By now you’ve probably heard about or even seen the video “Plandemic” that’s been spreading like wildfire through social media networks. This article is not the one you should give to your friend or relative or coworker who shared the video. (If you want that article, you won’t find a better one than this one from Beth Skwarecki at Lifehacker: “If You Found That ‘Plandemic’ Video Convincing, Read This Too.”)
This is an article for those who recognized the video as rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation and false claims, those who are frustrated and unsettled and disappointed in who they see sharing it, and those who want to know what to say when they see it. It explains why the video is successful, how to recognize propaganda like this for what it is, and explain why it is so, so, so important to speak up about this particular video.
What IS this video?
Plandemic interviews a scientist who was appropriately discredited for scientific misconduct and fraud. She is a known, established anti-vaccine advocate (despite her denial in the film), and she presents a long list of unsupported statements that involve COVID-19, various vaccines, HIV/AIDS, Anthony Fauci, pharmaceutical company collusion and other elements of an elaborate, long-running cover-up. It’s a doozy, checking nearly every box in the long list of conspiracy theories and disinformation circulating about the coronavirus.
Why did my smart, thoughtful, informed friend share this?
What’s most upsetting to many people is who they see sharing it: reasonable, intelligent people who normally don’t fall for conspiracy theories or pseudoscience. What is going on?
Many people who are privately or casually sharing it are saying, “This is interesting. What do you think of it?” Most genuinely don’t know what to make of it. They aren’t trying to spread misinformation. They’re not the types to believe or share conspiracy theories. They’re taken in by the video’s slick appearance and by its use of persuasive techniques and really want to know what you think, so you need to approach them respectfully about it. (We’ll get to that.)
Why is this video suddenly everywhere? Why are so many drawn to it?
This video has been extremely successful at promoting misinformation for three reasons: First, it taps into people’s uncertainty, anxiety and need for answers—common reasons anyone is attracted to a conspiracy theory. Second, it is packaged very professionally and uses common conventions people already associate with factual documentaries. Third, it successfully exploits ancient but extremely effective methods of persuasion.
There is more uncertainty about our world right now than there has been in decades, perhaps a century, and the stakes are higher than ever. Everyone has so many unanswered questions—including scientists, doctors, national leaders and others we ordinarily look to for answers. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. People want answers. Conspiracy theories can be comforting. This video appears to provide answers that fit together, that seem to make sense, that sound credible, or at least “interesting and worth considering.” (That’s the hook. Next is the line.)
The video looks, sounds and feels like a documentary even though it isn’t
Plandemic is part of a disturbingly successful trend in which deep-pocketed purveyors of pseudoscience produce slick, professional videos as credible-appearing documentaries. The lighting, narrative structure, the pacing, use of imagery, camera angles, editing techniques—these are all common documentary filmmaking conventions that we’ve come to associate with factual information.
The people producing this video know what they’re doing, and they’re very good at it. On a subconscious level, no matter what words are being said, this video feels factual simply because of how it was produced. It’s intentionally manipulative. It’s a textbook example of effective propaganda. (That’s the line. Next is the sinker.)
This video successfully employs “pathos” and “ethos” to persuade people
Aristotle introduced a concept over two thousand years ago that remains more relevant than ever: modes of persuasion, or rhetorical appeals. The three main appeals speakers can use to persuade others are ethos, pathos and logos.
Ethos is an appeal to the credibility and authority of the speaker, how they come across. The entire first third of Plandemic is dedicated to setting Judy Mikovits up as a trustworthy expert on everything the video will discuss. She sounds and looks calm, collected and competent. She uses scientific but understandable language. She tells a personal story that helps viewers connect with her and with the interviewer, who also comes across as compassionate, thoughtful and empathetic.
The video doesn’t make a scientific argument or mention COVID-19 yet—the only purpose of the first 8-10 minutes is get the audience to trust Mikovits. The problem is that most people will not have heard of Mikovits before this video. This is their first impression of her, and first impressions are very powerful. When people later hear she is anti-vaccine and that she falsified data, it will be harder for them to believe it. They already know she was accused of those things, but she and the interviewer convincingly make the case that she was innocent and framed. The filmmakers have so strongly invested in ethos that it will be hard for someone watching Mikovits for the first time to disregard their first impression of her as a wronged woman.
