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A YouTube video full of what experts have called misinformation about the coronavirus went viral this week, accumulating over 6 million views and close to half a million Facebook shares since it was published last Saturday.
The video features an interview with Shiva Ayyadurai, a candidate for the GOP nomination for Senate in Massachusetts, who questionably claimed to have invented email and who briefly dated actor Fran Drescher. It was conducted by news anchor Christina Aguayo, who hosts America’s Daily Report on America’s Voice, a right-wing cable TV network.
“Dr. SHIVA Ayyadurai, MIT PhD Crushes Dr. Fauci Exposes Birx, Clintons, Bill Gates, And The W.H.O” is full of misinformation about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed 132,000 around the world and sickened 2 million.
YouTube’s “coronavirus" search results remain relatively free of misinformation — a search typically returns a CDC warning, a liveblog about the outbreak from a trusted news source, and hundreds of videos from verified channels. But the platform has had a tougher time — particularly in India — combatting videos that go viral outside of its walls, including on Facebook and Twitter.
According to YouTube, the video was not recommended by its systems. The majority of the traffic and views come from external sites.
“You're talking about a guy who is embedded in the deep state,” Ayyadurai said of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and top-ranking member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in the interview. “[Fauci is] highly embedded into the Big Pharma medical school education.”
Ayyadurai defined COVID-19 as “an overactive dysfunctional immune system that overreacts and that's what causes damage to the body" (scientists are still trying to understand how the coronavirus interacts with the human immune system) and claimed that vitamin C could be used to treat it (USA Today has rated that claim "false").
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Ayyadurai for comment.
Ayyadurai has yet to back up what he has said with scientific data, but he continues to amass an audience — and court votes. One of many who in the last few months has built an online fanbase with hyperpartisan pandemic content, he publishes Periscopes about the outbreak almost every day, attacking anti-Trump media, speculating about the deep state, and railing against the medical establishment.
“The #FakeNews colludes with #FakeScience to create #FakeProblems, #FakeSolutions and #FakeHistory to drive us into slavery and fascism,” Ayyadurai tweeted Tuesday. “Each day I will be exposing a #FakeJournalist and/or #FakeScientist. It’s time these scumbags and parasites got some serious bitter medicine.”
Dr. Ravina Kullar, an infectious diseases researcher, told BuzzFeed News there is no data to support Ayyadurai’s claims that the coronavirus causes an overactive immune system or that vitamin C could treat it.
“I think that shows you that people are just trying to find some kind of reasoning for this coronavirus,” she said.
Kullar also said she respects Fauci and feels very lucky that he’s leading the country’s coronavirus task force: “He's a substantial infectious disease specialist who has been through this many times."
Although Aguayo characterizes Ayyadurai as an “MIT PhD" and the inventor of email, Ayyadurai is not a medical doctor and in 2016, a judge ruled that doubting his claim to have invented email, as many journalists have, was not libelous.
In 2018, he garnered 3.4% in the general election as an independent candidate for Senate in Massachusetts, placing far behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren, during a race in which he was supported by fake Facebook accounts. He is now a candidate for the Republican nomination for the state's other Senate seat, the primary for which will be held in September.
Having graduated MIT in 1986 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, Ayyadurai developed a graphic software that was sold to Lotus Software. After selling his company he returned to MIT, earning master's degrees in animation and mechanical engineering and a PhD in computational systems biology.
Most recently, Ayyadurai has cultivated an online following among anti-vaxxers and other pseudoscience communities. He is also part of a right-wing campaign to discredit Fauci. They are falsely claiming that Fauci is working with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the deep state to cause an economic collapse and discredit President Donald Trump.
On March 20, Ayyadurai tweeted, “Time to expose ‘Deep State’ Emperor Fauci & his ‘illustrious’ career of #FakeScience imposing ‘one-size-fits-all’ Medieval Mandated Medicine to profit his BIG PHARMA minions, [at] the expense of crashing our economy.”
Last month, Ayyadurai also tweeted an email Fauci sent to Clinton in 2013, and has made several Periscope videos accusing Fauci of being a member of the deep state. Ayyadurai’s video, titled "How to Kill Coronavirus," was removed from YouTube for violating its community standards. In a petition he hosts on his website, Ayyadurai accuses Fauci of forcing mandatory vaccines on Americans to support Big Pharma.
In his interview with Aguayo, Ayyadurai accused the deep state of orchestrating the coronavirus outbreak to stop Trump’s re-election. "You have a political motive of the fact that the establishment elite did not want a guy like Donald Trump ever getting elected,” he told Aguayo. “I think the deep state's real effect was to hit [Trump] with this coronavirus.”
And in language extremely similar to what’s been posted in popular 4chan threads over the last month, Ayyadurai mentioned that Fauci knows singer Elton John. Anonymous 4chan users have posted dozens of threads about Fauci, using a photo of the doctor and John to accuse Fauci of being part of a global child sexual abuse ring and part of a global Jewish cabal. (Fauci has described himself as once having been Roman Catholic, and now a humanist. John was raised Anglican, but is famously opposed to organized religion.)
"[Fauci] prides himself on connections with Hollywood and Elton John and all this,” Ayyadurai said. "What you're looking at is a strategic move to destroy the economy [by] using it as a vehicle to not only impose vaccine mandates [...] but also as an opportunity to suppress dissent and destroy freedom.”
According to social metrics site CrowdTangle, the biggest referrals for the YouTube video came from the Denver Now community Facebook Page, the QAnon-affiliated X22 Report [Geopolitical] Facebook Group, the Facebook Page for the Christian mommy blog Transformed Wife, and the Instagram account for Nashville-based chiropractor Chelsea Axe. BuzzFeed News has reached out to Facebook for comment.
Since it went viral, Aguayo has used her Twitter account to celebrate her interview with Ayyadurai — going so far as to tweet a graphic of her and Ayyadurai with the words “5+ million views" written in gold. Her interview is one of several she’s done in the last two weeks that are critical of Fauci, none of which have reached similarly large audiences.
Earlier this month, Twitter announced it would be changing its terms of service to prohibit tweets that deny global or local health authority recommendations, promote treatments or protective measures not immediately harmful but known to be ineffective, deny established scientific facts about transmission, or contain other content relating to the virus that poses a health risk. So far, those policy changes have not impacted Ayyadurai.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Twitter for comment.