Earlier this week, a Southern California filmmaker posted his newest production on Facebook and YouTube and let the social media platforms do what they've been built for: make his video go viral.
Within days, the 26-minute video had spread like wildfire, racking up millions of views and attracting legions of new fans. The video, called "Plandemic," looks like a serious documentary, with well-shot interviews intercut with news footage and ominous music. But it propagates coronavirus conspiracy theories, which could encourage viewers to ignore public health recommendations or attempt ineffective or dangerous treatments for the viral infection.
By Thursday, the social media companies where the video proliferated pledged to stop the video's spread. They're now struggling to stop new copies from emerging. As of the time of this article's publication, links to or versions of the video were still available on both Facebook and YouTube.
Medical misinformation has proliferated on the major social media platforms for years, especially around the topic of vaccine safety. The platforms have pledged to more strongly enforce misinformation policies, but the task has proven difficult for companies whose services are designed to allow users to reach large audiences with little oversight. But the coronavirus crisis has been especially fertile ground for conspiracy theorizing, inspiring viral videos spinning tales of international intrigue and profiteering cabals since nearly its inception.
The "Plandemic" video centers on interviews with a researcher named Judy Milkovits, whose false claims include the allegation that wealthy people are intentionally spreading the novel coronavirus to increase vaccination rates in the population at large and that wearing a mask can actually worsen viral symptoms.
In a statement, a Facebook representative said that the company was removing the video from Facebook and Instagram and rejecting ads that include the video, as part of their policy to take down COVID-19 related misinformation that could lead to imminent harm. The company wrote in a blog post in mid-April that it had directed over 2 billion people to fact-checking information from the World Health Organization to try and combat misinformation about the pandemic.
"Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm," a Facebook representative said when asked about the "Plandemic" video response, "so we've removed the video."
YouTube has posted notices on the uploads of the video that read: "This video has been removed for violating YouTube's Community Guidelines." The video platform Vimeo has also said that it is working to remove the video, and Twitter has been blocking hashtags and search related to the video.
Mikki Willis, the filmmaker behind the video, is listed as founder and chief executive on the website of Elevate, an Ojai-based production company. Willis has a large following on Facebook. In recent weeks, he asked his followers to vote on a name for his newest video (other candidates included "The Oath" and "The Invisible Enemy"), and published long posts claiming to connect the WHO with conspiracy theories surrounding the Council on Foreign Relations and the recent death of Jeffrey Epstein.
The video's virality was boosted by online anti-vaccine conspiracy theory activists, according to coverage in the MIT Technology Review. When YouTube began removing copies of the video on Thursday, supporters took to Twitter with their outrage, making the video's title a trending topic, fueling further attention and media coverage.