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Social media giants struggle to contain viral ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy theory

"Plandemic" that went viral over the past week with a right-wing conspiracy theory suggesting the coronavirus outbreak was engineered by vaccine makers and the government for profit. The video purports to reveal “the hidden agenda behind the COVID-19”

Video puts forth a false storyline about a top researcher

Facebook and other major social media companies are working to remove a video titled “Plandemic” that went viral during the last week with a right-wing conspiracy theory suggesting the coronavirus outbreak was propagated by vaccine makers and the government for profit, and that a scientist whose work threatened to upend it all was thrown in jail to keep it quiet.

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The makers of the film claim to “expose the scientific and political elite who run the scam that is our global health system.”

What’s the video about?

The central theme of a 26-minute excerpt from the film still circulating on the internet revolves around Dr. Judy Mikovits, a controversial biologist widely known in medical conspiracy circles and whose opinions often conflict with the advice of experts in the nation’s federal health policy apparatus.

The discredited scientist has long been at odds with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the once obscure but now well-known director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is also a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

In “Plandemic,” Mikovits suggests the coronavirus was engineered and not a “natural occurrence.”

Among other claims, the video also alleges that deaths from the virus are being inflated by doctors who are saying their patients died from the virus as a way to receive more money from a national health insurance program, but there has never been any evidence produced to support this claim.

Efforts to remove the video

YouTube said it took action against the video, but it was having trouble removing all the multiple shared and duplicated versions of it from the platform because copies were still being re-uploaded and circulated.

By Thursday night, Twitter blocked the hashtags related to it  — #PlagueofCorruption” and #PlandemicMovie — in order to limit its spread, but the company didn’t entirely delete other versions of the video, which could still be found on the site as of Friday morning.

Mikovits tweeted one of the videos this week, urging President Donald Trump to end the lockdown and stop requiring people to wear face masks, calling the protective coverings "dangerous," according to cnet.com.

Twitter later acknowledged her tweet but said the video had not violated its rules against harmful coronavirus misinformation.

Millions viewed and shared 

The video purports to reveal “the hidden agenda behind the COVID-19” and puts forth a false storyline that a top researcher was thrown in prison for research that claimed deadly viruses were being transmitted to millions of Americans through vaccines.

The video also goes into Fauci’s efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and also touches on Bill Gates’ support of vaccination efforts around the world.

The video took social media by storm this week just as angry protests have ramped up pressure on state and local leaders across the country to reopen economies faster than health officials have recommended amid a still-widening pandemic.

Explore»MORE: US shelves detailed CDC guide to reopening country

“Plandemic” may have been helped along after being shared by a handful of major social media influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers.

On Wednesday night on YouTube, one version of the video had racked up about 5 million views.

By Thursday morning, however, many versions of the videos were being removed, along with links to the video that people shared to Facebook.

Why was the video removed? 

Since meeting with the World Health Organization earlier this year, all the major social media companies and others including Vimeo have implemented new policies cracking down on anyone spreading conspiracies and misinformation about the coronavirus.

Posts containing misinformation are either being removed or accounts temporarily suspended until posts are taken down by the user.

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Although “Plandemic” is not entirely about the coronavirus, the video still included scenes suggesting that sheltering in place harms the immune system and that face masks could actually make people sicker, and that’s why Facebook decided to remove it, the company said Thursday.

YouTube said the video was removed for making claims about a cure for COVID-19 that has not been backed by health organizations.

The subject of vaccines may have resonated across social media due to the current health crisis and the desperate race for a treatment or cure. Some people shared it because they found the message truthful, while others shared it to dispute parts or all of the clip, according to dozens of social media posts about it.

Other conspiracy theories 

Many other current theories about the pandemic call into question the severity of the outbreak, with some denying its existence altogether and others claiming that the number of American coronavirus deaths have been inflated to make Trump look bad.

Widespread calls on social media for proof of the severity of the pandemic have also seen a groundswell in recent weeks.

Since March 28, the hashtag #FilmYourHospital has been used to encourage people to visit local hospitals to take pictures and videos to prove that the COVID-19 pandemic is an elaborate hoax -- asserting that if parking lots and waiting rooms are empty, the pandemic must not be real.

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The Plandemic theory itself has been debunked since at least 2018 by numerous fact-checking websites, including Snopes.com, but found new life in the last week with the emergence of the video and as a flood of threats and harassment target the nation's top health officials for their continued support of stay-at-home orders.