Pathos is an appeal to emotion. The video appeals to viewers’ emotions by portraying Mikovits as a victimized underdog and by repeatedly using stock video of harrowing images, such as patients dying from AIDS and malnourished children in Africa. The video claims people are dying because they cannot get the appropriate treatments they need, appealing to viewers’ sense of injustice. The video even uses stock images of a SWAT team arrest to make it look like she was arrested in a major operation—but that’s stock footage unrelated to her arrest. It’s true she was arrested Nov. 18, 2011 and spent four days in jail, but there is no evidence it involved SWAT, and she makes her time in jail sound much longer. In a separate incident, Mikovits turned herself in. (Note: The information on her interactions with police has been corrected from an earlier version that did not include her Nov. 18 arrest, thanks to reader Zachariah Wiedeman, who pointed out the separate incidents.)
Logos is an appeal to facts and logic. This is where the film falls flat—but it doesn’t matter to many people because it so successfully uses ethos and pathos. For logos, the film takes intuitive ideas or those with a kernel of truth to them, and it twists them and amplifies them into exaggerated, false claims that sound reasonable because they’re familiar. (The claim that staying home will weaken our immune systems without enough exposure to microbes is false, but it sounds reasonable because it builds on the hygiene hypothesis, which does have evidence.)
Instead of reasoned arguments with supportive evidence, the film uses a common debating strategy called the gish gallop. This technique overwhelms the audience with so many assertions and arguments at one time, without regard to how strong or true they are, that it’s impossible to keep up with them or refute them all. It’s usually pointless to try because it’s the nonstop bombardment of statements coming at you that makes it effective. (This is partly why debunking this video isn’t a productive use of time.)
The video also uses images of sciencey things—labs, cells, scientific experiments, pictures of studies—to substitute for logos. They look credible and factual whether they actually support the argument or not.
Hook, line, and sinker.
So what do you do when someone shares it?
First, don’t call them or the video crazy. Don’t chide them or mock them for sharing it. And don’t insist they delete it immediately or tell people not to watch it—that just makes it forbidden fruit, which is all the more attractive. (The filmmakers are already successfully using that strategy by telling people it will get taken down, and it has. At least some of the take-downs are for copyright infringement since it uses several video clips without permission, including the video of the Bakersfield doctors. ETA 5/10/20 9:30pm ET: Since initial publication: I have learned that several social media companies, including YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, have stated that the video was removed because it gave medically inaccurate advice.)
They probably really want your opinion because they trust you. Don’t violate that trust right off the bat. Use it. How you use it depends on what you know about them already and what’s worked in the past. Science communicator and social scientist Liz Neeley has a fantastic piece at The Atlantic on how to talk to people about science—and misinformation—without alienating them. Go read it. Seriously. It will help you.
You might ask what they find so persuasive about it and move on from there, addressing those specifics.
You could also discuss how to know whether Mikovits really is an expert or not. Instead of just dropping a link, explain that it’s impossible for her to be an expert in all the different topics she covers in that video—that’s not how scientific expertise works.
Emily Willingham, PhD, a science journalist and developmental biologist (and my co-author on a book we published in 2016), has an excellent public post on Facebook about how to vet experts for actually having expertise in a particular area. Having a PhD in biology doesn’t make someone an expert in all of biology. No one human can know all that.
“Some people with advanced degrees are perfectly willing to elide their expertise or overreach on their claims just to get attention,” Willingham writes. And she makes this extremely important point that’s relevant to the final moment in Plandemic when a clip of Fauci warning about an inevitable pandemic in the coming years is used to suggest he caused it: “Science and the process of scientific discovery are never about one giant. Evidence is incremental, data can be slow to come in. But people with expertise collectively know what’s on the horizon here and have been warning about it for years. They were informed by history and their own training, their understanding of how novel infectious disease would behave in a globally connected society. No one—NO SINGLE PERSON—is going to have a sudden insight or make some clever connection no one else has considered or uncover some vast deep conspiracy that has eluded the other 7.7 billion people on Earth.”
If all you do have the energy to do is drop a link in response to the video, this is the one to drop—it’s the article version of what my article recommends: “If You Found That ‘Plandemic’ Video Convincing, Read This Too.”
If they like reading long articles debunking it, there are plenty to choose from. I’ll list some at the bottom. But a systematic debunking of the video isn’t likely to be successful. Talking about it and why it’s persuasive might be.
Why should I bother saying anything at all? Can’t I just ignore it?
