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Ireland's Plandemic: How a YouTube video about coronavirus racked up almost one million views before it was taken down

The interview with Dolores Cahill highlights the problem facing social media companies about when to take information down.

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FOR ONE OF the most controversial Irish videos posted to YouTube this year, the hour-long discussion is low-key. 

Over a recorded video chat set in two ordinary rooms and with awkward camera angles, academic and chair of the fringe Irish Freedom Party Professor Dolores Cahill makes a number of claims about coronavirus as she is interviewed by YouTuber Dave Cullen, who goes by the username Computing Forever.

Cullen has grown a large audience on social media: since he joined YouTube in 2006, his videos have been viewed over 100 million times with 447,000 subscribers, and he has over 62,000 subscribers on BitChute, a niche YouTube alternative. 

The description of his channel says that it is focused on politics, social commentary and technology, as well as “criticisms of social justice, political correctness and hyper consumerism,” according to his description on BitChute.

Some of his video titles in recent months include The New World Order Is Already Launched, Questioning the Coronavirus Narrative, and The Current Dystopia And The Road Ahead. 

The topics in the interview with Cahill are varied: Cahill begins by speaking for almost 10 minutes about her background as a scientist, her degree in molecular genetics and her PhD in immunology.

Cullen, the interviewer, moves to talk about scientists and academics who have been “censored” for speaking out about coronavirus, including Judy Mikovits, who made the widely discredited and inaccurate Plandemic video.

Cahill explains her thoughts on coronavirus. She tells Cullen that people will have “hardly any symptoms” if they get the virus if they have been eating healthily and taking vitamins C and D along with zinc; she says that there is no need for a vaccine for Covid-19, and is critical of the ingredients contained in vaccines. 

Lockdown is unnecessary, she says, and people have life-long immunity once they recover from coronavirus. 

Some of her comments echo theories which have caused debate in the US, where some people protest wearing masks and ignore lockdowns. 

GIF 10-08-2020 17-52-30 Source: YouTube

At one point Cullen points out that a high number of infections have been reported in meat processing plants. “They are going after the meat processing plants,” he says, as Cahill agrees, saying: “Absolutely”.

“There’s a reason for this,” Cullen continues. “[Bill] Gates is investing in lab-grown meat. Anything that goes into your body, these people want to control. The food, the medicine, vaccines, the whole thing.”

The video gained traction almost immediately after being published on 11 May with huge views and engagement across social media.

It racked up close to one million views within a matter of days after being posted on Cullen’s Facebook page, his YouTube channel, and being shared by another Irish Facebook page, according to Business Insider

This chart from Google Trends shows the scale of the level of interest – not the volume of searches, which Google does not make available – across May and June: the blue line shows search interest in Dolores Cahill in Ireland, compared to the red line showing interest in Plandemic, which was widely shared around the world, for comparison.

Searches for Dolores Cahill peaked on 13 May, two days after the video was first published, and surged over the coming days.

google trends

The interest on social media was huge. Research by The Journal found that there were 2,885 posts on Facebook which mentioned Cahill in the first three weeks of May alone, receiving over 125,000 reactions, shares and comments, according to social media metrics site CrowdTangle.

The most popular post has 7,400 reactions, 12,300 comments and 6,800 shares.

And all of this doesn’t even include the posts that were deleted – because within one week of the video being posted, it was taken down by YouTube and Facebook.

The Dolores Cahill video is the latest front of the battle facing social media and messaging platforms.

Amid an already heated battle about whether political figures such as Donald Trump should be allowed to post misinformation, videos like this raise questions about the potential damage caused by bad information and conspiracy theories, and what the platforms should be doing to address them. 

trump Source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

“The issue with a lot of conspiracy theories is that almost universally, it’s a case of two plus two equals five, but there are some kernels of truth in there,” says Alastair Reid, managing editor at First Draft, an organisation which tracks and fights misinformation. 

