Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the big social platforms have generally been quicker than usual to intervene in the spread of misinformation. We’ve seen Facebook, Google, and Twitter add various labels, warnings, and links to high-quality news sources and public health organizations. And for the most part, the dumbest theories about the novel coronavirus have not reached huge scale — unless the theory was suggested by the president of the United States, in which case, well.
But some cracks are beginning to show. In February, a set of bizarre and almost incomprehensible theories began to spread on YouTube and Facebook alleging that 5G cellular networks had played a role in spreading the virus. And last week, we saw the emergence of the first true hit conspiracy video of the COVID-19 era. It’s called “Plandemic,” and like many conspiracy videos it asserts that a shadowy cabal of elites is using a global crisis as a cover to profiteer and entrench their power. Here’s Davey Alba in 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.
Uploads of “Plandemic” have more than 8 million views across social platforms, with one YouTube version hitting 7.1 million views before it was removed. That would be more than enough to place it near the top of the YouTube trending page — about as many views as this video where influencers practice apologizing (8.6 million), but still way below the three-day-old official music video for 6ix9ine’s “Gooba” (103 million).
Still, the video seems well on its way to becoming something akin to this generation’s Loose Change. That video, which wrongly depicted 9/11 as an elaborate false flag operation, generated millions of views after being distributed for free on YouTube and local Fox TV affiliates — and went on to become one of the foundational texts of the 9/11 truther movement.
I accept that on a free and open internet, some people are going to post extremely dumb and harmful things. And “Plandemic” is undoubtedly harmful: among other things, it falsely tells people that wearing a mask will “activate” the virus. But we’ve seen in the past that extremely dumb and harmful things often benefit from algorithmic promotion. They appear high up in search results, on trending pages, and in recommendation widgets. Platforms are used to recruit followers for terrible causes without even being aware that they’re doing so.
After years of pressure, though, platforms have gotten better at detecting bad posts and videos as they begin bubbling up. They’re now able to catch more bad stuff before it hits the trending page. YouTube has a whole team that monitors this stuff in real time. And so “Plandemic” left me scratching my head. How did this thing go viral?
The ground was seeded by a book that Mikovits, the star of “Plandemic,” published last month. Plague of Corruption “frames Dr. Mikovits as a truth-teller fighting deception in science,” Alba writes, and it won approving coverage from far-right outlets including the Epoch Times, Gateway Pundit, and Next News Network.
But it was the “Plandemic” clip that turned Mikovits into a star (she’s gained more than 130,000 Twitter followers in a month.) And the two have benefited each other: searches for Mikovits drove views of “Plandemic,” and viewings of “Plandemic” drove searches for Mikovits.
Erin Gallagher, a social media researcher who specializes in data visualizations, offers some clues. Gallagher used CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing public posts, to investigate when “Plandemic” began to surge on the network. She found that posts referencing it appeared most often in Facebook groups devoted to QAnon, anti-vaccine misinformation, and conspiracy theories in general.
“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.”
YouTube and Facebook both ultimately removed the video, but their responses differed in notable ways. I spoke to representatives at both companies today, and here’s what I learned.
At Facebook, “Plandemic” was demoted before it was removed. Demotion is a step that Facebook often takes with posts that seem bad for one reason or another but are not considered actively harmful. Maybe you posted an image in which someone is almost but not quite naked; maybe you suggested that people commit violence without coming right out and saying it. Since 2018 Facebook has intervened in an effort to prevent these types of posts from spreading, as part of an initiative to make it less appealing to post so-called “borderline content.”
I don’t know exactly what qualified “Plandemic” as borderline content initially, but a spokesman noted that the video’s length — 26 minutes — along with the large number of claims made within it, created a lot of work for fact-checking teams. (A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can tie its shoes, etc.) Facebook eventually decided that “Plandemic” had to go over its false assertion that people can “reinfect themselves” by wearing masks, but given the truly unfortunate confusion over mask wearing — some of it generated by public health organizations — the company was cautious.
