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Lessons on covering coronavirus misinformation from the fallout of ‘Plandemic’

Few pieces of misinformation have gone as noticeably viral during the coronavirus crisis as “Plandemic”, the 26-minute “documentary” film in which discredited scientist Judy Mikovits makes repeated false claims about the virus and a potential vaccine.

The film, initially hosted on YouTube, quickly took off in online communities, simmering in Facebook groups and on pages dedicated to anti-vaccine messaging and other conspiracy theories. Within a week, it had been viewed more than eight million times and crossed into the mainstream. 

Now the dust has settled, journalists and researchers are reflecting on the video and its spread as an illustration of how coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories travel online. 

The video and what we can learn from it was one of the key topics at a panel discussion held by First Draft to mark the release of the latest edition of the Verification Handbook, a guide for journalists reporting on disinformation and media manipulation edited by Craig Silverman, media editor at BuzzFeed News

Present at the talk alongside Silverman were First Draft’s co-founder and US director Dr Claire Wardle, Joan Donovan, research director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, Donie O’Sullivan, a reporter at CNN, and Brandy Zadrozny, a reporter with NBC News.

Content lives beyond platform removals

Social platforms have been taking action to combat the spread of misinformation during the pandemic. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, TikTok, Pinterest and more have all added labels and warnings to potentially harmful posts, as well as linking to high-quality news sources and public health authorities when users search for coronavirus-related content. 

But “Plandemic” provided an “interesting” example of how manipulators adapt to platform changes, said Donovan, who researches changes to the online information ecosystem and how bad actors respond.

“You had content pulled down from platforms after a few hours, and the platform companies are like, ‘See how fast we did this, this is amazing!’” she explained. “But you see, instantly, hundreds of copies of it going up all over the web.”

Despite efforts to remove the misleading video, it continued to be reuploaded by users across various platforms.

“On the website of the ‘Plandemic’ movie from the get-go they said to download [the film]… spread it far and wide,” explained NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny. While YouTube and Facebook grappled to remove the clip, the “cat was out of the bag” and had been seen millions of times already, she added. 

Zadrozny also expressed concern over content removals encouraging conspiracy theorists to double down on their efforts.

“[‘Plandemic’] should be down because it’s dangerous,” she said. “But at the same time that take down just reinforces their status as a ‘whistleblower who the man is out to silence’.”

You won’t always be able to attribute suspicious activity

While fingers are often pointed at Russia and China, finding a simple explanation behind a disinformation network is not always easy or even possible.

“With Plandemic, questions editors were asking were ‘Who’s pushing it? Who’s behind it? Is it Russia? China?’” said O’Sullivan. “Sometimes we have to stand back and say nobody has to necessarily be behind it all the time.”

He added: “When it comes to domestic actors, people are perfectly capable of creating and sharing and making misinformation go viral themselves without having a big evil troll factory.”

NBC’s Zadrozny, whose powerful reporting on misinformation spans women’s health groups promoting dangerous health advice and celebrities sharing conspiracy theory videos, agreed. 

“We are not wanting for domestic disinformation agents, actors or campaigns,” she said. “They are everywhere.”

Communities are increasingly coming together

Supporters of a variety of conspiracy theories have united in their scepticism of mainstream narratives during the coronavirus crisis. The “Plandemic” video tapped into familiar conspiracy theories that claim a shadowy group of elites  is hoping to gain power, this time through the virus.

“People are jumping on to narratives if it supports their worldviews or cause,” explained First Draft’s Wardle.

Zadrozny agreed, saying at present it feels as though there’s a “monster” made up of trolls, anti-vaxxers, far-right political extremists and other conspiracy-oriented communities around the pandemic. “They’re all here, it’s like they’ve all come to play.” 

Detailing how conspiracy theories often focus on  a far-away enemy, a vague “they” who don’t want people to know what’s “really” going on, Donovan said: “Whichever faction you’re aligned with, ‘they’ is a different entity.”

Practical lessons

While the Verification Handbook is a treasure trove of verification tools and techniques, traditional reporting skills are just as important as open-source reporting methods, said CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan. For example, he said he didn’t find out who was behind a fake Black Lives Matter page in 2017 until he’d picked up the phone and spoken to sources first-hand.

When it comes to finding leads, O’Sullivan said he spends a lot of time on social platforms. “My favourite way of getting stories is getting in the weeds myself, being able to look through accounts and Facebook groups.”

Predicting what disinformation agents and conspiracy theorists will do next is also advantageous. According to Donovan, anti-vaccine messages from “Plandemic” will persist in different forms for time to come.

“We’re going to see many confusing things about vaccines over the next few months and part of it is going to be wedded to this emerging conspiracist narrative around a ‘Plandemic’.”

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