Two years ago, a video of former president Barack Obama calling President Donald Trump a “total and complete dipshit” was uploaded to YouTube.
As the shock of his comments sunk in, the video revealed the speaker was in fact Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele. The Obama deepfake, a sort of Manhattan Project for fake news, was intended to demonstrate just how easy it is to disseminate convincing disinformation by manipulating video and audio — and how much easier it would become as technology advances.
“It may sound basic," said Peele-as-Obama in the video, "but how we move forward in the age of information is going to be the difference between whether we survive or whether we become some kind of fucked-up dystopia.”
The video, which was produced in partnership with BuzzFeed as a public service announcement, distilled a growing number of dire predictions and warnings that technological advances would soon fracture our shared sense of reality beyond repair. Writing in the Atlantic, journalist Franklin Foer said manipulated video would someday “destroy faith in our strongest remaining tether to the idea of common reality.”
As it turns out, the tools needed to unmoor people from our shared reality already exist and are less technological than societal.
He wrote: “We’ll shortly live in a world where our eyes routinely deceive us. Put differently, we’re not so far from the collapse of reality.”
We’re now living in a version of that dystopian future, where people are struggling to distinguish fact from fiction and are resistant to information from credible sources. But it’s not the result of new technology or sophisticated synthetic media. As it turns out, the tools needed to unmoor people from our shared reality already exist and are less technological than societal: a global pandemic that unleashes fear, uncertainty, and an economic catastrophe among a deeply polarized public; motivated and well-organized fringe and conspiracy groups eager to seize the moment to reach the mainstream; and seemingly authoritative sources and institutions that stoke that disagreement and fail to communicate effectively with the public.
In the end, the information apocalypse arrived a couple of weeks ago, ushered in not by some new reality-bending technology but by a disgraced scientist in a slick 26-minute video.
In its first few days of release, “The Plandemic” — a short film filled with so much coronavirus disinformation that it has since been banned by major tech platforms — racked up more than 8 million views across YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, peddling outright falsehoods and conspiratorial claims about the origins of the current pandemic.
This wasn't so much the result of the film's promptly and widely debunked content as it was the professional credentials of its main character, Judy Mikovits — a disgraced research scientist with a PhD in biochemistry and a resume that includes 22 years working for the National Cancer Institute. Mikovits lent a seemingly authoritative voice to a slop bucket of virus disinformation that was already circulating. She offered a PhD endorsement of long-debunked falsehoods about the coronavirus. She was a reason to believe — so much so that she is now a bestselling author on Amazon.
Mikovits was a perplexity to regular people trying to make sense of the current pandemic. As one person wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News shortly after “The Plandemic” was released: “[I can’t] figure out how to vet this disturbing video. It is either the truth or a very clever fabrication that plays all the anti vax notes.”
Mikovits lent a seemingly authoritative voice to a slop bucket of virus disinformation.
In other words, “The Plandemic” had untethered viewers from our common reality and left them unable to distinguish fact from fiction. And it had done it entirely without technological wizardry. This was the future researchers and the media warned us about. And an avalanche of fake news hearings, news literacy efforts, and investments in fact-checking infrastructure since 2016 couldn’t stop it.
As Renee DiResta, a disinformation expert and the research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained, there’s little need for deepfakes when you have a pandemic to exploit. “The additional layer of synthetic content — you don't need that in this case,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“There's enough to work with; there's enough fear, there's enough uncertainty.” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation specialist with the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, agreed. “You cannot fact-check your way out of an emotional argument, particularly when it is slickly packaged and designed to appeal to those looking to fill a trust gap.”
Jankowicz said the Trump administration’s habit of making unfounded claims about the pandemic, combined with conflicting and at times unclear advice from health authorities, contributed to that trust gap. People had to sift through inconsistent advice about wearing masks and changing theories about transmission and immunity. This is inevitable when dealing with a fast-moving novel virus; science is at its core a slow and cautious process. But people were scared, and authorities were not speaking to them in a single voice.
“You can’t counter influencers with a PDF fact sheet of handwashing and mask guidance.”
“If our CDC officials, COVID task force officials, White House officials, and governors were all sharing consistent, clear, transparent messaging about the virus, if they were modeling good behavior by wearing masks and holding briefings remotely, I think we'd be in a much different place,” Jankowicz said. “But as it stands, official communications have proliferated distrust of authority and left gaps for disinformers to exploit.”
Into that vacuum came anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and others with clear messaging that appealed to the emotion and the fear of the moment. While some public health experts scrambled to set up Twitter accounts to promote medically sound guidance, major Instagram influencers were spreading coronavirus conspiracies and sharing “The Plandemic” video with millions of followers.
“You're facing a crisis of trust at the same time that you're facing a very determined marketing and activist juggernaut that's going to be pushing out this content constantly,” DiResta said. “You can't counter influencers with a PDF fact sheet of handwashing and mask guidance.”
This information crisis is years in the making.
As doomsday warnings about deepfakes captured the collective imagination, anti-vaccine activists, QAnon conspiracy devotees, and political extremists have used Facebook Groups, YouTube, and Twitter to form online communities, churn out memes and messaging to attract new followers, and mint “experts” like Mikovits to undermine scientific authorities.
