not respond to an email request seeking comment.

The Associated Press reported in May that CNP Action discussed recruiting doctors who were willing to push narratives about reopening the economy before safety benchmarks were met in a May 11 phone call.

CNP Action is part of an alliance of conservative think tanks called the Save Our Country Coalition, which previously hosted viral "Liberate" Facebook events in April, urging protesters to rally in states that had adopted social distancing restrictions.

Matthew Mulligan, Mohammed Syed and Shamar Walters contributed.