Conspiracy theories like those in this video are actively, directly harmful and dangerous. They can influence people’s behavior in ways that harm those people and public health—including you personally—in general. We can’t afford to let these ideas run unchecked.
If you don’t push back on them, even to those you love or don’t want to upset, you’re enabling them. You’re allowing people to spew harmful, dangerous nonsense that kills people and demoralizes the millions of health care providers trying to save lives.
Many people try to avoid drama or debates on their social media accounts, and I respect that. But this video is not a time to “agree to disagree” because the stakes are too high. It’s a matter of life and death. The false statements in this video can cause deaths.
If they share it on your Facebook wall, address it. If you see them share it on their walls, address it. You don’t have to debate all night—that’s not productive for either of you. Maybe you just make a couple points and drop it. But don’t let it go unchallenged.
Should you unfriend them? That depends.
I know many people just don’t have the energy right now to push back—we’re all strung out, burnt out, stressed, and tired—so be strategic about what you can tolerate. You might need to say, “I’m sorry, I care about you as a person, but I cannot allow you to share dangerous, harmful misinformation about a life or death situation, so I will need to unfriend you until the pandemic is over.”
Or, maybe it’s vital that they remain connected to you because your posts are some of the only good sources of accurate information they have which might penetrate their bubble. Maybe you can’t afford to sever a relationship during a time with so much isolation already. It’s your call.
Whatever you do, speak up at least once. The stakes are too high not to—for all of us. We all have a social responsibility to push back against dangerous, harmful information, now more than ever.
Does speaking up even matter? Will it make a difference? Yes.
You might not convince them the video is conspiracy theory nonsense. That’s fine. That may not be the goal. But here are three things you accomplish by speaking up even if you know you’ll “lose” the battle:
- Others see you push back. They’ll get accurate information and see you calmly, maturely responding to the false statements. Ethos!
- Seeing you speak up erodes the bystander effect, typically used to explain why people are less likely to help in an emergency if others are around. If someone makes a racist comment and no one speaks up, others don’t want to be the first. So be the first—and it inspires and emboldens other people to push back on their walls too. Speaking against misinformation is contagious in a good way. If you do it, they realize they can and should too. And if they didn’t know what to say before, they can copy/paste what you said and use that.
- Speaking up normalizes factual information and contributes to the mere exposure effect: the more a person is exposed to an idea, the more it becomes familiar and credible, no matter what the idea is. The more they hear it from you and others, over and over, the more they may gradually, unconsciously start to recognize the logical holes and embrace factual information. It won’t happen overnight or because of one person, and they’ll think it was their idea when it happens. But it can happen.
Where can I get a good debunking of it all?
Note: Some hyperlinks are not showing up on mobile, so I’ve added the complete URL for each link for copying/pasting.
—Beth Skwarecki’s Lifehacker article is an excellent, thoughtful debunking: “If You Found That ‘Plandemic’ Video Convincing, Read This Too.” https://
—Retraction Watch, a scientific misconduct watchdog site, has an excellent brief piece about Judy Mikovits that includes links to their past posts on her: “Who is Judy Mikovits?” /
—Science Magazine, whose reporter Jon Cohen covered the Mikovits story in real time throughout 2011-2012, has an excellent rundown by Cohen and science reporter Martin Enserink of who Mikovits is, what happened and what’s false in the video.
—“The anti-vaxx agenda of ‘The Plandemic’” at The Big Think describes seven conspiracy theories “baked into” Plandemic.
—“Why People Cling To Conspiracy Theories Like ‘Plandemic’” from meteorologist Marshall Shepherd at Forbes offers other reasons people are drawn to conspiracy theories.
—For the most comprehensive rundown of Mikovits’ history you could ever ask for, see “Plandemic: Judy Mikovits and the mother of all COVID-19 conspiracy theories” at Science-Based Medicine. /
—Snopes does a thorough job: “Was a Scientist Jailed After Discovering a Deadly Virus Delivered Through Vaccines?” /
—An incredibly thorough list of all Mikovits’ misdeeds and mistruths is available on this Facebook post from Ross Grayson; it also includes links to more helpful articles.
—Politifact has a pretty extensive fact-check on the video’s claims: “Fact-checking ‘Plandemic’: A documentary full of false conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.” /
—Finally, this blog post by Liz Ditz compiles all the articles she has been able to find that address the video’s misinformation.