The ultimate goal for anti-vaxxers is to convert more people to their worldview, which is something this community excels at, according to a new paper published in Nature by researchers at George Washington University and other institutions. They studied user behavior on Facebook and found that “anti-vaccination clusters manage to become highly entangled with undecided clusters in the main online network, whereas pro-vaccination clusters are more peripheral.”
While pro-vaccine communities on Facebook largely keep to themselves, anti-vaccine advocates often intermingle with people who are “undecided” about vaccines. A piece of content like “The Plandemic” is engineered to reach the undecided and fearful. The researchers suggested that, based on current growth trends, “anti-vaccination views will dominate in a decade” on Facebook.
When the novel coronavirus emerged as a global health issue early in the year, influencers in the digitally savvy anti-vax community began hosting livestreams to prepare for battle. “They would talk about how this is really their moment,” said DiResta, who has researched anti-vaccine communities for years.
“The Plandemic” was a culmination of those efforts.
“The lines have really blurred.”
“We made the video to go viral,” Mikki Willis, the filmmaker behind it, told the Los Angeles Times. “We knew the branding was conspiratorial and shocking.”
A Facebook post from Willis about the film’s release encouraged people to download it and be ready to reupload when it was censored or removed. The idea that the platforms would take it down was core to the film’s marketing plan.
As the film moved out of fringe Facebook Groups and spread across the internet, it found an audience ill-equipped to critically evaluate its content, according to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The book, a Pulitzer finalist, was published in 2010 before smartphones and social media truly took over the internet. Since then, things have “just gotten worse,” Carr said.
“When you're inundated with information, you lose the ability to concentrate — and as a result, you lose the ability to think deeply and put new information into a broader context,” he said. “I think that's gotten worse because now we're cognitively connected to this barrage of information through notifications and through various streams of information.”
Carr said one byproduct of the pandemic lockdowns is that media organizations had to quickly embrace cheaper and more scaled-down video technology to deliver remote broadcasts with crews and reporters at home. This created an opening for a well-produced video like “The Plandemic” to appear equally authoritative to people struggling with an information overload.
“It makes trying to decipher what's professionally produced versus not particularly hard if everybody's filming interviews in their kitchen,” he said. “The lines have really blurred.”
In 2018, Aviv Ovadya, the Bay Area technologist who coined the term “infocalypse," told BuzzFeed News he was alarmed at the deterioration of the digital information environment.
“We were utterly screwed a year and a half ago and we're even more screwed now," he said at the time. "And depending how far you look into the future it just gets worse.”
Two years later, Ovadya stands by that prediction. “One a scale from zero to ten, I would say that the infocalypse threat level has gone up at least a notch, if not two," he said.
For years, he game-planned how new and advanced technologies could unleash new threats with terrifying names like “automated laser phishing” and "human puppets" and usher in an infocalypse, which he defines as “when the level of misinformation in a society reaches a critical threshold — such that the society can no longer function.”
“You do not need deepfakes to make infocalypse-level civilizational collapse likely.”
But he agrees that deepfakes and the like were not necessary to see the United States slide another step toward an infocalypse. “You do not need deepfakes to make infocalypse-level civilizational collapse likely,” he said, noting that authoritarian societies are further along the path to a full infocalypse than the US is. But the country’s struggle to contain the virus and the coordinated efforts to exploit it for disinformation show its devolution.
The US now has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases of any country in the world, and it’s also become a super-spreader of conspiracies about the virus. Pandemics have historically caused a rise in conspiracies and disinformation. In the past, the corresponding information crisis largely retreated along with the virus and/or the introduction of a vaccine. But there’s reason to worry the US could be on a reversed path, in which the disinformation crisis exacerbates even as the public health crisis recedes.
As typified by “The Plandemic,” many of the most viral and persistent pieces of disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak are not simply a byproduct of people struggling to make sense of a scary and confusing situation. They’re the result of coordinated campaigns executed by online conspiracy and health disinformation communities.
The ultimate goal is likely to undermine confidence in a future vaccine and continue the assault against the medical community, the government, and related targets, ranging from Bill Gates to 5G technology. The creation of a COVID-19 vaccine will very likely open a new front in the information wars — one for which health authorities, social media platforms, and the public are not ready.
“The anti-vaccine activists who initially elevated Mikovits, and Plandemic, have been quite direct about the fact that they see the COVID-19 vaccine as an opportunity not only to erode confidence in that vaccine, but in the very concept of vaccination overall,” DiResta said.
“I’m calling for a five year moratorium on all vaccines,” she said.
She predicts they will “begin to harass the individuals who are doing the work of vaccine development, and the people working on the public education campaigns to come, ‘exposing’ them as somehow ethically compromised, ‘bought,’ incompetent, etc, relying on discrediting tactics of the type commonly seen in political smear campaigns.”
On Wednesday, Mikovits, who claimed in “The Plandemic” that she isn’t anti-vaccine, warned against the coming COVID-19 vaccine and said she doesn't trust any current vaccine recommended by the CDC. “I’m calling for a five-year moratorium on all vaccines,” she said.
Ovadya said the battle over the coronavirus pandemic and a vaccine will reverberate beyond health communities, ultimately increasing the number of people “who are part of an organized and active community that has lost its ability to make sense of the world, and that might take actions that are severely harmful to themselves and others.”
In the meantime, Willis is preparing to release the second part of “The Plandemic.” ●