Monday, May 11, 2020

Virus conspiracists in the US elevate a new champion

The rise of Dr Judy Mikovits is the latest twist in the virus disinformation wars, which have swelled throughout the pandemic.

USA Today Network via Reuters

10 May, 2020


NEW YORK — In a video posted to YouTube on Monday (May 4), a woman animatedly described an unsubstantiated secret plot by global elites like Bill Gates and Dr Anthony Fauci to use the coronavirus pandemic to profit and grab political power.

In the 26-minute video, the woman asserted how Dr Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading voice on the coronavirus, had buried her research about how vaccines can damage people’s immune systems. It is those weakened immune systems, she declared, that have made people susceptible to illnesses like Covid-19.

The video, a scene from a longer dubious documentary called “Plandemic,” was quickly seized upon by anti-vaccinators, the conspiracy group QAnon and activists from the Reopen America movement, generating more than 8 million views. And it has turned the woman — Dr Judy Mikovits, 62, a discredited scientist — into a new star of virus disinformation.

[The problem with disinformation is that it distracts from the issue, it diverts attention to debunking such disinformation, it leads people down a clearly false path and ultimately a dead end, it promotes demonstrably wrong and dangerous ideas, it diverts resources to dead end research, and lengthens the process of getting to the right answer. Freedom of Expression will allow a thousand flowers to bloom, but then there must be a process of culling the wheat from the chaff. If the problem calls for a thousand solution, then yes, leave the thousand blooming flowers alone. But if some of the flowers (proposed solutions) have been discredited, debunked, disproof, are clearly wrong, then the avenues of further research should rightly focus on the more promising proposals. Not be distracted, diverted, and diluted.]

Her ascent was powered not only by the YouTube video but also by a book that she published in April, “Plague of Corruption,” which frames Dr Mikovits as a truth-teller fighting deception in science. In recent weeks, she has become a darling of far-right publications like The Epoch Times and The Gateway Pundit. Mentions of her on social media and television have spiked to as high as 14,000 a day, according to media insights company Zignal Labs.

The rise of Dr Mikovits is the latest twist in the virus disinformation wars, which have swelled throughout the pandemic. Conspiracy theorists have used the uncertainty and fear around the disease to mint many villains. Those include Dr Fauci after he appeared to slight US President Donald Trump and Gates, a co-founder of Microsoft, as someone who started the disease. They have also pushed the baseless idea that 5G wireless waves can help cause the disease.

On the flip side, they have created their own heroes, like Dr Mikovits.

The conspiracy theorists “recast a pusher of discredited pseudoscience as a whistleblowing counterpoint to real expertise,” said Ms Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Dr Mikovits did not respond to requests for comment.

Dr Mikovits has a degree in biology from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in molecular biology from George Washington University. From 1992 to 2001, she worked at the National Cancer Institute as a postdoctoral fellow, a staff scientist and a lab director, then served as research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease from 2006 to 2011. In 2011, after her research into chronic fatigue syndrome was discredited, she was fired from Whittemore.

Dr Mikovits’ rise to internet notoriety has been sudden. According to data from Zignal Labs, she was rarely mentioned on social media platforms in February.

By April, coverage of Dr Mikovits rose to 800 mentions a day. That month, Ms Darla Shine, the wife of Mr Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive and former top aide to Mr Trump, promoted Dr Mikovits’ book in a tweet. Videos by The Epoch Times, a publication with ties to the Falun Gong, and conservative outlet “The Next News Network” interviewed Dr Mikovits about the pandemic, generating more than 1.5 million views on social networks.

Then came the video from “Plandemic,” which made mentions of Dr Mikovits on social media spike far higher. The video was produced by Mr Mikki Willis, who was involved in making “Bernie or Bust” and “Never Hillary” videos during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Her arguments also began to spill over into the real world, including her baseless assertion that “wearing the mask literally activates your own virus.” There is no evidence that wearing a mask can activate viruses and make people sick. On Thursday in Sacramento, California, a woman brandished a sign in front of the state Capitol that read, “Do you know who Dr Judy Mikovits is? Then don’t tell me I need a silly mask.”

