Classroom connection: ‘Plandemic’ brings conspiracy theory mainstream
The 26-minute video Plandemic which pushed an array of dangerous and provably false conspiracy theories and other misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic ignited fringe communities last week and went massively viral before major social media companies took steps to remove it from their platforms.
Purporting to be a preview of an upcoming “documentary,” Plandemic relies on a single source — Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist — to vaguely contend that a powerful cabal of public health officials and others is exaggerating the current outbreak and seeking to exploit it for profit. Mikovits also makes a number of demonstrably false medical statements, including that wearing a mask “activates” viruses that people might be carrying and that “healing microbes” in seawater and “sequences” in sand can boost immunity.
The video, posted May 4, garnered more than 8 million views and hundreds of millions of engagements on social media before YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook started to remove it three days later. Produced by filmmaker Mikki Willis, whose Ojai, California-based production company, Elevate Films, creates “transformative media,” Plandemic positions Mikovits as a victim-turned-whistleblower, presenting a highly misleading and one-sided account of her career that includes a number of accusations made against Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
It paves over the retraction in 2011 of a controversial study of chronic fatigue syndrome that Mikovits had co-authored two years before; it also falsifies details about her arrest in 2011 on two charges related to the theft of a computer, flash drives and other materials from the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada, where she had worked as research director. (The charges were dropped.)
Footage of the interview with Mikovits, who in recent years has been an outspoken critic of vaccinations, is interspersed with a number of video segments that seem to bolster her claims but are actually highly misleading or unreliable. The b-roll footage includes out-of-context clips of Fauci, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and other public figures; a portion of a report from CGTN, the Chinese state global news network; and several clips of people in medical scrubs calling into question the scientific consensus about the pandemic, including YouTube footage of Eric Nepute, a St. Louis chiropractor who suggested that the quinine and zinc in tonic water could treat COVID-19. Also prominently featured is footage from an April 22 press conference held by two physicians, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, who own urgent care facilities in Bakersfield, California, and have made a case to reopen California based on deeply flawed statistics.
Note: While the viral spread of Plandemic was aided by its slick production values and slippery sourcing, it also stitched together a number of baseless conspiratorial claims — anti-vaccination rhetoric, misinterpretations of COVID-19 Medicare payments to hospitals, possible COVID-19 treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, and the complicity of tech platforms — that felt familiar to a broad number of people who had already seen them online.
- “I’m an Investigative Journalist. These Are the Questions I Asked About the Viral ‘Plandemic’ Video.” (Marshall Allen, ProPublica).
- “Why It’s Important To Push Back On ‘Plandemic’—And How To Do It” (Tara Haelle, Forbes).
- “The Falsehoods of the ‘Plandemic’ Video” (Angelo Fichera, Saranac Hale Spencer, D’Angelo Gore, Lori Robertson and Eugene Kiely, FactCheck.org).
- “Virus Experts Aren’t Getting the Message Out” (Renée DiResta, The Atlantic).
- “How covid-19 conspiracy theorists are exploiting YouTube culture” (Abby Ohlheiser, MIT Technology Review).
Discuss: What made Plandemic spread so widely so quickly? Were social media platforms correct to remove it? Why might a video like this — offering a simple explanation and a focal point for blame — appeal to so many people right now? What other conspiracy theories do this?
Idea: Have students share their stories of seeing Plandemic go viral last week, and ask whether they still have questions about points it raises. Work together to seek credible sources to answer those questions.