Here’s how ‘Plandemic’ went viral

From YouTube to active Facebook groups, here’s how a COVID-19 conspiracy theory documentary was seen tens of millions of times.

May 12, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking

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For Erin Gallagher, the conspiratorial documentary “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19” came to her attention like it did for myself — a question from her mom about the veracity of the 26-minute video full of coronavirus misinformation.

After hearing about it from more friends and family, Gallagher decided to investigate how the video went viral so quickly.

Gallagher, an independent social media researcher who has been featured in NBC News and Wired, analyzed 37,000 posts containing the word “plandemic” and 24,000 posts with the name “Judy Mikovits,” the former National Cancer Institute scientist whose work has been discredited, yet is the key expert in “Plandemic.”

Using graphs showing the Facebook groups where “Plandemic” was posted, along with the type of link users were sharing, she found a pipeline of how this video went viral: from YouTube to Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members and names like “Chemtrails Global Skywatch,” “OFFICIAL Q / QANON” and “Drain the Swamp.” YouTube links were the most commonly-shared access points for “Plandemic,” regardless of how quickly YouTube removed them.

“Everyone uses multiple platforms to varying degrees now so nothing is ever limited to just one or two,” Gallagher told me this weekend. “But in this case, YouTube hosted the video, and I suspect many mirrors of it once it started getting pulled down, and these large, highly-active Facebook groups were key to spreading it like wildfire and pushing it into all of our families’ Facebook feeds.”

In the “plandemic” keyword data, which was collected between April 8, and May 8, YouTube links posted on Facebook had nearly 200,000 likes and more than 150,000 each of shares and comments.

I reached out to YouTube and Facebook for comment but haven’t heard back. I will send an updated note with tomorrow’s newsletter if either company responds.

“‘Plandemic’ creators encouraged viewers to download the video from the documentary’s website and post it across video platforms,” said Alex Kaplan, senior researcher at the left-leaning Media Matters for America. “And you could see the impact: dozens of reuploads of the video on YouTube — even after they tried to remove the original — and shares of it on other platforms.”

This isn’t the first YouTube-to-Facebook conspiracy video Kaplan has studied. He found some of the most-viewed YouTube videos touting the debunked claim that Bill Gates is pushing a coronavirus vaccine to microchip the public receiving thousands of engagements on Facebook. And a video calling COVID-19 a “false flag” drew 6 million views on YouTube and more than 1 million engagements on Facebook before it was removed. Both videos went viral over the last two months.

“Be really careful about sharing content coming from places you haven’t heard of before just because it gives you some kind of emotion,” Kaplan said. “Take the time to do some research on the person(s) behind it or the claims made in it, and see if someone, like a fact-checker, has debunked it, before sharing.”

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Alex Mahadevan is a senior multimedia reporter at MediaWise. He can be reached at amahadevan@poynter.org or on Twitter at @AlexMahadevan. Follow MediaWise on TikTok.