This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In March, former researcher Judy A. Mikovits was best known to a handful of people in the anti-vaccine and “medical freedom” worlds. By mid-May, she was the subject of articles in every major news outlet in America. She was propelled into the mainstream by Plandemic, a pseudo-documentary full of outrageous, verifiably false claims in which Mikovits stars.
In April, an-ex Google employee turned QAnon fan and committed anti-vaxxer named Zach Vorhies was both publicly and privately crafting a plan to get Plandemic to the widest possible audience. In an unlisted YouTube video that circulated in right-wing circles before Plandemic was released, Vorhies discussed his own plan to make the film go viral, which included running Mikovits' social media accounts: "I know how to run a campaign … so that's what we're going to do. We're going to make her famous." It worked.
Plandemic was a legitimate viral sensation: It made sweeping, grandiose, alarming, entirely false claims about the provenance of the novel coronavirus, promoted specious and debunked cures for the disease, and sought to personally discredit infectious disease czar Anthony Fauci, all while also trying to sow broad doubt about vaccine safety. It spread across Facebook through groups linked to QAnon, anti-vaccine causes, and general conspiracy pages, with extra support from ReOpen America groups, before exploding onto seemingly everyone’s news feed. It’s been viewed at least eight million times on YouTube and Facebook, though both platforms ultimately pulled the video down for violating their community guidelines. It’s still available on other, less-trafficked video platforms.
Do you know anything we should know about the funding or promotion of 'Plandemic,' or other disinformation campaigns? We'd love to talk to you. Contact the reporter at email@example.com.
But while the movie has been exhaustively covered, the plan to get it in front of the eyeballs of the world hasn’t been. The New York Times noted last week that Vorhies had set up a GoFundMe campaign titled “Help me amplify Pharma Whistleblower Judy Mikovits.” The campaign was spotted by Renee DiRestra, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who studies the spread of disinformation online. The newspaper also noted that Vorhies seems to have been the driving force behind getting Mikovits on Twitter; her first tweet, which has since been deleted, read, “A big thanks goes out to Zach Vorhies (@Perpetualmaniac) for helping me get on Twitter!”
But it turns out Vorhies’ stated involvement in Plandemic goes even deeper. In an unlisted YouTube video published on April 19, which he linked to in a now-deleted PayPal pool, Vorhies sought help to amplify Mikovits’ message, making it clear that he saw her claims as “part of the Great Awakening,” as he put it. (That’s a term QAnon supporters use to refer to the age of American enlightenment that will be ushered in when every dark plot and evil scheme being hinted at by Q is exposed.) Vorhies’ video makes a number of sweeping and false claims about Mikovits’ research and about purported risks and contaminants in vaccines. It also made it clear that Vorhies is frequently tweeting on Mikovits’ behalf.
“Every video tweet I do under her name gets way more engagement than I’ve ever seen,” Vorhies tells the camera.
Vorhies, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE, is an ex-YouTube and Google employee who refers to himself as a “whistleblower.” He gave hundreds of documents to the right-wing group Project Veritas, known for producing misleading videos and frequently flubbed sting attempts.
Vorhies now has a number of interests. He tweets frequently about the dangers of vaccines, including promoting the long-debunked idea that they cause autism.
Since 2018, he’s also become deeply involved with QAnon, though he’s more recently been critical of Q and the movement for not predicting the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Vorhies also has clear ties to the anti-vaccine world. He’s appeared on The HighWire with Del Bigtree. Bigtree is a former CBS producer who’s pivoted into the anti-vaccine world. In the unlisted YouTube video, he shares video clips that appear to be from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., featuring an interview with Judy Mikovits where she again falsely claims that Anthony Fauci is personally responsible for her downfall. Kennedy and his organization Children’s Health Defense also frequently promote anti-vaccine causes, and Kennedy wrote the foreword to Mikovits’ book, Plague of Corruption, which became Amazon's top best-seller following the success of Plandemic.
