English-language mentions of the conspiratorial video “Plandemic” have dwindled since it debuted in May. But according to new research exclusively shared with BuzzFeed News by First Draft, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fact-checking worldwide, the popularity of the video has soared in other languages and countries around the world.
Featuring scientist Judy Mikovits, whose history includes a retracted paper, being fired by her research institution, and jail time, the video became a centerpiece of coronavirus disinformation after it was released on May 4. When it was first published, it outperformed legitimate content and spread across the web faster than fact-checkers could debunk it.
But even though the video centered on the United States, seeking to discredit National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci, it found an audience abroad, too. The video was shared in Facebook groups in a dozen languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Polish, Armenian, and Tagalog, as well as English-language groups across Africa. It was also translated and either subtitled or dubbed into at least 13 different languages so that local audiences could understand it.
The result is evidence that while the United States constantly worries about foreign disinformation operations, the country exports false information as well.
"Stuff that goes viral or takes off in the US will generally circulate throughout the world,” Rory Smith, research manager at First Draft, told BuzzFeed News. “And when it’s kind of exported abroad, it will have a much longer tail.”
To gather the data, Smith and First Draft surveyed Facebook Groups, which were the main vector for the video’s spread, by gathering data for mentions of “Plandemic” and “Judy Mikovits.” That amounted to just over 47,000 posts, with over a million likes, shares, and comments.
The data, shown in the graphs above, revealed that non-English interactions peaked around a week or two after the English-language peak, and including a much smaller number of shares, which can be attributed to audience size. On its most-viral day, the video had over 175,000 interactions in English, but less than a 10th of that on its most-viral day in languages other than English.
Smith said he also worried about the “Plandemic” video turning into zombie hoaxes — disinformation that’s already been debunked but circulates anew.
“Information might die or it might kind of decrease in popularity here,” Smith said. “But if it persists over time, there is the chance that will again get seized on and you'll see upticks again.”
The most popular non-English-language groups in which the video was shared were in Spanish, followed by Portuguese and Italian.
No matter the language, the groups that shared the video were devoted to unproven or debunked conspiracy theories, fixated on Microsoft founder Bill Gates, or drew on the anti-Semitic hoaxes of former UK Green Party spokesperson David Icke: The top Spanish-language group, for example, is called Reptilians Are Among Us.
After YouTube and Vimeo booted “Plandemic” off their sites, the hoax found a new home on BitChute, a video-sharing platform that has long sought to support right-wing content creators. Smith found nearly 2,000 uploads of “Plandemic” on BitChute, amounting to 5.4 million views, which he described as a significant number for a site most people haven't heard of.
“It is getting lots of traction right now based off of the hundreds of ‘Plandemic’ videos that have been stored on the platform,” Smith said.
Some of the videos included subtitles for other languages and some are dubbed, as DFRLab disinformation researcher Zarine Kharazian found out firsthand. Kharazian mapped the early spread of “Plandemic” and in subsequent research came across it being spread in Armenian in what sounded to her as a professional dub on a page called “Coronavirus — fraud of the century.”
“It doesn't sound like someone just took their phone and recorded themselves speaking over it,” Kharazian said. “It's almost like a dramatic reading of the documentary. It's pretty emotional in its delivery.”
The Facebook page where it was posted was created in April and is almost exclusively dedicated to spreading falsehoods about the pandemic. It also shared the dubbed version of “Plandemic,” and, unlike with English-language versions, it wasn’t fact-checked or deleted by Facebook. Similarly, the posts Smith found weren’t fact-checked on the platform if they included a link to the video instead of an embed of it.
“For languages with fewer speakers, like Armenian, you don't have as many people on the content moderation side who are constantly monitoring,” Kharazian said. “So that's an area where partnering with local journalists and partners is really helpful.”
She’s also seen it spread in Slavic languages, like Russian and Ukrainian, and across texting apps. Kharazian said that diasporas who live in the US can sometimes be a bridge between disinformation in America and overseas.
“The thing that still surprises me is how widespread the appeal is,” she said. “Not only — as we’ve seen in the US — does it cross these niche conspiracy communities, it also seems to have appeal across national boundaries, context, and linguistic nuance. It seems to translate fairly well to different regions and cultures.”