YouTube and Facebook have removed the “Plandemic” scene, saying that it spread inaccurate information about COVID-19 that could be harmful to the public. But the video continues to circulate, as people post new copies. Twitter added an “unsafe” warning on at least one link featuring Mikovits on the social network and blocked the hashtags #PlagueOfCorruption and #Plandemicmovie from trends and search.

Dr Mikovits has attacked Dr Fauci online since at least 2018. But her claims did not gain much traction until this year, when the narrative that Dr Fauci was secretly plotting to undermine and discredit the president started spreading.

Dr Mikovits says Dr Fauci’s attacks on her work date back to the 1980s when she contributed research to the National Cancer Institute as a graduate student. In the video being shared, Dr Mikovits alleges that Dr Fauci intercepted her research on HIV to make money off patents, threatened her and then took undeserved credit for moving the field of HIV treatment forward.

She also ties her professional downfall to Dr Fauci. In 2009, Dr Mikovits published research in the journal Science claiming to show that a mouse retrovirus caused chronic fatigue syndrome and other illnesses. That research gained significant media attention, but it was discredited a couple of years later, including with a retraction by the journal. Dr Mikovits was briefly jailed in California on charges of theft made by Whittemore. The charges were later dropped.

Dr Mikovits has sought to reframe the scandal as part of a broader campaign of persecution, aimed at silencing her work questioning the safety of vaccines.

There is no evidence that Dr Fauci and Dr Mikovits interacted. In a statement to the fact-checking website Snopes, Dr Fauci denied ever having threatened Dr Mikovits. “I have no idea what she is talking about,” he wrote.

The National Cancer Institute referred an inquiry about Dr Mikovits’ claims to the National Institutes of Health, the agency that oversees the NCI’s cancer research and training. Dr Fauci came to the NIH as a clinical associate in 1968 and was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH by 1984.

In a statement, the agency said, “The National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are focused on critical research aimed at ending the Covid-19 pandemic and preventing further deaths. We are not engaging in tactics by some seeking to derail our efforts.”

Dr Ian Lipkin, the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, said in an interview Saturday morning that Dr Fauci had asked him in 2011 to design a study that would address whether Dr Mikovits and others could reproduce her research showing an association between XMRV, the mouse retrovirus, and chronic fatigue syndrome. He pointed to a September 2012 news conference at Columbia in which Dr Mikovits admitted the link her original research had made between the mouse retrovirus and chronic fatigue syndrome was “simply not there.”

“Now is the time to use” the invalidating results that came out of the effort to reproduce her research “and move forward,” Dr Mikovits said at the time. “And that’s what science is all about.”

Mr Ivan Oransky, a co-founder of academic watchdog Retraction Watch, which has followed Dr Mikovits’ work closely, said that when he sees videos like the one posted in the past week, “they tend to coalesce around certain kinds of subjects, then the trajectory turns to martyrhood really quickly.

There is some evidence that prominent members of conspiracy groups have tried to give her name and her story a lift online.

Mr Zach Vorhies, a former YouTube employee who has recently promoted QAnon conspiracy theories, posted a GoFundMe campaign April 19 titled “Help me amplify Pharma Whistleblower Judy Mikovits.” The campaign was first spotted by Ms DiResta, of the Stanford Internet Observatory.

A day before the GoFundMe campaign began, a newly created account for Dr Mikovits tweeted for the first time. “A big thanks goes out to Zach Vorhies (@Perpetualmaniac) for helping me get on Twitter!” It was retweeted 400 times and liked more than 2,200 times. The account has gained over 111,000 followers in less than a month.

GoFundMe removed the page Friday, stating that the campaign violated the website’s terms of service for “campaigns that are fraudulent, misleading, inaccurate, dishonest, or impossible.”

Mr Vorhies did not respond to requests for comment.

Dr Mikovits’ newfound notoriety has also lifted sales of her new book. This past week, “Plague of Corruption” shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s print bestseller list. The book was out of stock Friday. Amazon said that the book did not violate the company’s content guidelines.