At YouTube, the company saw several videos related to “Plandemic” and flagged and removed them before the 26-minute clip that became famous. That clip was uploaded on May 4th and removed May 6th. In the meantime, it generated 7.1 million views. According to the company, the vast majority of those views came from external sites — people linking to it directly, rather than seeing it somewhere on YouTube. Gallagher’s analysis suggests a significant number of those clicks came directly from Facebook. (YouTube wouldn’t comment on that.)
For its part, YouTube said, it did not recommend “Plandemic” or surface it “prominently” in search results — so, not on the first page. Search for it now and you’ll see a pop-up from an independent fact checker and many videos of doctors debunking its claims.
Facebook continues to see people upload other clips from “Plandemic,” and told me that it is sharing fact-checking information from its partners with people who share them. It’s temporarily reducing the distribution of these other clips — the ones that don’t include the mask bit — as fact checkers continue to evaluate other parts of “Plandemic.” People also continue to post modified versions of the original — recording it on their phones or adding commentary to it — and Facebook is hunting those down too.
There’s a view of all this that is heartening. Both companies saw a bad thing, put teams of fact checkers on it, and removed it from their networks with relative haste. (That’s more than Amazon can say: Plague of Corruption is a top-10 best seller there today.) Facebook and YouTube could have acted faster, or more completely, but it isn’t as if “Plandemic” caught them unawares. YouTube has more than 2 billion monthly users, and Facebook has 1.73 billion users per day across its suite of apps; at that scale, 8 million people seeing something in 48 hours just doesn’t look like all that much. (And if you’re thinking well huh, maybe the problem with these companies is their size, you may have been interested in Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.)
But there’s a darker view to consider, too. When Facebook announced it would shift its attention to building services for smaller, more private groups, critics pointed out that this was likely going to make it harder to police misinformation. This is particularly true of WhatsApp chats, which are encrypted end-to-end. But it’s also true of private Facebook groups, where it seems likely that “Plandemic” was shared actively.
It likely won’t be the last piece of harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that becomes a blockbuster. And when the next one comes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that the pathway to virality leads straight through Facebook groups.
Formal apology to the people of the United Kingdom
On Thursday, in reference to an app being developed by the digital division of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, I repeatedly used “England” when I should have referred to the entire kingdom. It’s somewhat confusing because there are actually four national health services within the United Kingdom, but I am told that the NHSX app will indeed be available to all. I apologize to the people of the UK!
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Snapchat announced a new effort to help people affected by domestic violence during the COVID-19 outbreak. The company is providing in-app resources as part of its broader Here For You initiative. (Ina Fried / Axios)
Trending up: Jack Dorsey gave $10 million to Reform, a criminal justice nonprofit founded by Meek Mill, Michael Rubin, and Jay-Z. The money go toward sending personal protective equipment to prisons across the United States.
Trending up: Twitter will add labels and warnings on tweets that contain misleading information about COVID-19. The labels will provide links to more information in cases where the risk of harm is not severe enough for the tweet to be removed. (Elizabeth Culliford / Reuters)
Trending up: Amazon is funding a series of projects dedicated to stopping the spread of COVID-19. The company is funding a clinical trial of blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients and delivering at-home coronavirus tests to health workers in the UK. (Erin Brodwin / STAT)
Total cases in the US: More than 1,346,800
Total deaths in the US: At least 80,000
Reported cases in California: 68,389
Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 955,664
Reported cases in New York: 342,317
Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 1,182,998
Reported cases in New Jersey: 139,945
Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 312,447
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 77,793
Total test results (positive and negative) in Massachusetts: 388,389
⭐ Conspiracy theorists in Michigan are using private Facebook groups to encourage violence against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. They’re also mobilizing armed rallies to protest her social distancing orders. Here’s Steve Neavling at the Detroit Metro Times:
The comments are especially disturbing because some of those calling for violence are planning to attend an armed rally at the Capitol building in Lansing on Thursday. On April 30, hundreds of protesters, some of them heavily armed, descended on the state Capitol during the “American Patriot Rally,” and there were armed protesters as part of “Operation Lansing” on April 15. A two-day rally is also planned for the weekend.
