The ‘documentary’ uses a debate strategy known as “gish gallop” in which the speaker overwhelms the audience with so many claims that it is impossible to keep up and rebut them all.
By Alex Dew
Art by Mahir Kart
The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to a colorful array of conspiracy theories, and last week saw one of the most widely-consumed and dangerous assaults on truth yet: a video called “Plandemic,” in which disgraced scientist Judy Mikovitz makes a series of wild, unsubstantiated claims targeting Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and undermining health precautions advised by the government and medical community. The 26-minute, apparently professionally-produced video is the work of former model Mikki Willis, and was viewed millions of times on YouTube and social networks before they removed it. It’s drawn widespread criticism from media watchdogs and doctors: “…that video reeks of crazy sauce…[she’s a] crazy, attention-seeking person,” said Dr. Zubin Damania, in a response posted on YouTube.
Mikovitz makes several outrageous accusations against Fauci, including saying that he sent an email threatening to have her arrested in 1998 if she came to the NIH to participate in a study that would validate her chronic fatigue research. Fauci denied sending the email, and the study in question wasn’t exactly a feather in Mikovitz’s cap, despite Willis’ claim that Mikovitz is “one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation”: The study, which purported to have found a connection between a mouse retrovirus and chronic fatigue syndrome, was later retracted by the peer-reviewed journal Science, citing errors in quality control, after discovering that Mikovitz’s findings were impossible to replicate.
Controversy followed Mikovitz, and she was later indicted for stealing laptops and proprietary information after being fired from her job at the Whittemore Peterson Institute. Despite Mikovitz’s claims that she was “drug out her house” and “held without charges” as a “fugitive from justice,” she actually turned herself in. The SWAT team footage edited into her interview is unrelated to her case. While the charges were eventually dropped, her former employers won a civil judgment against her. Further, even though Mikovitz claims not to be an anti-vaxxer in the video, she co-wrote two books with Kent Heckenlively, who routinely argues for a link between autism and vaccination, and she has made remarks disparaging vaccines in the past.
Mikovitz also accuses Fauci of participating in a “cover-up” and says that he profited off the AIDS crisis. It is true, according to the Associated Press, that Fauci and other scientists received royalty checks from their NIH patents. However, Fauci explains that he was required by law to put his name on the patents as a government employee and that he donated all the profits, feeling it was inappropriate to take them. In telling this story, Mikovitz seems to imply that Fauci has had a hand in encouraging the coronavirus pandemic in the name of greed.
After lambasting Fauci, Mikovitz makes several dangerously inaccurate claims about COVID-19, intercut with cellphone footage from alleged “doctors” and strategically edited clips from TV news. She seizes upon the alleged conspiracy of the virus originating in a Wuhan lab that the president himself recently espoused, saying that it would normally take “800 years” for a zoonotic disease to jump to humans. I can find no information confirming Mikovitz’s “800 year” claim, and respected sources in the scientific community have debunked the lab theory. “The abundance, diversity and evolution of coronaviruses in wildlife strongly suggests that this virus is of natural origin,” explains University of Sydney professor Edward Holmes, who was involved in mapping the COVID-19 genome. In other words, while the lab theory cannot be completely rejected, it is improbable to the point of not meriting further investigation.
Mikovitz also claims that the NIH gave $3.7 million to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that the NIAID had been doing experiments on coronavirus in collaboration with them. The NIAID actually donated to EcoHealth Alliance, an American nonprofit that does research on infectious diseases, for the purposes of “examin[ing] the risk of future coronavirus emergence from wildlife.” Only $600,000 of those funds were directed to the Wuhan Institute, which the NIH and the State Department had approved to collaborate on the project.
Mikovitz goes on to state that, “If you’ve ever had a flu vaccine, you were injected with coronaviruses,” a claim that virtually the entire medical community has denied. When pressed for evidence by FactCheck.org, Mikovitz failed to provide any, asserting that the fact that flu vaccines are created inside chicken eggs and dog kidney cells was proof enough. But cell-based vaccine creation technology is used in a wide variety of vaccines in the U.S., such as those for rotavirus, polio, smallpox, and chickenpox. If Mikovitz’s theory were true, at least a large portion of those injected with all of these vaccines would also have coronavirus. In making her flu-shot argument, Mikovitz relies on a study completed by the military she mistakenly says involved COVID-19, when the study was on other coronaviruses. Further, the military study was largely debunked when it was discovered that the data failed to adjust for age groups and seasons, determinant factors in the occurrence of coronaviruses.
Mikovitz advocates for using hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus, lamenting the fact that it was “ke[pt] from the people.” In reality, the NIH says that there is no evidence either for or against hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment for coronaviruses. A study at the US Veterans Health Administration actually found no benefit and a higher death rate in patients who were treated with the drug, despite Trump’s touting the drug a few weeks ago. The FDA has warned against using the product outside of hospital settings because it has been linked to heart problems.
