A video from a discredited scientist promoting a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus went viral across every social media platform Thursday. It was initially pushed by anti-vaccination disinformation peddlers, and then picked up steam when it was promoted by minor celebrities.
In a matter of hours, the video became one of the most widespread pieces of coronavirus misinformation, drawing millions of views across major technology platforms. Its success underscores how misleading information about the coronavirus crisis continues to circulate, with some indications that growing fear and frustration are making conspiracy theories more appetizing to a larger audience.
The video, far more polished than other similar videos, comes as authoritative sources of information are finding it hard to compete with people who have years of experience in creating viral internet media.
“One of the real issues with getting authoritative information today is that what's surfaced is essentially determined by whoever runs the best marketing campaign,” said Renée DiResta, who studies disinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
In the film, Judy Mikovits, a prominent anti-vaccine advocate, promotes conspiracy theories about the coronavirus outbreak — its origins, treatments and government responses — couched in claims of an ongoing war with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the most vocal proponent of emergency measures on the White House coronavirus task force.
The film doles out dangerous advice, telling viewers that wearing a mask and washing your hands increase their risk of getting the coronavirus, and that the virus is a cover for a plot to somehow control people through vaccines.
Mikovits and the producers of the video did not respond to requests for comment.
Links to the video have reached the mainstream and dominated social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The video has been shared by celebrities, including the comedian Larry the Cable Guy, NFL players and Instagram influencers with millions of followers.
Conspiracies crossing over to the mainstream can come with serious consequences, especially in relation to vaccines, according to David Broniatowski, an associate professor who studies weaponized health communication at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics.
He said the video of Mikovits was able to unite various groups that often traffic in health misinformation.
"The danger with movies like this is that they can weave all of the disparate streams into a common narrative, building a coalition for political and collective action, even when the reasons for this coalition aren't universally shared," Broniatowski said.
For those who were affected by Mikovits’ disinformation campaigns, the barrage is nothing new.
Mikovits claimed in a retracted 2009 study that was published in the academic journal Science that chronic fatigue syndrome, known as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), was caused by a retrovirus. The study was later retracted after scientists, including Mikovits’ own research group, weren’t able to replicate the results of the initial study.
Post-publication, Mikovits made claims that cells used in the vaccine production process caused ME/CFS, as well as other illnesses, like cancer.
Brian Vastag, a former science reporter at The Washington Post who previously covered the retraction of Mikovits' paper and has ME/CFS, said his “stomach sank” when he saw the video go viral amongst friends and family members on Facebook on Thursday morning.
Vastag said people in the ME/CFS support community were concerned Mikovits would find a broader audience with people who didn’t know about her past.“We were worried that this pandemic would give her an opportunity for her to sell her books,“ he said.
The new “documentary” is one of dozens of videos from conspiracy theorists and far-right media outlets in recent months in which Mikovits’ myriad baseless claims — among them that vaccines cause harm and that medical experts and government officials responding to the coronavirus outbreak should not be trusted — have been promoted as “expert opinion.”
The viral video is filled with revisionism from Mikovits about how she became a disgraced scientist, Vastag said.
In the video, she claims she was effectively silenced and that she was “held in jail with no charges” in her fight against mainstream science.
In reality, after Mikovits was fired from her research job at the nonprofit Whittemore Peterson Institute, “she took her lab materials and computer, she ran away to California, and she got arrested,” Vastag said. She was released from jail when the institute declined to press charges.
Vastag said she has since used the anti-vaccine community to push her story as a pariah, and that her efforts to push her repeatedly debunked and retracted work are well known among those with ME/CFS.
“Most in the community understand her work is discredited,” Vastag said. “She’s completely cemented herself as a fringe figure.”
Vastag had been reaching out to reporters in the last month, trying to warn them that Mikovits was attempting to use the coronavirus to push disinformation through high-profile fringe outlets.When he woke up in his home in Hawaii on Thursday to see friends and family members sharing her video on Facebook, it made him “feel kind of hopeless for science literacy in this country.”
“We didn’t want to start to highlight it a week ago, because we thought a lot of her followers were inauthentic,” he said. “When it took off, it was like a rocket.”
A rapid spread
The video and terms related to it have been among the most popular and searched topics on the internet in the past couple days.
A hashtag related to the title of the viral video, #Plandemic, trended on Twitter on Wednesday evening, with more than 30,000 overnight tweets. A Twitter spokesperson said that the Mikovits videos had not violated the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. Twitter did issue an “unsafe” warning on at least one link featuring Mikovits, and blocked the hashtags #PlagueOfCorruption and #Plandemicmovie from trends and search.
The amplification of Mikovits' account appears to be authentic, according to Twitter.
"Judy Mikovits" was Google’s top trending coronavirus search Wednesday and Thursday.
YouTube had removed several versions of the videos by Thursday morning for violating its community guidelines.
“We quickly remove flagged content that violates our Community Guidelines, including content that includes medically unsubstantiated diagnostic advice for COVID-19,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement to NBC News.
Before the removals, the most-watched videos had already racked up more than 6 million views, according to BuzzSumo, a social media analytics tool.
The video has since been mirrored and reposted to dozens of other channels and across many platforms. On Facebook, one video was shared tens of thousands of times and attracted more than 6 million interactions in less than 24 hours, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics company. Because CrowdTangle does not include data from private groups, the numbers are undoubtedly much higher.
The virality appears to be a product of several different conspiracy coalitions — notably anti-vaccine groups, QAnon followers and far-right extremists — promoting the video in their separate channels and groups.
A Facebook spokesperson told NBC News the platform would remove the video because “suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm.”
But as platforms react to contextualize, downrank or remove content like the Mikovits’ video, the people behind disinformation campaigns like this one can seize on a new opportunity: claiming that their video holds secret truths because of the constant takedowns for violating platform policy.
“The aura of limited-edition content is a promotional strategy for these media manipulators,” Joan Donovan, director of Harvard University's Technology and Social Change Research Project, said in a text message. “In knowing they will be removed from the major platforms, they create a hype cycle around the piece of content, which would probably only get marginal engagement if it was uploaded to a regular website.”
The run-up to virality
For years, Mikovits has been telling her version of this story and selling books with anti-vaccination messages, including appearing in a documentary by conspiracy-focused website Natural News.
Her ascendancy follows a well-worn path of conspiracies and misinformation going viral after being promoted by people who at first glance seemed to be experts.
In early April, Mikovits appeared as an expert in a documentary from the Epoch Times, a far-right media group that advertises aggressively on YouTube. The film, in which she discounts the official narrative about the coronavirus originating in a seafood market with claims of a “cover-up,” has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube.
Later that same month, Mikovits and her claims were featured in a video published by Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine organization. She also appeared at an anti-vaccination health summit last month.
Vastag said he understands why family members are sharing the conspiracy theory on Facebook and Twitter, but warned of turning to discredited science and feel-good lies to make sense of an increasingly confusing and hopeless pandemic.
“People are scared. People are dying at an alarming rate. They want answers; an easy out. They want to say somebody caused it,” he said. “But it’s very dangerous. If Americans don’t think it’s transmissible, it’s going to make this worse. And sick people, disabled people and older people are who it’ll hurt the most.”