“We could’ve taken over the capital last time if we wanted,” Chris Coffey said. “This was just a display. Next time won’t be!”
“If she thinks the last protest was bad she hasn’t seen anything yet,” DonnaCookie Grady warned.
“We haven’t had any bloodshed yet, but the populous is counting to three, and the other day was two,” Dave Meisenheimer wrote in Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine, which has more than 385,000 members. “Next comes watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.”
⭐ Elon Musk is reopening Tesla’s California car factory against Alameda County’s wishes. The move violates local shelter-in-place orders. Tesla started making cars over the weekend and told all of the employees that it placed on furlough to get ready to go back to work. (Sean O’Kane / The Verge)
The Lincoln Project, a super PAC run by Republicans who oppose President Trump, asked Facebook to remove a warning label it attached to the group’s blistering “Mourning in America” ad. The warning says there is partly false information within the ad, which rips Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Brian Schwartz / CNBC)
Smartphone data shows out-of-state visitors flocked to Georgia as restaurants and other businesses reopened. The news provides some of the first hard evidence that reopening some state economies ahead of others could worsen and prolong the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Katherine Shaver / The Washington Post)
The World Health Organization is launching an app to enable people in under-resourced countries to assess whether they have COVID-19. The organization is also considering a Bluetooth-based contact tracing feature. How would it even work without one? (Paresh Dave / Reuters)
Contact tracing apps aim to help health authorities trace COVID-19 infections and notify users who have been exposed. But the technology is far from perfect. (Joanna Stern / The Wall Street Journal)
Singapore is deploying Boston Dynamics robots in public parks to remind people to follow social distancing guidelines. The robots broadcast a message reminding visitors that they need to stay away from other humans. Really just insane dystopia vibes here. (Matt Novak / Gizmodo)
Twitter pushed back on the US State Department’s claim that it was “highly probable” the Chinese government coordinated networks of accounts to push coronavirus conspiracy theories. The company said their initial review of the accounts in question did not support the government’s claims, though the probe is still ongoing. (Jennifer Hansler, Donie O’Sullivan and Kylie Atwood / CNN)
Tech labor activists are organizing on Facebook and Zoom in order to avoid company surveillance. The result is a new kind of movement, one with the DNA of traditional organizing but native to the tech era. (Sarah Emerson / OneZero)
WeChat is closely monitoring users outside mainland China in order to censor those within the country’s borders. If content is found to be sensitive, the app adds it to its internal blacklist so it can censor it in real time for Chinese users. (Eva Xiao / The Wall Street Journal)
The United States still hasn’t repaired basic security flaws in the country’s election infrastructure since Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential race. Now, months before the 2020 election, the door is open for Putin to pull the same trick again. (Franklin Foer / The Atlantic)
Former Google engineer James Damore, who sued the company in 2018 for allegedly discriminating against conservative white men, has asked a court to dismiss the suit. The written request was also joined by Google. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)
Microsoft and Amazon exchanged dueling blog posts about the Defense Department JEDI contract. Amazon has been fighting the DoD’s decision to award the contract to Microsoft. (Ron Miller / TechCrunch)
News organizations have long hoped that tech platforms would pay them for news. Now regulators in Australia and France are moving to make that happen. (Ben Smith / The New York Times)
⭐ Companies are installing thermal scanners in anticipation of employees returning to work amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the scanners aren’t intended for medical use, and experts warn they can’t really detect COVID-19 infections. Drew Harwell at The Washington Post explains:
While the systems can sense elevated skin temperatures, they aren’t precise enough to tell whether someone has a fever or something else: The warmth of a person’s skin is often quite different from their core body heat. People with heavier builds, health conditions or hot flashes can trigger the system’s alarms; so, too, can anyone just walking in from a hot car or parking lot.
