On Monday, Facebook announced, yet again, that it was going to tackle the scourge of anti-vaxx disinformation on its platform.
Of course, it’s made these types of pronouncements before. But this time it means business.
“Today, we are expanding our efforts to remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram about COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, and vaccines in general during the pandemic,” the statement released Monday read.
But while Facebook was patting itself on the back for finally getting around to tackling an insidious problem that has plagued the platform for years, it emerged that it had once again failed to stop a disinformation-filled video from generating tens of millions of interactions.
“Planet Lockdown” appeared to be an almost carbon copy of “Plandemic”, a video that featured a so-called “whistleblower” who shared dangerous conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. When “Plandemic” was released in April 2020, it quickly spread virally on Facebook, racking up tens of millions of views.
And now Facebook is facing the same problem all over again.
What is “Planet Lockdown”? Well, in the filmmakers’ own words, it’s “a 90-minute documentary on the situation the world finds itself in. We spoke to some of the brightest and bravest minds in the world, including epidemiologists, scientists, doctors, lawyers, protesters, a statesman, and a prince.”
So who are these experts, really?
Well, they include:
- Carrie Madej — a QAnon-supporting doctor who spoke at the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally before the storming of the Capitol.
- Markus Haintz — an attorney who has represented anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
- Knut Wittkowski — an epidemiologist who has criticized masks and social distancing and supported herd immunity as a response to the pandemic.
The entire film has yet to be released—the filmmakers claim it’s coming sometime in February—but what has been released are some of the interviews with experts who take part in the film.
One of those interviews is with Catherine Austin Fitts, a former assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush. Now, however, Fitts has turned into a full-blown conspiracy theorist. She’s appeared multiple times on Alex Jones’ Infowars and has written for and associated with Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaxx organization run by RFK Jr.
In the video, Fitts makes a number of false claims that amount to a grand conspiracy about a “committee that runs the world” and is using the pandemic to enhance its power—a theory that many QAnon followers would recognize.
But her claims are not coded or couched in technical language. She openly endorses the baseless theory that COVID-19 vaccines can alter your DNA (they don’t), make you infertile (also no), and contain microchips (again, no).
She also takes time to veer off into some pro-Trump conspiracies, saying the U.S. has “a fake virus and a magic virus and a fake president” and that there was “massive voter fraud.”
“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,” Fitts says at the end of the interview.
Despite making such false, groundless, and dangerous claims, the interview went viral when it was posted on YouTube and then shared on Facebook last month.
According to data collected by the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America and published Tuesday, an upload of Fitts’ interview from the “Planet Lockdown” YouTube channel 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.
The inability of Facebook to prevent this obviously dangerous video from circulating for so long unchecked on its platform highlights just why so many people are skeptical about the company’s latest promise to do better.
Central to the skepticism is the fact that this is not the first time the company has said it would do better. In December, the company said it would remove some false claims about vaccines, and declared that ads that make false claims about vaccines are not allowed.
Critics and advocates have been trying for years to get Facebook to remove anti-vaxx conspiracy theories, with no luck. The company typically hid behind a free speech argument, despite evidence that the content was demonstrably harmful to people’s health.
But even now, the size and scale of the problem on Facebook is unknown, because the company simply won’t reveal the data it has on how many people have been impacted by this disinformation.
And even when Facebook does get it right, it somehow manages to mess it all up again.
After Facebook removed the page of notorious anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree in November, for violating its policies against “misinformation that could cause physical harm,” he managed to continue to spread his disinformation on a new Facebook page—cryptically called “Del Bigtree.”