“And that’s what makes them so compelling. It’s connecting the dots and making connections where they don’t always exist.”

How do videos like this take off?

The Dolores Cahill video did not exist in a vacuum. Within weeks of the first cases of coronavirus in Europe, theories about it began to spread across WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. 

The most popular topics in Ireland included 5G, vaccine untruths, Bill Gates, false cures and remedies, and political misinformation.

“Coronavirus has turned into this enormous conspiracy theory that brings together loads of existing elements,” says Reid. 

“When there is an existing conspiracy theory about a new world order or deep states or global elites who are looking to control and subjugate the population of the world – when people were already saying that that was going to happen without very much basis for it, the pandemic makes it very easy to say ‘This is what I was talking about’,” says Reid. 

One recent study found that people share coronavirus misinformation on social media partly because they’re distracted: they’re not paying as much attention to accuracy when they’re sharing a post, and may be focused on other concerns like social validation. 

Another theory suggests people share things that are untrue because it reinforces their sense of who they are: they might share a tip on how to cure coronavirus in a family WhatsApp group because they genuinely want to be helpful, without thinking through the ramifications.

But there are also bad faith actors too.

shutterstock_574801435 Source: Shutterstock/Zapp2Photo

Since the 2016 election in the US, bots are frequently cited as being behind particularly divisive conversations on Twitter, often at the behest of a bad faith actor like Russia or China.

Bots, automated programs which talk like humans online, have been blamed for hijacking hashtags with disinformation and for propelling videos like the Dolores Cahill interview to wider audiences.

However, what Twitter users think of as a bot – a recently registered account with a username like @andrew35428396837 and opinions they disagree with – can often just be a human who is not used to using Twitter.

One study which suggested that more than half of the tweets discussing the coronavirus were from bots did not provide information to back up the claims, and Twitter said it had “seen no evidence to support the claim”.

Reid says there is little or no evidence that bot activity has propelled misinformation and conspiracy theories about coronavirus. 

“We often see the term bots thrown around but it’s very, very difficult to accurately identify an account which is a bot,” he says. “Twitter and Facebook and the people who run the accounts are the only ones who have the information to do that.”

He says that Twitter and Facebook will frequently make public when they find a network of inauthentic, automated accounts, but “they have yet to come out with anything” about coronavirus bots. 

“In reality, it’s often very difficult at a glance to tell the difference between what might seem to be a bot account and a pensioner who is very enthusiastic and has a lot of time to tweet all throughout the day about a single issue that they’re very passionate about,” he says. 

Ironically, the first tweet about the Dolores Cahill video was sent at 1.45pm on 11 May from an account that identifies itself as a bot in its bio.

Hundreds more tweets were sent about it in the first two days, with the top-rated tweet receiving 257 retweets and more than 380 likes.

Tweet by @Fiona Marie Flanagan Source: Fiona Marie Flanagan/Twitter

Another of the most popular tweets came from Jim Corr, formerly of the band The Corrs, who disseminates conspiracy theories and misinformation from his social media accounts.

“We will legally challenge attempts at forced vaccination in Ireland,” his tweet reads. It received 260 likes and more than 120 retweets.

Of the more than 300 tweets sent about Dolores Cahill and the video on the day it was released, almost all are positive and encouraging people to watch the video. “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, IF YOU WATCH NOTHING ELSE, PLEASE WATCH THIS,” says one. 

Of the 10 most popular tweets which talked about the video in its first three days, seven of them have what look like real names on the account, seven have been on Twitter for more than a year, and all have uploaded a profile photograph, suggesting real people are behind all these accounts. Some have very considerable follower numbers, unlike a typical bot account. 

This indicates that the video was shared, by and large, mainly by people who wanted to amplify it, rather than by automated services.