Many people with covid-19 infections haven’t actually had fevers: The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that as many as 25 percent of infected people don’t show any symptoms at all. The virus’ stealthy ability to not give itself away while it spreads led university researchers in February to estimate that fever scans and similar screening techniques would overlook more than half of the infected.
The Silicon Valley office won’t be the same after the coronavirus pandemic. Open office plans and communal lunches will likely be a thing of the past. (Priya Anand / Bloomberg)
Apple’s US retail stores will begin opening back up this week for limited purposes. The stores have been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Welch / The Verge)
Shanghai Disneyland is reopening with mandatory face masks and social distancing. The park is also limiting the number of people that can visit each day to about 30 percent of its regular capacity. (James Vincent / The Verge)
Waymo is planning to resume testing its autonomous vehicles in Arizona on May 11th. But some of the company’s backup drivers are worried that the company may be rushing back into service too quickly. ( Andrew J. Hawkins / The Verge)
Workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Eagan, Minn., say they are terrified to report to work after six co-workers recently tested positive for COVID-19. They’re worried the retail giant isn’t doing enough to protect them. (Mukhtar M. Ibrahim / Sahan Journal)
Amazon’s rivals are benefiting from the company’s shipping delays and worker unrest. E-commerce companies like Shopify and Warfair are showing dramatically faster growth rates than the tech giant. (Tae Kim / Bloomberg)
Opportunists are trying to find ways to extract money from Instacart shoppers. In one scheme, a middleman is dubiously telling workers he can change a shopper’s account to let them work at specific stores in exchange for thousands of dollars. (Joseph Cox / Vice)
Hip-hop artists are leading the charge on Instagram Live as people tune in to virtual concerts from their apartments. Rappers and producers have turned the space into a nightclub, a variety show, a history lesson, a talent show and much more. (Jon Caramanica / The New York Times)
Professional networks are moving to Zoom amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some are thriving, others are falling flat. (Anne Kadet / The Wall Street Journal)
A bookstore in Boston is curating peoples’ bookshelves with hand-picked selections to display during video meetings. Genius. (Steve Annear / The Boston Globe)
Memers are taking over TikTok. Famous meme brands are investing heavily in the video sharing app and amassing millions of followers. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is now playing Animal Crossing. She also temporarily opened her DMs to the public so any one of her 6.8 million followers could offer her an invitation to their Animal Crossing island. (Gene Park / The Washington Post)
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, is no longer an adviser to the company. His exit ends a 19-year tenure at Google, where he was brought in to be the “adult supervision” to the company’s young founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. (Richard Nieva / CNET)
China shut down movie theaters to stop the spread of the virus, leading to a massive shift in the Chinese entertainment industry. Now, hundreds of millions of people are watching blockbuster movies on their phones. (Rebecca Davis and Patrick Frater / Variety)
Facebook has finally started rolling out its redesigned desktop website to all users. Mark Zuckerberg first announced the redesign at the F8 conference in 2019. (Igor Bonifacic / Engadget)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
“Pandecorate” your home! It’s all the rage.
Pretend you are on one of your old cross-country business trips by ordering JetBlue cheese and snack trays. Or just read this article and donate to your local food bank, maybe.
Watch the Hood Internet mash up 50 chart-topping pop songs from various years into rowdy three-minute bangers. They’ve mostly done the 1980s so far; the 1990s cannot come soon enough for me.
My favorite part of quarantine is that we were all forced to be alone with our thoughts for a little bit and everyone was like “Absolutely not. I will learn to bake bread from scratch.”
— Kevin Farzad (@KevinFarzad) May 2, 2020
My daughter is so over remote schooling she cut the computer cord. SHE WENT TO THE KITCHEN, GOT THE KITCHEN SHEARS AND CUT THE CORD
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) May 8, 2020