Skyhorse, the independent publishing company behind the book, defended its decision to print Dr Mikovits. “The world should discuss the ideas in this book rather than allow censorship to prevail,” a spokeswoman for Skyhorse said.

Dr Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said her rise illustrated how the anti-vaccination movement had “taken a new ominous twist” with the coronavirus.

“They’ve now aligned themselves with far-right groups,” Dr Hotez said, “and their weapons of choice are YouTube, Facebook and Amazon.” 

THE NEW YORK TIMES


Why coronavirus conspiracy theories flourish. And why it matters.

12 April, 2020


NEW YORK — The coronavirus has given rise to a flood of conspiracy theories, disinformation and propaganda, eroding public trust and undermining health officials in ways that could elongate and even outlast the pandemic.

Claims that the virus is a foreign bioweapon, a partisan invention or part of a plot to re-engineer the population have replaced a mindless virus with more familiar, comprehensible villains. Each claim seems to give a senseless tragedy some degree of meaning, however dark.

[Conspiracy theories are ultimately cognitive strategies to give meaning to tragedy. It gives (some) people a sense of control over the uncontrollable. It helps (for some) to view the world as good and evil. It is the need of some minds to have a handle of "good" or "evil" to explain circumstances and events around them, because it gives order to an otherwise chaotic and random world. Conspiracy theories are ultimately a rejection of a random world, and conspiracy theorists are at heart unable to deal with random reality.] 

Rumours of secret cures — diluted bleach, turning off your electronics, bananas — promise hope of protection from a threat that not even world leaders can escape.

The belief that one is privy to forbidden knowledge offers feelings of certainty and control amid a crisis that has turned the world upside down. And sharing that “knowledge” may give people something that is hard to come by after weeks of lockdowns and death: a sense of agency.

“It has all the ingredients for leading people to conspiracy theories,” said Dr Karen Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain.

Rumours and patently unbelievable claims are spread by everyday people whose critical faculties have simply been overwhelmed, psychologists say, by feelings of confusion and helplessness.

But many false claims are also being promoted by governments looking to hide their failures, partisan actors seeking political benefit, run-of-the-mill scammers and, in the United States, a president who has pushed unproven cures and blame-deflecting falsehoods.

The conspiracy theories all carry a common message: The only protection comes from possessing the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear.

The feelings of security and control offered by such rumours may be illusory, but the damage to the public trust is all too real.

It has led people to consume fatal home remedies and flout social distancing guidance. And it is disrupting the sweeping collective actions, like staying at home or wearing masks, needed to contain the virus.

“We’ve faced pandemics before,” said Mr Graham Brookie, who directs the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We haven’t faced a pandemic at a time when humans are as connected and have as much access to information as they do now.”

This growing ecosystem of misinformation and public distrust has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to warn of an “infodemic”.

“You see the space being flooded,” Mr Brookie said, adding, “The anxiety is viral, and we’re all just feeling that at scale.”


THE ALLURE OF ‘SECRET KNOWLEDGE’

“People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr Douglas said. Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control.

If the truth does not fill those needs, we humans have an incredible capacity to invent stories that will, even when some part of us knows they are false. A recent study found that people are significantly likelier to share false coronavirus information than they are to believe it.

“The magnitude of misinformation spreading in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelming our small team,” Snopes, a fact-checking site, said on Twitter. “We’re seeing scores of people, in a rush to find any comfort, make things worse as they share (sometimes dangerous) misinformation.”

Widely shared, Instagram posts falsely suggested that the coronavirus was planned by Mr Bill Gates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. In Alabama, Facebook posts falsely claimed that shadowy powers had ordered sick patients to be secretly helicoptered into the state. In Latin America, equally baseless rumours have proliferated that the virus was engineered to spread HIV. In Iran, pro-government voices portray the disease as a Western plot.

If the claims are seen as taboo, all the better.

The belief that we have access to secret information may help us feel that we have an advantage, that we are somehow safer. “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have,” Dr Douglas said.

