Conspiracy Theorizing in the Time of Covid-19: The Complementary Roles of Social and Hyper-Partisan News Media

This post is a “data memo” examining how social media and hyper-partisan online news media play complementary roles in the spread of conspiracy theories. It is a story about how a discredited scientist and vaccine skeptic became a household name in conversations about Covid-19. Well, it’s a small part of that story, one that is interwoven into a larger tapestry of politics and media in the Internet connected era. The story is told through snapshots of data, including a collection of tweets related to Covid-19, and views into public Facebook interactions provided by the Crowdtangle platform.

Crisis events — like global pandemics — are times of high uncertainty and anxiety. Under these conditions, we can be vulnerable to the spread of misinformation. In recent years, that misinformation spread has often occurred through online platforms. And conspiracy theories are one type of misinformation that spreads online during crisis events.

In contrast to most other online crisis-related rumors (which tend to take off quickly), conspiracy theories tend to take some time to develop. And they often rely on a range of “alternative” websites to drive their development, in a way that other social media rumors during crisis events generally do not. My colleagues and I have described these dynamics in previous research looking at the spread of false rumors during the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings.

Here, we’ll look at some of these same patterns in relation to a false narrative — which included several false claims and combined different conspiracy theories — spreading about Covid-19 in April and May of 2020. The false narrative centered around claims by Dr. Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist who has found a home in the anti-vaccine activist community and who had recently published a book with dramatic and defamatory claims about Dr. Anthony Fauci. During this time period, Mikovits was rising to prominence in online conversations about Covid-19, and actively spreading several conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus.

To get a sense of these conversations, let’s start with a view of the Twitter data. This is a temporal graph — plotting the number of tweets per hour (on the y-axis) over time (on the x-axis) — of tweets that included the term “Mikovits” along with another term related to Covid-19 (e.g. “covid” or “coronavirus”). The data is a subsample of an ongoing Covid-19 collection at the UW Center for an Informed Public.

Figure 1: Temporal Graph of Tweets with “mikovits” in the Tweet Text

The graph shows a tiny bit of traction for her name in early April, followed by a period of increasing activity starting around April 18. On that day, a new account for @DrJudyAMikovits appeared on Twitter. Others have written about how that account was set up (with help of a PR manager) and how it quickly gained followers. Here’s a tweet from Zach Vorhies, who claimed to be part of her PR team and appears to have set up her Twitter account:

Note how the initial framing for promoting Dr. Mikovits is centered around “taking down Anthony Fauci,” a theme that we will see throughout this short analysis. And hat tip to Renée DiResta at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center who called my attention (in mid-April) to this effort to promote Dr. Mikovits. Renée has been studying the anti-vaccine movement for several years, which likely helped her detect the early aspects of this campaign to boost Dr. Mikovits.

For about ten days at the end of April, we can see heightened activity, likely the result of efforts to get her account off the ground. She gained more than 25,000 followers in just three days (between April 19 and April 22). By May 1, activity around Dr. Mikovits’s name on Twitter was down a bit (<500 per hour), but then her visibility began to take off, eventually reaching more than 6000 tweets per hour on May 7. This surge in activity corresponds to the release of the “Plandemic” video, a documentary style film featuring Dr. Mikovits. The video contained many false claims about Covid-19 and pushed a range of different conspiracy theories — e.g. claiming that the disease was man-made in a U.S. lab. It also specifically attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci who was (and is still as of May 24) serving in the Trump Administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, and it contained messaging designed to undermine trust in a future Covid-19 vaccine. The Plandemic video and Dr. Mikovits’s other claims have been widely criticized for spreading numerous false claims.

But that hasn’t stopped them from spreading. The Plandemic video has received more than eight million views on Youtube. And it spread widely through other social platforms, including Facebook.

Here’s a timeline of interactions with public Facebook posts (Facebook Pages, Verified Profiles, and Public Groups) about Dr. Mikovits:

Figure 2. Interactions over Time on Public Facebook Pages, Profiles, and Groups, Credit: Crowdtangle

Similar to the graph of tweets over time, this graph shows a spike in conversation about Mikovits that begins around May 4, peaks around May 7, and then begins to decline. It’s important to note that the decline isn’t complete. Both graphs (Twitter and Facebook) show that conversation around Mikovits persists in online spaces, and though some of that is related to efforts to debunk her claims, much of it is content that continues to support and amplify her false claims.

Others have written about early efforts to boost Mikovits’s online profile and how the Plandemic video went viral online. And I’ll re-link here to the Science magazine piece disputing the claims in the video. I recommend you read those articles!

Here, I just want to draw attention to one element.

Below is a table of the top 5 “domains” (websites) in the Mikovits conversation on Twitter — where we’ve aggregated all the “mikovits” tweets that have an embedded link to an outside website.

Table 1: Top 5 Most Tweeted Domains in “Mikovits” tweets, April 1 — May 18

It’s not surprising to see Youtube here in the Twitter data, as that platform hosted the “Plandemic” video (and other videos featuring Mikovits). My colleagues and I have written previously about how Youtube is used to support the spread of mis- and disinformation through other platforms. Though Youtube tried to take action by removing the video from its platform (for violating their policies and including false health information), “activists” working to spread the anti-Fauci/anti-vaccine narrative repeatedly uploaded the video onto Youtube and other platforms to keep it alive. Interestingly, two of the other top domains, BitChute and UtahGunExchange, were used to host and then advertise back-up versions of the videos — a technique for sustaining the spread of the videos once the larger platforms begin to take actions to remove them. The fifth most-tweeted domain is a “natural health” website that peddles in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and nutritional supplements.

