A new conspiracy theory is making the rounds to cast doubt on an eventual COVID-19 vaccine and question the credibility of the U.S. government’s response. A viral video that details the false claims, called “Plandemic,” has been removed from both Facebook and YouTube after being shared widely.
“Plandemic” poses as the first part in a longer documentary series that insinuates the coronavirus pandemic was the result of lab experiments sponsored by the U.S. government. The video also strings together a series of existing conspiracy theories about COVID-19, including that the virus was manipulated and spread from a lab, that an eventual vaccine will “kill millions,” and that the flu vaccine can make a person more susceptible to a coronavirus. Even Bill Gates, a favorite target of conspiracy theorists, gets a critical shoutout for having no medical expertise and yet lots of power to disseminate vaccines.
The bulk of “Plandemic” features an interview with Judy Mikovits, a researcher who co-authored a dubious 2009 paper linking a mouse retrovirus to the poorly understood chronic fatigue syndrome. The paper has since been retracted because other scientists could not replicate the paper’s findings and because of poor quality control in its experiments. At the time the paper was published in 2009, Mikovits was research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute. In 2011, after her paper was retracted, she was fired by her organization’s president. After taking laboratory notebooks, her laptop, and flash drives from the institute, she landed in jail for stealing. The criminal charges against her were later dropped. Since then, she has promoted the idea that a significant number of Americans have been infected with viruses that were at least partially developed in a lab and transmitted through contaminated vaccines.
In this latest interview, Mikovits rewrites her brush with the law. She says she was held in jail without charges and the stolen laboratory notebooks were planted on her. The rest of the interview in “Plandemic” is devoted to undermining the credibility of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has led the country’s coronavirus response. The video goes on to suggest that the American government could profit off of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine and touches on a list of other COVID-19 conspiracies.
Where Mikovits crossed the line for platforms like YouTube and Facebook was when she said that wearing a face mask could cause a person to get COVID-19. In a statement, Facebook said: “Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm, so we’re removing the video.” A representative for YouTube said the platform also removed the video. “From the very beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and are committed to continue providing timely and helpful information at this critical time.” Facebook and YouTube (as well as its parent Google) have made efforts to replace misinformation with material from reputable institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization.
Since her departure from WPI in 2011, Mikovits has been embraced by the anti-vaccine community. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose organization The World Mercury Project funds a significant number of anti-vaccine advertisements on Facebook, wrote the foreword for her book Plague of Corruption. Natural News, a purveyor of anti-vaccine content, has featured her as a source on vaccine contamination. But in this latest video, Mikovits has transcended her usual audience of anti-vaccine advocates to a much wider one.
A massively popular fitness and nutrition influencer with 1.2 million followers is sharing COVID-19 conspiracy videos calling the virus a “plandemic,” saying it was orchestrated by secretive groups and that we’ve been “lied to” abt it. https://t.co/PXnaO3IEp0 pic.twitter.com/AQ6JunT2gb
— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) May 7, 2020
Joe Ondrak, a researcher at U.K.-based fact-checking organization Logically who has been following a variety of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, says that fringe groups have been pushing Mikovits’s story for several weeks. “The plandemic hashtag has been around since last month,” he says.
So far, the coronavirus has been linked to 5G, concerns about future vaccines, Bill Gates, government labs, and the apocalypse. Recently, Ondrak noticed that several narratives have merged together. He thinks that people who subscribe to a pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon are behind this tactic.
“When the coronavirus first came about they didn’t know how to think about it,” he says of QAnon followers. “So they ended up waiting for different conspiracy theories to fill the void and hoover them up.”
QAnon supporters have been promoting a false narrative that COVID-19 is actually poisoning from 5G radio waves as well as the idea that COVID-19 is part of billionaire Bill Gates‘s plan to take control of global health. Now, through her story, Mikovits has woven in another QAnon target: Anthony Fauci. “Fire Fauci has been one of their big things,” says Ondrak. Unsuccessful Congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine, who has been known to tweet QAnon theories as well as support anti-vaccine agendas, tweeted to #firefauci back in April and was famously retweeted by President Trump. These conspiracy theories have flourished online on YouTube, Facebook, and lesser-known sites where content is unlikely to be taken down.
Both Facebook and YouTube have been actively removing content that violates their community guidelines, which includes “medically unsubstantiated diagnostic advice for COVID-19.” Facebook has also taken down several QAnon accounts. But not every COVID-19 conspiracy theory falls afoul of Facebook and YouTube’s guidelines. For example, YouTube made the decision to reduce recommendations for a coronavirus-focused video that said vaccines are filled with strange ingredients and that Bill Gates is using them to depopulate the world, rather than removing it.
More concerning still is the pace with which these videos are re-uploaded and spread. Already, the 5G conspiracy theories have led to attacks on cell towers in addition to broadband engineers being threatened and accosted. Ondrak is concerned that the rise of anti-vaccine sentiment could lead to similar behavior.
“The same kind of harassment could come to people who administer vaccines,” he says.