'Plandemic' – effective fact-free marketing
12 May 2020
Opinion: A trending YouTube video presents Covid-19 conspiracy theories - how can you tell if a source is trustworthy? Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris breaks down why 'Plandemic' is not a trustworthy video.
And now for a new professionally edited conspiracy video with scary music.
Before Covid-19 emerged the world already had a problem with information overload – an infodemic. Misinformation had gained a wide forum on many social media platforms, increasing the reach, polarisation, and overall confusion of the population (a misinfodemic). In response many platforms began to take some kind of responsibility for the role their products played in all this and moved to remove content that was demonstrably untrue.
As if the world hasn’t enough problems right now, a virologist of dubious standing (i.e. has not published anything in the scientific literature since 2012, does not contribute to scientific discourse in the field, is at odds with her peers…) is presenting a whole bunch of hocus as fact and innuendo. The video called 'Plandemic' is filled with subterfuge, vilification, and falsehoods. In other words, it is downright deceptive and the only person gaining is the sole centre of the show, Judy Mikovits (PhD) – read as lots of YouTube views = revenue – who is capitalising on the current global catastrophe, misery, and the uncertainties people feel right now. Recently her book, 'Plague of corruption', hit number one on Amazon’s best seller list, briefly ahead of ahead of Stephanie Meyers new vampire book. As predatory as it is, I can’t fault Mikovits’ marketing strategy as being effective. But seriously, you are much better off with another instalment of Bella and Edward.
The first words uttered in this video can be proven not true: “Dr Judy Mikovits has been called one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation.”
Judy Mikovits cannot be one of the accomplished scientists of her generation (baby boomers). A quick google scholar search shows she is not an active scientist and has not been practicing for years. Her most notable publication was retracted (these things happen but in this case it got messy). So here, in the first sentence of the narrative, chimes the first warning bell.
The shortcomings of this prelude to a shockumentry have been nicely laid out by notable others, there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel. I particularly recommend the commentary in Science on the matter. Science is the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, since 1880) and one of the world’s top academic journals. It trumps YouTube videos for facts, and I'm sad that this needs to be said. The authors are highly respected international science news editors on the journal’s staff and well qualified to take on this issue.
Science fact-checked the video. None of these claims are true.
Scientific discoveries are reported in quality peer reviewed forums and must be repeated by others. Scientific discoveries are NOT reported in videos on YouTube, those are conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. 'Plandemic' is a load of crap, here are some tips for thinking and talking about it.
How can you tell it is a conspiracy film and not factual?
To help us out here, psychologists Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook have published a handbook on conspiracy theory and made it freely available (legends, again). This little handbook is just 10 pages long, has nice big letters, and friendly illustrations. In particular outlines are the seven traits of conspirational thinking that can be remembered by the neat little acronym CONSPIR:
- Overriding suspicion
- Nefarious intent
- Something must be wrong
- Persecuted victim
- Immune to evidence
- Re-interpreting randomness
Using this lens, let’s take a look at 'Plandemic'.
- Contradictory. This is where a person believes in ideas that are mutually exclusive as long as they are different to the ‘official’ account. As an example, Mikovits asserts both that the SARS-CoV-19 virus was created in a lab AND suggests that Covid came from a flu vaccine contaminated with dog coronavirus. Here is a nice article about origins of pandemics. Here is a study showing it is not an engineered virus.
- Overriding suspicion. This is a nihilistic degree of scepticism that the conspirator has towards the official account, which is supported by the world’s scientific community. Here, there is a very strong belief that the scientific community are not being truthful about the origin of the virus. Tick.
- Nefarious intent. Here it is proposed that the presumed conspirators (i.e. Bill Gates, Fauci, China, science community…) have evil or wicked intent. Tick
- Something must be wrong. This is the assumption by the conspirator that the official account must be based on deception. Tick.
- Persecuted victim. It is common for conspiracy theorists to paint themselves as a victim of organised persecution. Andrew Wakefield is a classic example. This thinking involves the self-perception of being both a victim and a hero. Several Ticks.
- Immune to evidence. The more evidence there is against a conspiracy the more conspirators want you to believe their version of events. There is overwhelming easily accessible evidence to counter Mikovits’ assertions, but she really wants you to believe her and uses every emotive trick in the book, particularly the ‘being thrown in jail for a scientific discovery’ card (demonstrably not true of course).
- Re-interpreting randomness. For a conspirator, nothing occurs by accident. Mikovits is so intent on the idea that Covid was created in a lab she has forgone all her training as a virologist and the basics of viral evolution. While all the evidence supports the source and evolution of this virus, Mikovits abandons all logic.
What do you do say when your friend sends you a link to this video and asks your opinion? (Or you want to offer it anyway)
You probably do not want to alienate your friend, yet while you might think this video might be a bit sensationalist you may not really sure how much of it or what is factually incorrect. Tricky! Verifying the nature of the video can be done using the approach above. Rebuttals by people experienced in factchecking will almost certainly be available, a Google search will provide them. Here are the links to a long and entertaining one by David Gorsky and the concise one from Science. There are many others from a variety of sources.
Then, consider what your friend is more likely to be receptive to. For some folks you can just send a link to a snazzy rebuttal and they will be happy, for others it is more useful to empower them to think more analytically rather than rely on their gut feeling. Never ridicule.
- Acknowledge that the material seems compelling.
- Consider pointing out that it seems unlikely that of all the world's scientists are corrupt and stupid and some are working day and night to understand and solve this problem. The international scientific community are united against Covid-19. It may be worth pointing out that there are profits being made by this video and Mikovits’ book is doing great with all the attention.
- Consider highlighting some of the flawed logic that appears.
- Provide facts and links to fact checkers, or even better, a messenger likely to be trusted by the person who has outlined the shortcomings.
Talking points for busy people
Here is crack at it from me that I have based on another, earlier, Lewandowsky and Cook effort, the debunking handbook. I like a structured approach.
- Most virologists agree that SARS-CoV-19 is a bat coronavirus that recently jumped into humans, probably through another intermediary animal, possibly pangolin. Animal pathogens frequently jump into humans and sometimes cause pandemics. This has happened many times throughout our history, it is not new or surprising. Scientist have been predicting that bat coronaviruses could cause a human pandemic for quite some years (you can fine heaps of papers on this, here is one from 2012).
- There are many studies now published in respected journals about the origins of this virus. Here is one, and here is another that outlines why this is not an engineered virus.
- However, there are some people who want to believe that the virus was modified in a lab and released into the human population.
- Scientists studying the virus are able to show its origins and how it is changed over time.
- A modified virus would have tell-tale signs of genetic manipulation that can be detected by the experts who study it.
- The few people claiming otherwise are not practicing experts in the field.
Hopefully this is a bit helpful when faced with 'Plandemic'!
Dr Helen Petousis-Harris is a vaccinologist and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from SciBlogs, Plandemic – effective fact-free marketing, 12 May 2020.
Gilbert Wong | Research Communications Manager
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