Protests have been especially fierce in states where leaders are being more cautious and waiting longer before allowing businesses to reopen.

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In Michigan last week, men protesting stay-at-home orders stormed the state Capitol in Lansing carrying assault rifles and demanded to be let onto the House floor. State police blocked them from entering, but lawmakers have been so unnerved by the protests that they have started wearing bulletproof vests to work.

Bill Gates

Another conspiracy being currently pushed claims that Microsoft co-founder Gates had foreknowledge of the pandemic and then helped engineer it. The theories go as far as accusing Gates of profiting from the pandemic and hoarding a vaccine in a diabolical attempt to control the world’s population.

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The Washington Post ran a headline two weeks ago that proclaimed; "No, Bill Gates did not engineer the covid-19 pandemic — and other lessons on fake news."

Conspiracy theories falsely linking Gates to the pandemic were mentioned 1.2 million times on TV and social media between February and April, according to The New York Times.

Theories have led to threats 

The economic fallout from coronavirus shutdowns has fired up right-wing supporters of the president, who have recently taken to social media to spread the idea that Fauci is responsible for the country’s continued downward spiral, according to several news reports.

A beefed-up federal security detail has been assigned to protect the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases after he received death threats as the target of an online conspiracy theory that accuses him of trying to undermine Trump’s reelection bid.

Explore»FROM APRIL: Death threats lead to beefed-up security for nation’s top disease expert

Fauci, whom the video paints as a foe to Mikovits, has been the most vocal supporter of social distancing rules to try to slow the virus and was often seen standing next to Trump at the daily news briefings during the height of the crisis.

Some commentary pointed to a recent White House news briefing in which Fauci dropped his eyes and touched his forehead as the president was speaking. Images and videos of the moment went viral online. Some cited it as evidence that Fauci sought to undercut the president.

After the viral video of Fauci lowering his head, online attacks against him increased, the Times reported.

The hashtag #FauciFraud was used by more than 70 Twitter accounts, some posting hundreds of times a day, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

One anti-Fauci Twitter post in early April said, “Sorry liberals but we don’t trust Dr. Anthony Fauci.”

Who made the video? 

According to Politifact, the film was produced by Elevate, a California production company run by Mikki Willis, who has more than 30,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel and is known widely for promoting his own conspiracy theories.

In one of his YouTube videos, Willis’ young son says Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself, and in another, Willis floats the controversial theory that the coronavirus was “intentionally released” from a Chinese lab.

The video is said to be excerpted from a larger documentary to be released later this summer.

On Thursday, Politifact also took Mikovits to task over "her most misleading claims from the video" which spins "conspiracies about the origin of the coronavirus," the website said, calling many of her claims unsupported or outright false.

Who is Judy Mikovits? 

Mikovits is a well-known anti-vaccine activist, but in the video she denies this connection and is identified as a molecular biologist and medical researcher.

A profile of Mikovits, distributed April 30 by The Associated Press, said she spent 20 years at the National Cancer Institute, working with Dr. Frank Ruscetti, one of the founding fathers of human retrovirology, and has coauthored more than 40 scientific papers. It also said she cofounded and directed the first neuroimmune disease institute using a systems biology approach in 2006, and that she currently lives in Southern California with her husband, David.

In the video excerpt, she falsely claims that she was “held in jail with no charges.”

Connection to conspiracies 

Since about 2018, Mikovits’ name has become more closely connected to conspiracy theories as she has given talks at many fringe conferences that support natural remedies over modern medicine to treat cancer and autism, and she has emphatically discouraged the use of vaccines.

In her many speeches, she has made a series of unsupported claims that vaccines are the cause of myriad other medical maladies, including autism and cancer, according to Snopes.

Many of her theories conveniently align with those often seen in the online medical conspiracy community, and this has given way to integrity issues among her mainstream peers.

"Real Farmacy," a website known for publishing conspiracy-pseudoscience and unverifiable information not always supported by evidence, called attention to Mikovits' saga in November 2018, stating:

“If you have been following stories in recent years of scientists and researchers who make discoveries that are threatening to the Deep State and the bottom line of Big Pharma, you will have seen the pattern before. Those doctors are often ‘persuaded’ to recant their studies, offered bribes or other benefits to distance themselves from or even destroy their data, and even threatened with jail time or, if a legal case is too difficult to fabricate against them, they may simply be killed.”