Perhaps Mikovitz’ most absurd argument is that wearing masks actually leads to the wearer self-infecting with coronavirus. “Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus. You’re getting sick from your reactivated coronavirus expressions,” Mikovitz says. Viruses by nature are not “activated” by anything; they only need living cells to replicate. The ability of viruses to replicate has nothing to do with whether someone is wearing a mask. Even if a coronavirus-positive patient were wearing a mask, once you’re already “shedding” or rebreathing the virus, there are a billion times more virus molecules inside your body than in your breath. She ignores the important point that that mask is the only line of protection between the infected person and the healthy person.
Mikovitz questions the reported numbers of coronavirus victims, citing payouts from Medicare as motivating doctors to attribute unrelated deaths to it. It’s true that a 20% premium was attached to Medicare for COVID-19 treatments as part of the CARES Act, and that hospitals and doctors get paid more for these patients if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, three times more than usual if those patients are placed on ventilators. However, most experts agree that the coronavirus numbers are actually much higher in the U.S. than has been reported because tests aren’t readily available. During the H1N1 pandemic, a study showed that the United States’ lab-confirmed numbers only accounted for 1 out of 7 deaths the virus caused, and it is highly likely the same is true of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mikovitz finishes her grand tour of misinformation by claiming that she was paid to “teach Ebola how to infect humans” while working at Fort Detrick in 1999. In reality, the Ebola virus has had the ability to infect humans since 1974, decades before Mikovitz’s research.
When “Plandemic” made the rounds, I was surprised that many of my friends on social media whom I would consider media-savvy and socially-conscientious were sharing the video. After watching it, I can see why: far from the amateurish, slipshod conspiracy videos that targeted Planned Parenthood in 2015, this video is slickly put together, its production quality and format emulating high-quality documentaries like those by PBS and HBO. As Forbes points out, while “Plandemic” is replete with falsehoods, it presents a solidly constructed argument, successfully employing the Aristotelian argumentative techniques of ethos and pathos to establish Mikowitz’s credibility and stir up sympathy for her by “portraying her as a victimized underdog.” It also uses a debate strategy known as “gish gallop” in which the speaker overwhelms the audience with so many claims that it is impossible to keep up and rebut them all.
It strategically, but superficially resists resting its argument on Mikovitz’s interview alone, even though that makes up the vast majority of the film. Willis knows that one voice is easy to dismiss so he intercuts Mikovitz’s interview with short clips from news videos, and perhaps most troublingly, doctors who support her claims. Most of these doctors are dressed in scrubs, shot in what appears to a medical environment — one even has the classic anatomical diagrams in the background. But none of these people is named in the usual documentary fashion, with a caption below. Two have been identified as Bakersfield, CA doctors Dan Erickson and Artin Massahi, and they were quickly castigated by the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, who issued a joint statement of condemnation against them, saying “These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their on personal financial interest without regard to the public’s health.” Another “doctor” in the video is chiropractor Eric Nepute, who possesses neither an MD or a DO or any expertise on virology or epidemiology. Nepute has claimed that tonic water prevents COVID-19 and chloroquinine and zinc “crush” it, statements so ridiculous that don’t even merit debunking.
It’s also appealing that the video provides answers, something much of the valid scientific research can’t do yet. Mikovitz and the “doctors” are steadfast and confident in the information they provide, and they come off as experts. Mikovitz’s work history appears impressive before you scratch the surface — she has been involved in numerous significant studies at reputable institutes, even if her tenure was short-lived and marked by scandal. The claim that the coronavirus numbers are inflated is appealing to people suffering from the economic and social fallout of the disease because it gives them hope that perhaps things aren’t really as bad as they seem, perhaps this will end soon. Wearing a mask is a hassle, and any encouragement not to do so is welcome news for many people longing for a shred of normality. Further, as the baseless vilification of Bill Gates demonstrates, people are looking for someone to scapegoat. Dr. Fauci, who has risen to prominence during the pandemic, is an easy target for their frustration. In other words, the video plays off of many of our most base fears and desires, which we are more vulnerable to in times like the pandemic.
The emergence of “Plandemic” and its subsequent popularity highlight the importance of double-checking any information you encounter on social media and even news websites about the virus. That information can come in the form of a meme that looks like a sixth-grader made it, or in the form of a glossy documentary populated by “experts.” Perhaps what is most insidious about “Plandemic” is exactly how professional it appears, but anyone with a budget can achieve high production value, and we will likely see several more videos like it pop up on in social media as the pandemic continues – there is evidently a sequel a “Plandemic” in the works. It is great that social networks are cracking down on coronavirus misinformation and deleting it, and that “Plandemic” can no longer be shared online, but the first line of the defense is to be a savvy viewer. The pandemic is both a war against a virus and a war against misinformation, and we all lose when the public unquestioningly accepts dangerously inaccurate material.