But let us just focus for a bit on #2 here today, because I think this is important. TruePundit is a hyper-partisan, right-wing news outlet that has repeatedly promoted baseless conspiracy theories (e.g. about the murder of Seth Rich). It is the second most-retweeted domain in the Twitter conversation about Dr. Mikovits. Most of those tweets were retweets of @DrJudyAMikovits’s new account, for this post:

In this tweet, @DrJudyAMikovits celebrates information that suggests her story has reached President Trump, and she links to an article on truepundit.com as a source for that claim. Below is an excerpt from that article:

That article highlighted recent podcasts from TruePundit attacking Dr. Fauci and others at the CDC — including an interview by Thomas Paine (a pseudonym for the owner/operator of True Pundit) of Dr. Mikovits (Episode 19, uploaded on April 21, 2020).

It seems likely that the recommendation for Mikovits to appear on the TruePundit podcast came from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who appeared in Podcast Episode 18 (uploaded on April 16, five days before Episode 19). Kennedy wrote the Foreword for Mikovits’ book, published on April 14, 2020. The two have found common cause within the growing community of anti-vaccine activism. Their appearances on TruePundit podcasts highlight increasing intersections between the far-right political community and the anti-vaccine movement.

The excerpt from this article suggests that TruePundit seized upon Dr. Mikovits’s story due to its negative claims about Dr. Fauci, which are featured in the article and the podcasts. The title of Podcast 18 (featuring an interview with Kennedy) is “Robert ‘Bobby’ Kennedy Jr. Joins the Podcast and Drops Absolute Bombshells on Bill Gates, Dr. Fauci, the CDC, FDA, Govt. Vaccine K.” The title of Podcast 19 (featuring Dr. Mikovits) is “EXCLUSIVE: TOP Scientist & HIV/AIDS Research Pioneer Dr. Judy Mikovits Blows Whistle on Dr. Fauci & Corrupt DC Medical Cartel; DIS.”

So, we can see TruePundit give a platform to anti-vaccine activists spreading false information and widely disputed conspiracy theories about Covid-19 — apparently motivated by a political objective of undermining Dr. Fauci.

Interestingly, TruePundit’s role in pushing these false narratives begins much earlier than most of the other popular domains. Youtube was already playing a small role, as Mikovits made appearances on several shows hosted by Youtube influencers. But the TruePundit article promoted by @DrJudyAMikovits’s tweet generated an early spike in the data, just as Dr. Mikovits’s story began to ‘go viral’ and before the release of the Plandemic video. We can see that timing in the temporal graph below, which includes the content for the top five most-tweeted domains in the Mikovits conversation overlaid over the total volume of tweets. Tweets linking to the truepundit.com domain are in blue.

Figure 3: Temporal Graph of “mikovits” Tweets w/ Top 5 Domains
Yellow = www.youbtube.com; Blue = truepundit.com; Red = www.bitchute.com;
Green = videos.utahgunexchange.com; Purple = articles.mercola.com

So, why is this the detail I’m focused on today? It has to do with this tweet, posted yesterday, May 24, 2020 by @realDonaldTrump, the official Twitter account of President Donald Trump.

In this tweet (which was retweeted 22,400 times and liked 60,700 times), Trump promotes a different, baseless conspiracy theory — this one claiming that Joe Scarborough had something to do with the death of a young woman in his office twenty years ago. The claim has been widely and thoroughly debunked. But my article isn’t about that claim. It’s about the tweet that President Trump has “retweeted” here to support his speculations — a tweet from an account associated with TruePundit’s owner/operator, linking to an article on truepundit.com and promoting this false claim and conspiracy theory about Joe Scarborough.

Take a second and reflect on this.

So, in the middle of a pandemic, as our country approaches 100,000 lives lost, President Trump is promoting a hyper-partisan website that has, just weeks ago, worked to spread a different false conspiracy theory — one about Covid-19, containing misinformation that could have a negative impact on our collective responses to the disease (through reduced preventative measures and reduced use of the eventual vaccine).

As a researcher of disinformation and conspiracy theories, this is what has concerned me the most since our research began to show these same kinds of connections in 2015/2016 — how false and in some cases dangerous conspiracy theories move from the margins of the internet into the mouths (and Twitter accounts) of political leaders, where they can affect policy (if those leaders begin to believe them) and infect millions of viewers (whether or not those leaders believe them). Some of the same political leaders who promote these kinds of websites simultaneously attack professional journalism as “fake news” — leaving their viewers with few resources for challenging/verifying their false claims. These dynamics of modern misinformation are already concerning, but they become acutely so during a global pandemic when we desperately need to come together around a shared understanding of the evolving situation in order to make informed decisions for ourselves, our families, our communities, and society as a whole.

** Support for this research includes U.S. National Science Foundation grant 1749815, the Knight Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.

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