Millions of people have now viewed the coronavirus conspiracy theory documentary, “Plandemic” that went viral on social media this week. The film, rife with misinformation and false claims, relies heavily on faulty science propagated by the controversial anti-vaccine advocate Dr. Judy Mikovits. The video was initially pushed by anti-vaxxers online and gained traction on every social media platform after receiving the endorsements of celebrities like actress Kirstie Allie, comedian Darren Knight, NFL players, and Instagram influencers with large followings.
The video drew millions of viewers in just a matter of hours, making it one of the most widespread sources of coronavirus misinformation to date. In the film, Mikovits claims the coronavirus was created in a lab by government scientists, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci has been a key member of the White House coronavirus task force and a proponent of social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
Mikovits’s own work has been discredited for scientific misconduct and fraud. A study she helped produce that was published in Science was disputed across the medical field, and later retracted by the magazine. Nearly a decade ago, she was fired from the lab she worked in and was charged with stealing computer data and other related property from her employer.
The charges were later dropped, but Mikovits uses her arrest in the film to push a false narrative about her own work. In the video, Mikovits claimed she was arrested and “held in jail with no charges” in November 2011 in her fight to pursue research about viruses. “Most in the community understand her work is discredited,” Brian Vastag, a former science reporter at The Washington Post told NBC News. “She’s completely cemented herself as a fringe figure.”
Mikovits has since established herself as an anti-vaccine advocate, despite denying this in the video, and has more recently been labeled a COVID-19 grifter by medical experts, like Dr. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist who writes about disinformation across the field. Since the video went viral, Mikovits’s recently published anti-Fauci book Plague of Corruption rose to the top of Amazon’s bestseller charts, taking the number one spot. Fauci has denied Mikovits’s claims, telling the fact-checking website Snopes in 2018, “I have no idea what she is talking about.”
Throughout the film, Mikovits makes a number of egregious and downright dangerous claims about the origins of the coronavirus and the public response to it, all of which have been fact-checked and disproven. The film goes so far as to claim protective measures like stay-at-home orders will lower people’s immune systems, and wearing masks “activates” the virus. Mikovits is also the only so-called “expert” to be interviewed in the entire film, which should raise eyebrows for viewers.
“She’s basically latched onto the anti-Fauci stuff, and came up with this story that sounds really dubious,” Gorski told The Daily Beast. Right-wing activists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and anti-vaccine groups have all pushed conspiracy theories about the coronavirus since the pandemic started. These same groups have helped propel the film to online success.
But another reason for the film’s quick spread online is widespread anxiety over the pandemic and a general need for answers. New information about the coronavirus is released regularly, including new COVID-19 symptoms to look out for, hotbeds for the virus, the number of deaths and infections constantly rising, and changes to federal guidelines.
People are urged to stay home, while the White House simultaneously pushes to reopen the economy. It’s no wonder, then, that even people who are not tied to far right and other malicious groups are sharing the video online.
“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,” David Broniatowski, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics told NBC News.
Social media companies, including Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo have all removed the video from their sites for spreading false information. A spokesperson for YouTube said the video was removed because it included “medically unsubstantiated diagnostic advice for COVID-19.” A Facebook representative said the same, adding that, “Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm, so we’re removing the video.”