How ‘Plandemic’ Lures Normies Down the Rabbit Hole
Fringe actors are using coronavirus lockdown to breed a new set of conspiracy-curious Americans, easing them into contact with the worst of the web.
Ann-Marie has long enjoyed researching what believers might call alternative health theories. She is well-versed in articles tied to the anti-vaccination movement, and was interested in conspiracy theories about cancer and AIDS. But it wasn’t until COVID-19 became widespread in the United States that she came into contact with the wildest conspiracy theory of the Trump era.
“If it wasn’t for COVID19, I would have been just continuing to tell my kids about the ‘stuff’ I was finding and wouldn’t have found out about QAnon,” the Pennsylvania resident, who declined to give her last name because she didn’t want her identity “out there,” told The Daily Beast.
From virtually the moment COVID-19 came onto the scene late last year, conspiracy theories about the disastrous illness have also gone viral. COVID truthers pushed hoaxes claiming Bill Gates was behind the illness, and that a future vaccine would actually be part of a secret microchipping plot.
But “Plandemic,” a debunked, documentary-style video, exploded in popularity shortly after its release this month, becoming nearly unavoidable on Facebook—at least until the platform took steps to remove it. The video, and others in its genre, first found popularity through a network of fringe social-media groups that promote ideas like QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy that accuses President Donald Trump’s foes of Satanic pedophilia and/or cannibalism.
Grotesquely weird conspiracy theories like QAnon are probably off-putting to most people who stumble upon them. But the newly popular “Plandemic”-style videos are minting a new set of conspiracy-curious Americans amid the despair of coronavirus isolation, easing them into contact with the worst of the web.
“Plandemic,” an error-ridden video starring oft-debunked scientist Dr. Judy Mikovits, racked up millions of views before it was banned by platforms like Facebook and YouTube earlier this month. (“Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm, so we’re removing the video,” Facebook previously said in a statement.) But the bans are only partially effective. A cursory search on Monday turned up live links all over Facebook, and the video’s sudden surge to virality came thanks in part to a network of existing conspiracy pages.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Across several days in early May, links to the “Plandemic” video soared in large Facebook groups tied to QAnon, as well as pages that promoted conspiracy theories about chemtrails, lizard people, and vaccines, according to data published by Erin Gallagher, an independent researcher focusing on social media patterns. Some right-wing pages, like Facebook groups for fans of Fox News host Tucker Carlson and talk radio star Rush Limbaugh, were also major hubs for the video.
“The central hubs were Qanon, antivax, general conspiracy groups,” Gallagher told The Daily Beast. “There is really a hodgepodge of all kinds of groups: antivax, 5G truthers, new age, flat earth, general pro-Trump groups, several of the ‘reopen’ Facebook groups, White rabbit/Qanon, and conronavirus-related groups. It's really a wide spectrum of truther-type Facebook groups, that are all 1 degree of separation away from each other.”
High on traffic from these Facebook groups (several with more than 100,000 members), the video spread across the web, maybe landing on your own page via a former classmate or a relative you forgot you added.
But “Plandemic” and other COVID-skeptical videos aren’t just bubbling up from the conspiratorial web with bogus suggestions that, for instance, protective masks are somehow dangerous. They’re also luring unsuspecting viewers into the depths of the far-right abyss.
In a popular Facebook group for Rush Limbaugh, posts about “Plandemic” routinely attracted comments inviting readers to check out even more fringe conspiratorial content. One Plandemic post, alone, drew comments begging people to research a false conspiracy theory about a United Nations takeover, to watch videos about the so-called “New World Order,” and to read books by David Icke, a conspiracy theorist famous for raving about “reptilians.” (Icke also laces his work with hardcore anti-Semitism.)
QAnon slogans were popular among the tie-ins dangled to other conspiracy theories. On Twitter, where Q followers were tweeting the term “plandemic” even before the clip’s release, multiple users described COVID-19 as their introduction to more extreme views.
“This 'plandemic' WOKE ME UP and showed me the world wasn't what it seemed,” one tweeted, followed by hashtags for QAnon and its sister-conspiracy Pizzagate. The account, which referenced QAnon in its name, was registered in April.
Health crises have long inspired conspiracy theories. When the Black Death ravaged Europe in the late 1340s, panicked villagers blamed the plague on a long-time scapegoat: Jews. A pernicious rumor claimed that a rabbi had ordered Jews across the continent to drop poison in cities’ wells. Never mind that the plague was a bacterial infection; locals rounded up Jews, tortured them, and in some cases extracted phony confessions, which were used as justification for pogroms that saw thousands slaughtered.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, truthers spread new conspiracy theories, accusing Germans of deliberately spreading the virus in rival countries. Even the disease’s name was a blame game. The Spanish Flu likely originated in the U.S., and other countries adopted new names for it in keeping with their rivals (Italy called it the “German Disease,” Germany called it the “Russian Plague,” and so on).
Multiple new QAnon converts told The Daily Beast the onset of the coronavirus sent them looking for answers—and that they felt like they might have found them.
“When COVID19 started, I had told my children ‘there is something MORE to this than a virus - coronavirus is essentially a cold,” Ann-Marie said. (The virus, which has killed more than 80,000 people in the U.S., is much more than a cold—or, for that matter, the flu.) “There is something deeper and darker going on..’ So I started doing some more research … I have spent 600+ hours doing my own research in the past two months.”
For her part, Twitch streamer “ItsFlickaboo” told The Daily Beast she became a QAnon convert when her husband fell ill after a trip to Portugal in December, transmitting the sickness to her upon his return. At the time, they thought it was the flu. (It’s unclear how far coronavirus had spread in Europe in December. New research suggests the disease may have spread widely in late 2019, with at least one case in France that month.) When COVID-19 began to dominate headlines in 2020, the couple became convinced that they had contracted it, and that the U.S. military had been involved in a worldwide cover-up of the disease’s spread. (This is not the case.)
“Once it became apparent that the Military was introduced, the Navy, Marines etc. I got curious and researched and that is when I found Q,” Flickaboo, who also would only provide a first name (Tanja), told The Daily Beast. She added that she has since become convinced Trump is communicating with QAnon followers in his public tweets.
“I know for myself I have always been aware about things not right in the world,” she said. “So COVID truly just made me more aware of what is actually happening.
What was actually happening, though, was the spread of COVID-truther videos like “Plandemic” from the explicit conspiracy world to more general interest groups, albeit those with a right-wing orientation.
Video from a large “re-open” protest in California also raced around Facebook with a “Plandemic” hashtag, according to Gallagher, the social media researcher.
“I saw a lot of shares of the protest video from Huntington Beach that carried the hashtag #Plandemic,” Gallagher said. “That video seems like it got a lot of traction early on.... It was posted by a ‘calm before the storm’ page.”
“Calm before the storm” is a QAnon slogan.