Other countries have seen similar examples: Plandemic, the slickly-produced 26-minute video promoting a range of falsehoods and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 was removed by YouTube and Facebook after being viewed tens of millions of times in May.

plandemic Judy Mikovits in a screengrab from Plandemic

The New York Times found that it was shared widely on Facebook pages “dedicated to conspiracy theories and the anti-vaccine movement”, before it was picked up by the mainstream media four days after it was first posted. 

News outlets began to factcheck the video and later that day, YouTube and Facebook both removed it for violating their policies on misinformation. 

Why are videos like this removed

Both YouTube and Facebook took the Dolores Cahill video down for breaking the policies on misinformation. 

Like other platforms, the two social media giants have made significant changes or amped up their approach to combating misinformation during the pandemic. 

“We have clear policies that prohibit videos promoting medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment, and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us,” a spokesperson for YouTube told TheJournal.ie

The comments were echoed by Facebook. 

“We don’t allow and have removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of Covid-19-related misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm,” a spokesperson for the company told TheJournal.ie

“This includes posts that make false claims about cures, treatments, the availability of essential services or the location and severity of the outbreak.” 

Twitter began adding a label to tweets in recent weeks which linked Covid-19 with 5G, and has begun taken a more proactive approach to what it allows on its platform, including hiding a tweet by US President Donald Trump for “glorifying violence”. 

There is still a long way to go for the platforms, however. 

Reid says that while they have made steps in the right direction, “it doesn’t fix the fact that their whole systems are set up to reward sensationalist, emotionally charged content, and often that content rewards emotion over truth, essentially”. 

“Until that is fixed, or until society reaches a balance about how we use these networks and how we share information, then it’s only ever going to be whack-a-mole.

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“They’re just swotting away at some of the issues because they’re not addressing the fundamental underlying structure that gives rise to these conspiracies and to disinformation and allows it to reach so many people.”

Researchers suggest that conspiracy theories are coming into the mainstream far more now, raising questions about what can be done to dilute and stop them. 

Denying oxygen to misinformation is a way of stopping it from spreading. Newspapers, radio stations and news websites – including TheJournal.ie – did not cover the story of the initial Dolores Cahill video or of it being taken down from platforms.

The Irish Times has since run two articles about it: one about Cahill being asked to resign from an EU committee over claims she made in the interview and another about UCD’s school of medicine disassociating itself from her views. 

UCD’s College Tribune newspaper has also run several articles, detailing how 133 students in the school signed a 15,000-word letter criticising Cahill’s claims. 

One conservative website published a piece criticising the decision as ‘censorship’ and questioning the power of the platforms to make such a decision.

The video was also factchecked by US science website Health Feedback, which uses a network of scientists to collectively assess the credibility of health stories in the media, and which found “numerous inaccuracies about Covid-19 and vaccines” throughout. 

The site debunked 15 of her claims, including the claim that vaccines are not safety-tested. “Contrary to Cahill’s claim, vaccines are tested and continually monitored for safety,” the factcheck says. 

Reid says there is evidence that theories which would have been a niche concern in the past are now becoming mainstream because they’re being shared so widely. 

“They’re being discussed over the dinner table, because someone saw someone share something on Facebook and made a very compelling case for it,” he says. 

“But that’s without really answering all the questions that they raise. And that’s another element: they often raise many more questions than they answer.”

Dolores Cahill did not respond to a request for an interview from TheJournal.ie 

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Through 2016, deep fakes, Brexit and Trump, Ireland did not see misinformation in the same way or at the same level as other jurisdictions.

But since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, TheJournal.ie FactCheck has debunked or examined 75 claims about the coronavirus.

Through that work, we have been able to track the pandemic’s impact on Ireland’s susceptibility to and relationship with fake news.  

In this series, we will investigate some of the more notorious stories – who started them, and what effect they had on the population? We interrogate the atmosphere and tools that allowed the messages to spread – their R number as scary as Covid-19’s.

This new coronavirus may not be with us forever, but misinformation could be one of its deadly after-effects. 

So now we ask: Is Ireland changed forever? See the full series here.

About the author:

Christine Bohan

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