In May, we saw the arrival of the first viral hoax of the COVID-19 era: “Plandemic,” a meandering 26-minute video which falsely asserted that vaccines “weaken” people’s immune systems and that wearing a mask would “activate” the coronavirus. Despite the best efforts of Facebook and YouTube, a single upload of “Plandemic” got 7.1 million views before it was removed.
As I wrote at the time, the problem was not that the platforms were ignoring the video — it was that, at their scale, even the few hours it took them to research the issue were enough for “Plandemic” to get all the way around the world
. “It likely won’t be the last piece of harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that becomes a blockbuster,” I wrote back then. “And when the next one comes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that the pathway to virality leads straight through Facebook groups.”
Indeed, on Monday we got the sequel. And Facebook groups played a significant role.
The video that captured the public imagination this week lacks a name as catchy as “Plandemic” — it was a live stream of a press conference organized by a group known as the Tea Party Patriots, who are funded by wealthy Republicans
— but it was seen much more widely, in much less time. Here’s Sam Shead at CNBC
The video was created by right-wing media outlet Breitbart. It depicts a group of people dressed in white lab coats — who call themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” — staging a press conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Those in the video claim that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is “a cure for Covid” and “you don’t need a mask” to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“This virus has a cure, it’s called hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and Zithromax,” one of the women in the video claims. “You don’t need masks, there is a cure.”
All of that is false, but falls squarely into the category of “something people desperately want to believe,” and so it found a wide audience. NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny reported that in less than 24 hours, it racked up 20 million views on Facebook alone
“That Breitbart video from the doctors claiming that hydroxychloroquine cures the coronavirus has been going crazy in anti-vax, anti-mask, reopen Facebook Groups today,” she tweeted. “It’s at >20 mil views on FB. And that doesn’t include all the private groups it’s been spreading through.”
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all began efforts to remove the video — although, as we have come to understand, this will be an ongoing effort, as people continue to make minor alterations to the video and re-upload it. (The platforms are still finding new uploads of “Plandemic,” more than two months later.)
And it took Facebook longer than even the company thought it should have. Here’s what the company told me about it when I asked:
“We’ve removed this video for making false claims about cures and prevention methods for COVID-19. People who reacted to, commented on, or shared this video, will see messages directing them to authoritative information about the virus. It took us several hours to enforce against the video and we’re doing a review to understand why this took longer than it should have. Since April to June we removed more than 7 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for violating our policy against sharing harmful COVID-19 misinformation.”
Compounding the challenge for the platforms is that the video was shared by two of their most high-profile users: the president and his son. Twitter put temporary limits on the account of Donald Trump Jr., and removed several retweets of the video that President Trump himself had shared on Twitter. Here are Katie Shepherd and Taylor Telford in the Washington Post
Twitter said it ordered the president’s son to delete the misleading tweet and said it would “limit some account functionality for 12 hours.” […]
Twitter removed the videos, deleting several of the tweets that President Trump shared, and even adding a note to its trending topics warning about the potential risks of hydroxychloroquine use.
Immanuel, a pediatrician and a religious minister, has a history of making bizarre claims about medical topics and other issues. She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches.
She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by “reptilians” and other aliens.
So on one hand, yes, this is a platform problem. Because the platforms are so large, and because viral distribution mechanisms are built into every post, dangerous misinformation can spread globally within hours. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, the Immanuel video racked up nearly three times the views that the most-shared “Plandemic” video did in half the time. And that’s despite the heightened attention every platform has been paying to misinformation related to COVID-19.
It’s also a democracy problem. When the president of the United States is sharing videos that encourage people to believe that a “cure” exists for a disease that has already — needlessly — killed 151,000 Americans
, the issue extends well beyond tech companies’ content moderation policies and enforcement efforts. And he reiterated some of these claims
in a press conference
today, which was carried on cable news — and not subject to whatever rules Facebook or Twitter want to make about COVID-19 posts. Everything about this presidency is a crisis, and platforms have their role to play in mitigating its very worst excesses, and yet to think about this only as a problem of content moderation would be far too blinkered.
Still, the speed at which Immanuel’s rant spread offers cause for concern. When I asked Facebook today why this video seemed to spread so quickly, no one could give me an answer. The company often points to the huge investment it has made in trust and safety, arguing that breaking it up would only worsen the spread of harmful content on the internet. But when Dr. Demon Sex can get 20 million views hawking dangerous advice in an afternoon, what exactly do we have to lose?