YouTube and Facebook allowed another COVID-19 conspiracy theory video to go viral
The Plandemic-style video has gotten tens of millions of views and engagements on social media
Update (2/9/21, 8:40 a.m. EST): Five of the seven YouTube reuploads specifically highlighted in this article have now been removed for violating YouTube’s terms of service. Additionally, the TikTok pages for the hashtags “#PlanetLockdown” and “#catherineaustinfitts” are now each listed as having zero views, with no videos displayed under either.
Update (2/9/21, 5 p.m. EST): Planet Lockdown’s GoFundMe campaign has now been banned, with the GoFundMe page taken down. Planet Lockdown’s site confirmed the ban, claiming it was due to an “amorphous reason.”
Update (2/10/21): The remaining YouTube reuploads highlighted in this article have now been removed for violating YouTube’s terms of service. Facebook has also removed Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Instagram post of the video, following an inquiry by The Washington Post.
YouTube and Facebook allowed a video full of false conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, vaccines, and voter fraud -- all of which violate the companies’ rules -- to rack up at least 20 million combined views or engagements on their platforms. This is essentially a repeat of the viral spread last year of Plandemic, another faux documentary pushing conspiracy theories about COVID-19.
The new video, part of a series called Planet Lockdown, successfully ran nearly the same playbook as Plandemic, which features a supposed “whistleblower” spouting false -- and dangerous -- conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
Plandemic drew tens of millions of engagements on social media and was translated into multiple languages. A dedicated site allowed people to share the Plandemic video onto various platforms, which forced social media companies to play whack-a-mole with uploads. (YouTube also struggled with the spread of a Plandemic sequel, though not to the same extent).
Like Plandemic, Planet Lockdown has its own site, where it is vaguely described as a “documentary on the situation the world finds itself in” that features “some of the brightest and bravest minds in the world.” The site also includes language explaining how it can be easily shared online, like the Plandemic site did.
The site features a trailer for the full Planet Lockdown series, which includes interviews of various conspiracy theorists who push false claims about the pandemic and criticize mitigation measures. Subjects include Carrie Madej, a doctor who supports the QAnon conspiracy theory and who spoke at the January 6 pro-Trump rally before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; Markus Haintz, an attorney who has represented anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; and Knut Wittkowski, an epidemiologist who has criticized masks and social distancing and supported herd immunity as a response to the pandemic, in contradiction to health experts and government agencies. The site claims that the full movie will be released “by early February 2021.”
One of the Planet Lockdown videos that has been released so far has already gone viral. It’s an interview with Catherine Austin Fitts, a former assistant secretary of housing and urban development under President George H.W. Bush and an anti-vaxxer who has written for and associated with Children’s Health Defense, Kennedy’s anti-vax organization. She has also been a guest on conspiracy theory outlet Infowars multiple times.
The video, which came out in late December, features Fitts making a variety of false claims that amount to an elaborate conspiracy theory in which a “committee that runs the world” is using the pandemic to enhance its power. She claims that a coronavirus vaccine will “modify your DNA and for all we know make you infertile” (it does not and will not); explicitly endorses the false conspiracy theory that the vaccine will include microchips; and falsely claims that we have a “have a fake virus and a magic virus and a fake president” and that there was “massive voter fraud.” (She also says people don’t have to pay their taxes “because the government is breaking all the laws related to financial management.”)
At the end of her interview, Fitts refers to the government operation to create a coronavirus vaccine and explicitly urges people to reject it, saying, “Don’t help the military build Operation Warp Speed, OK? Don’t help the tech guys figure out how to inject nanoparticles into your body and hook them up to the cloud. Don't help big pharma, you know, make injections which are poisoning American children to death.”
Both YouTube and Facebook have previously claimed they have barred content pushing the microchip conspiracy theory. Facebook also said it was prohibiting coronavirus misinformation that “contributes to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm” and now says it is banning all false claims about vaccines, while YouTube had claimed it would prohibit content falsely alleging mass voter fraud impacted the 2020 presidential election.
According to the tracking tools CrowdTangle and BuzzSumo, an upload of Fitts’ interview from Planet Lockdown’s YouTube channel, “Truth Matters,” earned at least 8.1 million Facebook engagements, including at least 5 million shares. Another upload of the video, from a channel also called “Planet Lockdown,” has at least 8.2 million Facebook engagements, including at least 5 million shares, according to those same tracking tools. Both of those uploads have since been taken down for violating YouTube’s terms of service. Planet Lockdown’s Telegram channel on January 6 announced that YouTube had removed the video and that it had earned 2.7 million views.
But other uploads of the video continue to circulate, just as reuploads further spread Plandemic. Multiple reuploads are still up on YouTube, where they have amassed more than 900,000 combined additional views and tens of thousands more Facebook engagements. Some of those reuploads translate the video into different languages, just like with Plandemic, such as German, Italian, Polish, Swedish, and Russian. And at least one of the reuploads also has ads, meaning both the channel and YouTube made money from the video.
Additionally, uploads of the video have also spread on Facebook (some in different languages), getting hundreds of thousands of additional views. And on Instagram, an upload of the video from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. earned more than 900,000 views alone. Facebook also briefly allowed a page affiliated with the far-right Alternative for Germany party to run an ad with a link to a site that shows part of the video and links to Planet Lockdown’s site.
A hashtag on TikTok for the video, “#PlanetLockdown,” also has more than 15,000 views, and another hashtag for the video, “#catherineaustinfitts,” has nearly 9,000 views, even though that platform prohibits misinformation about the coronavirus and coronavirus vaccines.
Multiple uploads of the video are also on Vimeo, where they’ve gotten tens of thousands of views, even though that platform prohibits content that “causes real-world harm.” And the video has earned hundreds of thousands more views on BitChute and Rumble (platforms known for being popular with the far-right) and on Infowars’ site banned.video (Infowars has also praised the video).
Those behind Planet Lockdown have also been able to promote the video and other videos from the series with their own Facebook and Instagram pages. (They’ve also posted them on their “Truth Matters” YouTube channel, which has earned hundreds of thousands of combined views.)
Planet Lockdown has also set up a GoFundMe effort to supposedly help with the “post-production of the film and continuing interview series,” and it has received thousands of dollars. But GoFundMe’s terms of service prohibit campaigns that are “fraudulent, misleading, inaccurate, dishonest, or impossible,” and the company has said it prohibits “campaigns raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines.” Planet Lockdown also has a PayPal account registered to an “Hermes LLC”; PayPal’s terms of service say it prohibits providing “false, inaccurate or misleading information.”
The strong virality of the Planet Lockdown video suggests that social media platforms have still not been able to figure out how to deal with the Plandemic playbook. And the video’s spread also demonstrates the YouTube-to-Facebook pipeline that has allowed dangerous coronavirus-related misinformation to go viral once again.