Italian media buzzed over a video posted by an Italian man from Tokyo, where he claimed that the coronavirus was treatable but that Italian officials were “hiding the truth”.

Other videos, popular on YouTube, claim that the entire pandemic is a fiction staged to control the population.

Still others say that the disease is real, but its cause isn’t a virus — it’s 5G cellular networks.

One YouTube video pushing this falsehood, and implying that social distancing measures could be ignored, has received 1.9 million views. In Britain, there has been a rash of attacks on cellular towers.

Conspiracy theories may also make people feel less alone. Few things tighten the bonds of “us” like rallying against “them”, especially foreigners and minorities, both frequent scapegoats of coronavirus rumours and much else before now.

But whatever comfort that affords is short-lived.

Over time, research finds, trading in conspiracies not only fails to satisfy our psychological needs, Dr Douglas said, but also tends to worsen feelings of fear or helplessness.

And that can lead us to seek out still more extreme explanations, like addicts looking for bigger and bigger hits.


GOVERNMENTS FIND OPPORTUNITY IN CONFUSION

The homegrown conspiracists and doubters are finding themselves joined by governments. Anticipating political backlash from the crisis, government leaders have moved quickly to shunt the blame by trafficking in false claims of their own.

A senior Chinese official pushed claims that the virus was introduced to China by members of the US Army, an accusation that was allowed to flourish on China’s tightly controlled social media.

In Venezuela, President Nicol├ís Maduro suggested that the virus was an American bioweapon aimed at China. In Iran, officials called it a plot to suppress the vote there. And outlets that back the Russian government, including branches in Western Europe, have promoted claims that the United States engineered the virus to undermine China’s economy.

In the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, leaders praised bogus treatments and argued that citizens should continue working.

But officials have hardly refrained from the rumour mongering in more democratic nations, particularly those where distrust of authority has given rise to strong populist movements.

Mr Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s anti-migrant League Party, wrote on Twitter that China had devised a “lung supervirus” from “bats and rats”.

And President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has repeatedly promoted unproven coronavirus treatments and implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all took the extraordinary step of removing the posts.

President Donald Trump, too, has repeatedly pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists and despite at least one fatal overdose of a man whose wife said he had taken a drug at Mr Trump’s suggestion.

Mr Trump has accused perceived enemies of seeking to “inflame” the coronavirus “situation” to hurt him. When supplies of personal protective equipment fell short at New York hospitals, he implied that health workers might be stealing masks.

His allies have gone further.

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and others have suggested that the virus was produced by a Chinese weapons lab. Some media allies have claimed that the death toll has been inflated by Mr Trump’s enemies.


A PARALLEL CRISIS

“This kind of information suppression is dangerous — really, really dangerous,” Mr Brookie said, referring to Chinese and American efforts to play down the threat of the outbreak.

It has nourished not just individual conspiracies but a wider sense that official sources and data cannot be trusted, and a growing belief that people must find the truth on their own.

A cacophony arising from armchair epidemiologists who often win attention through sensational claims is at times crowding out legitimate experts whose answers are rarely as tidy or emotionally reassuring.
They promise easy cures, like avoiding telecommunications or even eating bananas. They wave off the burdens of social isolation as unnecessary. Some sell sham treatments of their own.

“Medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust in medical authorities, which can impact people’s willingness to protect themselves,” Dr Daniel Jolley and Dr Pia Lamberty, scholars of psychology, wrote in a recent article.

Such claims have been shown to make people less likely to take vaccines or antibiotics, and more likely to seek medical advice from friends and family instead of from doctors.

Belief in one conspiracy also tends to increase belief in others. The consequences, experts warn, could not only worsen the pandemic but also outlive it.

Medical conspiracies have been a growing problem for years. So has distrust of authority, a major driver of the world’s slide into fringe populism. Now, as the world enters an economic crisis with little modern precedent, that may deepen.

The wave of coronavirus conspiracies, Dr Jolley and Dr Lamberty wrote, “has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself.”

THE NEW YORK TIMES



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