COVID-19 misinformation from Project Veritas spreads on Twitter, YouTube
Twitter account bans of the far-right propaganda group aren’t preventing its content from spreading
A coronavirus conspiracy theory video is earning millions of views on Twitter in spite of the platform banning accounts associated with the video’s creators. The video has also garnered over 1 million views on YouTube with no repercussions, despite that platform’s policies against spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
Project Veritas and CEO James O’Keefe are right-wing trolls known for infiltrating progressive organizations, campaigns, and nonpartisan institutions and peddling undercover footage that purports to capture wrongdoing but often just spreads misinformation.
Project Veritas’ recent video attempts to discredit Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Its spread on Twitter shows that Project Veritas still has influence on the platform despite losing its main Project Veritas account and O’Keefe’s account last year.
While the organization no longer has a direct line to the Twitter platform and continues to lose associated accounts post-ban, it can still ask followers on other platforms including Facebook and Telegram, as well as via email lists, to tweet out its content. Other prominent figures on the right, even politicians, have also proved willing to promote Project Veritas content on Twitter, allowing its dishonest smear of Fauci to trend.
In addition to Twitter, Project Veritas’ video spread on YouTube, where almost no action has been taken.
The anti-Fauci video
On January 10, Project Veritas released a video on Facebook, YouTube, and its own website claiming to expose new documents proving that Fauci lied to Congress when questioned by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in a November hearing. The group also encouraged its followers on other platforms to spread the video on Twitter.
During that hearing, Paul accused Fauci of covering up “gain of function” research into coronaviruses that the senator suggested had led to a lab leak and caused the pandemic. Project Veritas included a portion of the November exchange in its video but did not include Fauci’s full rebuttal:
ANTHONY FAUCI: You have said I am unwilling to take any responsibility for the current pandemic. I have no responsibility for the current pandemic. The current pandemic, OK? No. 2, you said the overwhelming amount of evidence indicates a lab leak. I believe most card-carrying viral biologists and molecular biologists would disagree with you. Even though we leave open all possibilities, it's much more likely that this was a natural occurrence.
By cutting Fauci’s full response and acknowledgment that a lab leak was unlikely but not impossible, Project Veritas attempted to discredit him and push the idea that COVID-19 originated from a lab and did not develop naturally.
In the video, O’Keefe presented a proposal from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that was leaked in the fall of 2021 and reported on by The Intercept. The DARPA proposal showed that the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance applied for a grant in 2018 to research and possibly develop vaccines for bats in China that had contracted forms of coronavirus thought to be able to mutate to infect humans. According to the documents, the grant was denied in part because the application did not address the risks of “gain of function” research. O’Keefe claimed this is because there was a moratorium on this kind of research. However, that moratorium was lifted in 2017, albeit with heavy limitations.
“Gain of function” refers to any research that could result in genetic mutations in the virus being studied that result in an additional “function,” such as “higher yields for vaccine strains.” Nature magazine defines it as a form of virology, “in which scientists bestow new abilities on pathogens to study them." Those abilities are not inherently malicious. But O’Keefe and others use the idea of “gain of function” research to push the lab leak theory and suggest that COVID-19 resulted from an intentional mutation of a bat coronavirus that allowed transmission to humans.
In reality, DARPA never approved funding for that kind of “gain of function” research, and while EcoHealth Alliance did receive funding from the NIAID under Fauci to work on research on bat coronaviruses in mice in 2014, there is not scientific consensus over whether that even qualified as high risk or gain-of-function research. The only conflict arose when EcoHealth Alliance did not properly report the results of its findings to the National Institutes of Health, which oversees NIAID.
O’Keefe’s only piece of original evidence that Fauci lied is pulled from a memo from Marine Corps Maj. Joseph Murphy, who claimed he had a fellowship at DARPA. However, Murphy’s memo made several unfounded claims, including that the EcoHealth Alliance’s failed DARPA proposal was picked up by the NIAID, and his only proof was that he sat in on DARPA meetings a few times during his fellowship.
Right-wing lawmakers seized on the video -- and Project Veritas has used their attention to fundraise
Far-right members of Congress jumped on this video when it was released, especially since it dropped the day before Fauci was due to again testify before the Senate last month. During that hearing, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) questioned Fauci about “gain of function” research. Fauci responded to the Project Veritas video directly, saying that he never saw the DARPA grant and it was unrelated to research funded by the NIAID.
Marshall later promoted the Project Veritas video on various right-wing media outlets, including in appearances with Fox hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
Project Veritas also touted the congressional support this video is getting from Republicans in an email blast that read:
Madison Cawthorn, Bill Posey, Diana Harshbarger, Lisa McClain, Randy Weber, and Matt Gaetz sent letters to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and HHS Secretary Beccerra asking them to confirm if the explosive documents were indeed “hidden in a top-secret share drive."
Twitter does too little too late to stem the video’s spread, and YouTube does nothing
After the release of the video, #ExposeFauci began trending on Twitter. Project Veritas also created an account for the campaign, @ExposeFauci, that was suspended by January 11. Project Veritas’ remaining main account on Twitter, that of chief of staff Eric Spracklen, was also permanently suspended on January 11.
Despite the suspension of the @ExposeFauci account, the Twitter campaign still received almost 300 million impressions (the number of times a tweet has been seen) on January 11, according to data from Twitter’s API analyzed with tool sets from Dewey Square Group.
After January 14, average posts per day on #ExposeFauci fell to around 1,000.
Multiple right-wing media and political figures, including Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Steven Crowder, and Jack Posobiec promoted the video on Twitter or decried the new ban on Spracklen’s account.
Project Veritas was able to manipulate Twitter to trend its misinformation again, despite multiple bans, showing the organization still has a platform to push its thin and easily debunkable claims even if it can no longer post directly. And it still has allies with followings and methods to manipulate its misinformation to trend even if it is for a short time.
YouTube has also allowed the video to garner over 1 million views despite its policies against COVID-19 misinformation. The platform has repeatedly refused to crack down on Project Veritas’ videos during the pandemic.