In the video, Vorhies claims that Mikovits’ research was “derailed by Anthony Fauci,” who, as he puts it, “saw to it that her career was destroyed.” That’s flatly untrue: after Mikovits’ research—which claimed that a mouse retrovirus called XMRV caused chronic fatigue syndrome—was called into question, the National Institutes of Health funded a $2.3 million study at Fauci’s request to definitively settle the question of whether XMRV caused chronic fatigue. As part of that study, Mikovits was given more funding and a chance to replicate her original research, which she couldn’t do. In a press conference announcing the findings of the study, Mikovits acknowledged, “It’s not there,” and thanked the NIH.
That’s a far cry from the narrative Mikovits, Vorhies, and others now promote. In the unlisted video, Vorhies says that Mikovits “discovered that the vaccine supply and the blood supply was contaminated with zoonotic retroviruses coming from mice,” and, in a series of graphics, suggests that “hundreds of millions of Americans may have received vaccines contaminated with XMRV.” The idea that vaccines are contaminated with XMRV or any other dangerous retrovirus has been repeatedly debunked; the pro-vaccine site Vaxopedia has a list of the many studies that have confirmed that. Nor did Mikovits’ work have anything whatsoever to do with vaccines, though her supporters have more recently claimed that it did.
In outlining his plan to get Plandemic seen, Vorhies says he was introduced to Mikovits by the filmmaker Mikki Willis, who made the video and appears in it as her interviewer. Willis, who with his wife runs a New Age film company called Elevate Films, wasn’t previously well-known before Plandemic. He and Vorhies are Facebook friends, however. Vorhies tweeted VICE’s article about the film while seemingly complaining that “the media” had missed that Willis is a former Bernie Sanders supporter who was “redpilled.”
“I was introduced to Judy by filmmaker Mikiki Willis, who asked me to look in and see if I could help Judy with a few social media things and helping her get started,” Vorhies says in the video. “I offered to do it for free for a few days, and wow, she went viral. I created a Twitter account and within one day she got 17,000 followers. Every video tweet that i do under her name gets way more engagement than I’ve ever seen, and I blew the whistle on Google. At this point, seeing the amount of engagement that this lady is getting, what we need to do is double down.”
Vorhies makes it clear that the money raised will go towards paying him personally to promote Mikovits, saying, “So I’m reaching out to you today for your help to help me make America great again with a small contribution. I’m going to use the money to pay for myself. I can do all the media. I know how to run a campaign. No one can do it as good as I can that I know of. So that’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to make her famous.”
That effort clearly began with reaching out to YouTubers Vorhies thought might be receptive to his and Mikvotis’ message. “In the last 24 hours,” he says in the video, "I’ve gotten two major YouTube content creators booking a schedule: RedPill78 with over 200,000 subscribers, I believe and TracyBeanz, with over 100,000 subscribers. Just this morning Sara Carter called in and we’re about to schedule an interview with her.” RedPill78 did indeed interview Mikovits, around the same time she was appearing on other right-leaning programs. The PR push that didn’t get much attention, at first, outside of those relatively insular worlds; Carter, a Fox News contributor with over 1 million followers, doesn’t appear to have released any interview she may have done with Mikovits.
“The Plandemic video wasn't the first attempt to reframe Mikovits as a whistleblowing counter to Fauci,” said Renee DiRestra, the research manager who studies disinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “That narrative appeared back in mid-April as the core PR message around the launch of her book. The conversations she had with YouTube influencers were all focused on reinforcing it, but most of those videos were 1:1 interviews that didn't have the slick production and tight editing to make them compelling to mainstream audiences. Those largely stayed within the channel audience, and the 'true believer' audiences. Antivax, Q, and now ReOpen groups have had a lot of overlap for a while.”
At the end of his video, Vorhies returned to the larger theme: making Mikovits famous as part of a much bigger campaign. “We’re really going to make America great again,” he told his viewers. “This is part of it. This is part of the Great Awakening. This is the part where we teach our fellow person that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone can get access to health, and that health doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of a big payment to pharma every month. That health can be realized if we just take away the toxins that are being put in our environment every month. This is bigger than all of us, but together we’re going to make this a cultural changing and defining moment in history.”