Image via screengrab
Image via screengrab

The film has become by far the most widespread and dangerous source of coronavirus-related misinformation on the Internet to date.

In communities across the United States and around the world, thousands of people are succumbing to the novel coronavirus every day, dying alone, without their families. Mass graves have become a disturbing part of our daily conversation, and doctors and nurses are suffering such trauma that some are resorting to suicide

Even medical workers who aren’t pushed to the brink are putting themselves at enormous risk. Buffy Riley, for example, is a Wisconsin nurse who traveled to New York City to help treat COVID-19 patients. She later contracted the virus herself and fell ill. 

“The death … It feels like this is going to go on forever,” Riley told UpNorthNews in April.

As of Friday, coronavirus has infected more than 1.2 million Americans, killed more than 75,000, and brought the global economy to a standstill. 

The pandemic’s devastation and uncertainty over when it might end—some public health experts have concluded it likely won’t be contained for two years—has spurred frustration, sadness, and fear in the United States, creating a ripe environment for conspiracy theories and misinformation to fester. 

That includes the false and dangerous claims touted by a discredited scientist named Judy Mikovits, who stars in the now-viral video “Plandemic.” 

In her former life as the research director of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome-focused Whittemore Peterson Institute, Mikovits published a potentially blockbuster research paper that was later retracted from “Science,” a major research journal. She was eventually fired from her job, arrested for allegedly stealing materials from her lab, and sued by her employer. 

A decade later, Mikovits is now an ally of anti-vaccination activists who has accused the nation’s top scientific minds, including Dr. Anthony Fauci—a widely respected infectious disease expert—of orchestrating some sort of government conspiracy to “manipulate” the novel coronavirus in a lab to make it more infectious to humans.

Without evidence, “Plandemic” claims that wealthy people intentionally spread the virus to increase vaccination rates and, as a result, boost profits for those trying to make money off vaccines; protective face masks “activate” the coronavirus; washing your hands makes you more likely to contract the virus; sheltering in place hurts people’s immune systems; sand from the beach can build up your immunity to the virus; and that vaccines for the virus—which of course, do not exist yet—are dangerous.

These, of course, are all lies that defy science and have been debunked by dozens of doctors and other leading experts who have also pointed out Mikovits’ past. “The doctor in the video is considered a charlatan in the research community. I’m embarrassed to have similar credentials as her- it makes all of us look bad,” wrote Microbiologist Angela Conde Motter. 

Conde Motter also pointed out that Mikovits has a clear incentive to try to drum up publicity: She published a book last month containing similar claims as the movie.  

“She just released a book that she wants to sell,” Conde Motter said. “All attention is good attention, right?

If Mikovits’s goal was to drum up attention for her book, it worked extremely well. It’s now the number one bestselling book on Amazon. 

“Plandemic” has been denounced by numerous health experts, including two doctors who are cited in the film and have previously appeared on Fox News to share their own misleading claims that the coronavirus is less lethal than the common cold. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, urgent care doctors in Bakersfield, California, can be seen criticizing the scientific consensus on coronavirus in the film. But in a statement posted on Instagram, Erickson and Massihi blasted the film and labeled it a conspiracy theory.

“The creator of this film never asked to use our footage and has skewed our study and interviews to fit their agenda, which we do not agree with, nor appreciate,” they write. “We are not interested in being associated with the conspiracy theory against the current administration.”

Despite the widespread condemnation of “Plandemic,” the nearly 30-minute slickly produced movie has gone viral, drawing millions of views across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, and other social platforms. Those companies have since removed the videos from their sites because it violates their policies on harmful and inaccurate health information, but it continues to pop back up as users re-upload it.

The success of the video underscores how difficult it is for individuals to deal with the overwhelming amount of confusion, fear, and frustration that comes with living amid the coronavirus crisis, which has upended American life like nothing in our lifetimes. Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory—our brains are literally wired to seek out patterns, even if there aren’t any—and people want answers. 

RELATED: We Debunk 11 Coronavirus Myths

Videos like “Plandemic” give them answers—they’re just the wrong ones. Despite the efforts of Conde Motter and others, “Plandemic” has continued to spread, underscoring the appeal of easy and digestible answers over the daily struggle with uncertainty. 

“The claims Mikovits makes highlight uncertainties people feel right now,” University of Colorado at Denver professor Jennifer Reich, who studies the anti-vaccine movement, told The Washington Post.

While the pandemic has killed tens of thousands of Americans, not everyone knows a victim, which makes it easier to question the validity of the infection and death rates, Reich said. The video has a high production value and looks and sounds like a documentary, which also makes it feel more authoritative and credible, as Tara Haelle pointed out in Forbes. She’s not the only one to make this connection. 

“One of the real issues with getting authoritative information today is that what’s surfaced is essentially determined by whoever runs the best marketing campaign,” Renée DiResta, who studies disinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told NBC News.

“Plandemic” also understands that most viewers have no idea of Mikovits’ past, and the film takes the time early on to introduce her as a calm, trustworthy “doctor” and credible expert. 

“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,” Haelle wrote. “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.”

RELATED: Americans Trust Dr. Fauci and Local Leaders More Than Trump on Coronavirus

And it’s easy to. Remember KONY 2012? Tens of millions of Americans who had never heard of Joseph Kony suddenly became invested in Kony’s fate and the situation in Uganda after watching the brilliantly produced 30-minute video. The film’s director and narrator, Jason Russell, took his time unfurling the story, drawing viewers in with dynamic imagery, thought-provoking narration, and a personal story that pulled at viewers’ heartstrings. Russell took great care to make himself and his organization, Invisible Children, seem like trustworthy, compassionate, and authoritative experts.

“Plandemic” director Mikki Willis, head of a New Age film company, employs a similar approach. Willis establishes Mikovits as a relatable, knowledgeable, and likable underdog who is raging against the corrupt, powerful system. He uses heart-wrenching stock video of patients dying from AIDS and malnourished children in Africa to reinforce the film’s claim that people are dying because they can’t get the treatments they need—a strategy to appeal to viewers’ sense of injustice.

The claims in “Plandemic” are far from the only conspiracy theories that have gained traction during the coronavirus crisis, but the film has become by far the most widespread and dangerous source of misinformation on the Internet to date.

If viewers opt not to wash their hands or wear masks, they’ll be more likely to contract COVID-19, not less likely, as the movie argues. If viewers forego getting regular vaccinations for their children, they could leave their children vulnerable to things like measles, mumps, and hepatitis. Worst of all, if and when there is a vaccine for the coronavirus, if viewers believe Mikovits’s claims, they may skip the vaccine for COVID-19, and a once-in-a-generation pandemic could return year after year if vaccines aren’t widely used. 

RELATED: We Might Finally Have an Effective COVID-19 Treatment

The danger of Mikovits’s film isn’t that it could harm those who watch it—it’s that it could harm those who watch it and everyone they interact with, and everyone those people interact with. After all, in a pandemic, we’re only as safe as our neighbor.  

As Haelle writes in her Forbes piece, it is important to address family and friends sharing the video online. “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 you’re interested in reading more about “Plandemic,” the various debunkings of its claims, and the appeal of conspiracy theories more broadly, here are five other great links to check out: