While thousands of families grieved the loss of loved ones and the United States’ coronavirus death toll surpassed 350,000 in early January and continued to rise, a new film parroting false claims about the pandemic began to spread to millions of social media users.
The video, called “Planet Lockdown,” racked up more than 20 million views and engagements, according to the social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle, in late December and January. It went largely unnoticed by the social media platforms playing host to the misinformation until the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America published a detailed accounting of the film’s spread on Monday.
The film was full of false claims about the virus, including that the coronavirus vaccine may cause infertility (it does not) and that the shots contain microchips (they do not), as well as baseless claims of mass voter fraud in the presidential election. Facebook and YouTube had already banned users from posting content promoting the false microchip claim and other misinformation related to the pandemic.
Following the Media Matters report, tech giants including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok began scrubbing promotional clips of the film from their platforms for violating rules against misinformation. GoFundMe also removed a fundraising page for postproduction costs associated with the film, which had raised more than $8,000, according to a screenshotof the site captured by the Internet Archive.
The episode highlights the continued struggle of social media companies to clamp down on bogus information, echoing a similar struggle last May to contain “Plandemic,” another video filled with coronavirus misinformation that went viral and led Facebook and YouTube to ban people from sharing it.
“This is a more fundamental problem than one video spreading around,” said Kimon Drakopoulos, an assistant professor in the data sciences department at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “I’m not sure that the problem has a solution. It’s a Pandora’s box.”
The filmmakers defended their project in emails to The Washington Post, arguing that they were engaging in a legitimate debate over public health guidelines like mask mandates and social distancing rules.
“What if these guidances do more harm than good?” the “Planet Lockdown” team, who did not identify the filmmakers by name, said in an email. “Shouldn’t we be able to have a public discussion on a subject that effects us all so dearly?”
The viral clip from “Planet Lockdown” depicts an interview with Catherine Austin Fitts, who served as assistant secretary of housing and urban development under President George H.W. Bush and has since worked in finance. Fitts, who has no background in medicine or public health, has worked with anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to promote unfounded claims about the pandemic and to oppose lockdown measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus.
In an email, Fitts declined to specifically discuss her work in the documentary, instead sending a number of links to other past projects of hers.
In the video, Fitts spins an elaborate tale about a plot by a “committee that runs the world,” which she calls “Mr. Global,” that aims to enslave people through mind control. She also falsely claims that the coronavirus vaccine is “full of these mystery ingredients” and will “modify your DNA and for all we know make you infertile.”
Inaccurate claims like the ones made in the video may discourage people from getting vaccinated, which have been shown to be very effective and passed strict safety reviews.
The clip was originally released in late December and has since racked up millions of views across the various platform. Even as the companies began moving to take it offline this week, many highly viewed posts remained for days. A single Instagram post with the video made by Kennedy on Dec. 29 garnered more than 900,000 views and remained on the platform until late Tuesday night, when it was removed following an inquiry from The Post.
“We’ve removed this video from Facebook and Instagram for violating our policies,” Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever told The Post late Tuesday. “Our teams are monitoring for copies and other versions so we can take appropriate action.”
But new versions of the video have continued surfacing. As of early Wednesday, dozens of copies of the video could still be found on Facebook, though the most-viewed versions had been pulled down.
YouTube also removed the two “Planet Lockdown” videos that had spread farthest, generating more than 16 million Facebook engagements, according to CrowdTangle. Several other versions of the Fitts interview had also been removed Tuesday, but other “Planet Lockdown” videos remained on the filmmaker’s YouTube channel.
TikTok blocked two hashtags affiliated with the video. “This phrase may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines,” the TikTok app says when a user searches for #PlanetLockdown or #CatherineAustinFitts. But short clips of Fitts’s interview could still be viewed on the app as of early Wednesday.
Facebook and YouTube tightened restrictions on false claims last year following the viral spread of the “Plandemic” film. Those efforts have continued to evolve in recent months, and Facebook on Monday moved to further limit what will allow people to share, barring many unfounded claims about the pandemic, including several of those promoted in “Planet Lockdown.”
Drakopoulos said that censorship can sometimes “backfire” as the people who believe false claims see social media bans as evidence that a conspiracy actually exists. Instead, Drakopoulos suggested platforms should limit the amount of information people see in their news feeds, cutting down the likelihood a person will see a false claim in the first place.
The suggestion goes against the business model of most social media platforms, which thrive on user engagement, but Drakopoulos said it is necessary to protect the public from misinformation.
“That’s part of their responsibility,” he said. “Censoring articles goes against their business models, too, but at that point you have to be socially responsible and take one for the team.”