Anthony Fauci accused of threats 

Mikovits alleged in the introduction of her 2014 book, “Plague: One Scientist’s Intrepid Search for the Truth about Human Retroviruses and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Autism, and Other Diseases,” that the federal government had threatened to arrest her if she ever set foot on National Institutes of Health property to participate in the study that attempted to validate her previous work.

“While I was preparing to return to Dr. Frank Ruscetti’s lab in Frederick, Maryland and participate in the multi-center validation study directed by Dr. Ian Lipkin, an email would be sent to Frank by none other than Dr. Tony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease,” Mikovits wrote. “In the email, Fauci stated I could participate in the study, but if I stepped foot on National Institutes of Health property, I would be immediately arrested!”

Why we picked this story

At our morning team huddle, we discuss stories that are “talkers.” People are primed to look for driving forces in the world, ones that we can explain through our collective experience. This is one example.

Snopes reached out to Fauci about Mikovits’ claims.

“I have no idea what she is talking about,” he said. “I can categorically state that I have never sent such an e-mail to Dr. Ruscetti. I had my IT people here at NIH search all my e-mails and no such e-mail exists. Having said that, I would never make such a statement in an e-mail that anyone ‘would be immediately arrested’ if they stepped foot on NIH property.”

In its final assessment, Snopes concluded that Mikovits' "speculative claims linking her research to vaccine science, drawing the ire of "Big Pharma" and the 'Deep State,' and her subsequent arrest are not rooted in science or reality. But although she may have lost the support of the scientific community, she appears to have found a new home in the pseudoscientific conspiracy world."

Notably, the emergence of the “Plandemic” video on social media coincided with the release of Mikovits’ highly touted new book “Plague of Corruption: Restoring faith in the Promise of Science,” which contains a foreward by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Arrest in late 2011 

“Plandemic” claims she was “imprisoned” and silenced by gag order before her research could have exposed rogue “Deep State” elements in the government that funneled profits from Big Pharma.

But court records show that Mikovits went to jail for tampering with official and confidential documents and not for any scientific breakthrough she made that the government wanted to keep quiet.

In fact, her own research is what got her into trouble in the first place.

She was arrested in late 2011 for stealing secrets from her former employer.

A Nevada judge later issued a temporary restraining order to keep her from destroying any confidential information that she still had in her possession. The institute said at the time that it wanted Mikovits to return the records.

Advocates of the conspiracy theory, on the other hand, cast an alternate storyline, praising Mikovits as a whistleblower who went down for exposing corruption in the government, but never provide any supporting evidence otherwise to prove the claim.

Origins of a conspiracy 

Mikovits’ connection to the theory began in 2009, when she wrote a scientific paper that touted her research as a major scientific breakthrough linking Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to a virus.

At the time, Mikovits was the research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada.

Her paper was published in the prestigious journal Science, but Mikovits came under scrutiny after other researchers around the world tested her findings numerous times but failed to replicate the results.

Slowly, the scientific community began to publicly reject the study, citing sloppy methodology and the study’s “reliance on misleading or manufactured figures,” according to Snopes.

It was during this time that the Whittemore Peterson Institute fired Mikovits amid a steady drumbeat of questions about the integrity of her work that first emerged in the summer of 2011.

The institute accused Mikovits of violating policy by collaborating with unvetted scientists and clashed with the institute’s leadership when they confronted her about it.

In November 2011, a few months after her termination, Mikovits was arrested and briefly jailed in Ventura, California, and stood accused of stealing lab notebooks, a computer and other material from the institute back in Reno, according to multiple news accounts about the matter.

The following month, the editors at Science fully retracted Mikovits’ paper, saying it had “lost confidence in the report and the validity of its conclusions.”

About the same time, Mikovits’ former employer filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order to block the researcher from destroying any data and equipment they said she took but still belonged to the institute.

Charged against Mikovits dropped 

The charges against Mikovits were dismissed in 2012 due to the tangled web of separate legal troubles involving the family that runs the institute, which appears to have leveraged the case against her.

Assistant District Attorney John Helzer, who filed the dismissal, says the institute’s legal matters factored into his decision. “There’s a lot going on with the federal government and different levels that wasn’t occurring when we first became involved with prosecuting this case,” Helzer said. “And we have witness issues that have arisen.”

According to reports, the spouse of one of the institute’s founders was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges he made illegal campaign contributions to a congressman and lied to federal agents about it, according to the Department of Justice. The judge in Mikovits’ civil case also recused himself because he received campaign donations from someone on the institute’s leadership team.