Misinformation breeds on the internet, and social media is a petri dish for hoaxes to go viral, but the major platforms have been hot on intervening on lies and fake news during the coronavirus pandemic. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all put warnings on content and pages, and are providing links to high-quality information and news sources as well as public health and government organizations. Generally, the most stupid and all-out crazy theories about coronavirus haven’t gained much traction, except those put forward by the US president…

The defensive barriers against the misleading information are starting to crack under the pressure. February saw possibly one of the strangest conspiracy theories at least of this century, with rumors spreading that 5G cellular towers were somehow being used to spread coronavirus. Then, last week saw the first big hit of the era of COVID-19. It’s a film called “Plandemic”, and pieces together ill-thought-through ideas of secret groups of “elites” working to profit out of the pandemic and consolidate their apparent global power, explained Casey Newton for The Verge. Davey Alba explained in a piece of the New York Times

“In the 26-minute video, the woman asserted how Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading voice on the coronavirus, had buried her research about how vaccines can damage people’s immune systems. It is those weakened immune systems, she declared, that have made people susceptible to illnesses like Covid-19.

The video, a scene from a longer dubious documentary called “Plandemic,” was quickly seized upon by anti-vaccinators, the conspiracy group QAnon and activists from the Reopen America movement, generating more than eight million views. And it has turned the woman — Dr. Judy Mikovits, 62, a discredited scientist — into a new star of virus disinformation.”

Versions of “Plandemic” are appearing across the internet and have been watched at least 8 million times across social media. One upload on to YouTube reached 7.1 million hits before it was able to be pulled off the site. Numbers like that easily get you onto YouTube’s trending page, but not quite in the league of 6ix9ine’s latest video for “Gooba” with 103 million views.

Home of stupid

Even with the attempts to pull it off the internet, the video is looking like Loose Change for the new generation. In that video, the conspiracy theory of 9/11 being staged by the US government is put forward, and it garnered millions of views when it went on YouTube and was given airtime by local Fox New affiliates. Following that exposure, the video is one of the foundations of the 9/11 truther movement, sadly. 

To keep the internet as a place of free and open information, we do have to accept that there are going to be people who upload stupid, and even harmful, content. And that’s exactly what “Plandemic” is: harmful. It has dangerous content, for example when it says that wearing a face mask can “activate” the virus. Past experience shows that the stupid and harmful stuff online still gets picked up by algorithms – they get high up in search rankings, get into trending lists, and hit recommendation widgets. Social media and search engines get duped into recruiting followers to these awful causes without any awareness from the computer systems. 

Over the years, plenty of pressure has been piled onto platforms and they’ve slowly begun to detect the bad posts and videos as they start their rise to infamy. Less bad content gets on to recommended pages because it gets caught on the way there. There’s even a whole team at YouTube who monitor this type of thing in real-time. This makes “Plandemic” is a bit of a headscratcher, how did it still manage to go viral?

The start of a conspiracy

Things got started with a book from Mikovits, the so-called star of “Plandemic”, that was published in April. Titled Plague of Corruption, it shows Dr. Mikovits being a truth-teller, standing up to fight against the deceiving nature of science, says Alba. Far-right outlets like Epoch Times, Next News Network, and Gateway Pundit got their hands on it and gave it warm and positive coverage. 

Yet the video of “Plandemic” has really pushed Mikovits into the limelight, with her picking up over 130,000 followers on Twitter in the last month. There’s been a circle of publicity; as people have watched “Plandemic” they’re searching for Mikovits, and as people hear her name they come across the video.

Social media researcher Erin Gallagher specializes in data visualizations and has looked into what’s going on. Using CrowdTangle, which is a tool from Facebook that lets you analyze public posts, Gallagher investigated when “Plandemic” began to make its way onto Facebook. It seems that groups on Facebook associated with QAnon, anti-vaxx misinformation, and general conspiracy theories are where the video got the most referencing. 

“The video spread from YouTube to Facebook thanks to highly active QAnon and conspiracy-related Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members which caused a massive cascade,” Gallagher writes. “Both platforms were instrumental in spreading viral medical misinformation.”

The reaction

The video was removed from both Facebook and YouTube, but the way the two companies responded was quite different. Newton contacted both companies for comment and found some striking information.

Before “Plandemic” was fully removed from Facebook, it was demoted. This is what Facebook does to posts that are negative or bad but don’t seem to be causing actual harm. For example, an image is posted that’s nearly nude, or a post suggests or implies violence but doesn’t go all out and encourage harm – these posts get demoted. Demotion started back in 2018, when Facebook started to actively try to prevent these types of things from spreading, trying to put people off posting what it calls “borderline content”.

There’s no concrete information to say what put “Plandemic” in the category of borderline content to start, but a spokesperson for Facebook noted that the video being 26 minutes long, plus the plethora of claims that it contains, meant there was a lot for fact-checkers to work through – remember your mom telling you that a lie can get around the world before the truth gets its socks on? The final straw that got “Plandemic” pulled was its claim of people “reinfecting” themselves when they use masks, although with the sadly confusing nature of the information around the benefits of wearing masks, Facebook was initially cautious.

Over at YouTube, there were a few videos that related to “Plandemic” that got flagged and removed even before the 26-minute clip hit the headlines. The actual “Plandemic” clip went online at YouTube on May 4th and got taken down on May 8th. During that time, 7.1 million views were clocked and most of those were driven from external sites where it had been embedded, rather than watching it directly on YouTube. The analysis from Gallagher points out that a big chunk of those views were also driven from Facebook, but YouTube wouldn’t comment on those details.

YouTube did point out that “Plandemic” was never a recommended video and it never landed prominently in any search results, that it never went on to the first page. When you look for it on the platform now, you get a pop-up from the World Health Organization and loads of videos from professionals pointing out the lies and fallacies in the original.

There’s still clips from the original cropping up on Facebook and the company is getting fact-checking information out there to those who share it. There is a temporary reduction in the spread of these smaller clips, without the mask claim, and fact-checkers are working on other details and claims made in “Plandemic”. The original version, in modified form, is still getting posted, with commentary getting added, and these are also being hunted down by Facebook teams and its algorithms.

What’s next?

Grim as a lot of this is, there is a little bit of solace. Both these media giants saw something bad coming down the tracks, put a bunch of fact-checkers on to it, and got it off their networks in a reasonably quick timeframe. It’s a stark contrast to Amazon, who list Plague of Corruption as one of its bestsellers. There could have been a little more haste from Facebook and YouTube, and a little more depth to their response; “Plandemic” wasn’t exactly unexpected.  

The scale of the companies, with 2 billion users a month at YouTube, and 1.73 billion daily users across Facebook’s apps, means that 8 million people watching a video within two days doesn’t seem too alarming.

But it’s not all good news. When the focus of Facebook shifted focus towards smaller, private groups for online communities, there was criticism that misinformation was going to get harder to police. It’s particularly true of WhatsApp chat groups which automatically have end-to-end encryption, and even private Facebook groups can be tough to monitor, and this is where it seems “Plandemic” got shared most widely.

If you think this is the last of the stupid, ridiculous, and harmful misinformation that we’re going to see about coronavirus, you’re going to be disappointed. When the next wave of stupid comes, you can be pretty sure that it’s going to spread through Facebook and its groups.