By Susan Benkelman
How do you cover a conspiracy theory? Journalists who write about misinformation know that the trick is to debunk the falsehoods without amplifying them or generating any suggestion of legitimacy. Context is critical, as is an exploration of potential harms for believers.
The pseudoscience-ridden, conspiracy-driven “Plandemic” video, which contains a number of baseless theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, provides a case study in the number of ways journalists can approach such a story. Since the video first appeared early last week, the myriad angles journalists have used to cover it show that a good debunking can be embedded in any number of story genres. Here are seven:
1. Fact-checkers worked methodically, claim by claim:
As would be expected, traditional fact-checkers did plenty of straightforward claim debunking. PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke chose what he called the “most misleading” claims, like the falsehood that someone who’s ever had a flu vaccine has been injected with coronaviruses.
FactCheck.org also chose eight. Snopes did three. NPR’s Scott Neuman gave background on the story, then debunked five claims. There was some overlap, but it was also interesting that the fact-checkers didn’t all check the same claims – the video provided a buffet of falsehoods to choose from.
2. An investigative reporter’s treatment:
ProPublica health care writer Marshall Allen started from a personal perspective – a request from his brother, a pastor in Colorado, for advice about how to answer people who were persuaded by the video. Then he put his investigative skills to work, asking basic questions such as: “Is the presentation one-sided?” and “Is there an independent pursuit of the truth?”
The effect was to bring readers into the inquiry and walk them through the process of disproving the video’s basic premises.
3. Profiling the main character:
Who exactly is the scientist in the video, Judy Mikovits? There have been several profiles, but one of the most authoritative came from Science Magazine, which closely followed the story of Mikovits, a molecular biologist who in 2009 co-authored a since-retracted piece in Science about the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. (In its piece, Science Magazine made clear that its news department is separate from the editorial department of Science that published and retracted the paper).
The authors of this week’s Mikovits profile, Jon Cohen and Martin Enserink, in 2011 wrote a detailed reconstruction of the 2009 episode.
4. Helping people respond to believers:
For The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker, who covers families and education, talked to experts about the best way to respond to family and friends who believe conspiracy theories like the one outlined in the video.
The advice is similar to guidance we’ve heard before – don’t judge, don’t patronize, don’t personalize things. One key point: “It’s also important to know when to give up.”
5. An appeal to logic:
Lifehacker’s Beth Skwarecki started her piece acknowledging that some of the assumptions underlying the video might appeal to people – that Big Pharma has a lot of power, for example, and that the public is getting conflicting messages.
Then she proceeded to dismantle its claims, focusing on some basic ways that they simply defy objective assessment. One example: “Anybody who thinks Big Pharma needs a conspiracy to make money hasn’t been paying attention to how Big Pharma actually works.”
6. Digging into the tech:
The Verge’s Casey Newton, MIT Technology Review’s Abby Ohlheiser and TechCrunch’s Taylor Hatmaker wrote about the video’s virality, the challenge that social platforms face in policing it, and the effect of algorithms in its online performance.
7. Providing context:
In their report for NBC, disinformation reporters Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins provided deep context, embedding nuggets in their story that weren’t found elsewhere. Among them: Misinformation researcher Joan Donovan’s insight that when tech companies take down this kind of content, it takes on a “limited-edition” aura that proponents can use to promote it.
BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynekno also provided context, explaining that Mikovits has been “attempting to insert herself into the COVID-19 pandemic narrative since late March.”