Misinformation Monitor: March 2021
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By Kendrick McDonald and Chine Labbé
Additional reporting by Virginia Padovese, Marie Richter, Gabby Deutch, Sophia Tewa, and Melissa Goldin
“An Absolute Dictator”: RFK Jr. on Dr. Anthony Fauci, “deadly” vaccines, and other conspiracies — all annotated with fact checks by NewsGuard
For most of his life, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was known for his successful high-profile efforts to clean up polluted waterways, including New York’s Hudson River.
But in 2005, he began shifting his skepticism of government policies away from the environment, and focusing instead on science and vaccines. For the past decade and a half, Kennedy has seized on the prominence of his family’s name to falsely claim, with no proof, that the American medical establishment is lying about the safety of vaccines.
In a recent interview with NewsGuard , the day before Instagram removed his page for spreading dangerous misinformation, Kennedy discussed the COVID-19 vaccine and the coronavirus pandemic. Citing his experience in assessing related scientific issues he encountered in his career as an environmental lawyer, Kennedy has fashioned himself a crusader against Big Pharma and the government health apparatus that he says props it up.
You can read the full interview with Kennedy, edited for length and clarity, on NewsGuard’s website, along with annotated fact checks debunking the dozens of arguments Kennedy employed to bolster his claims that Dr. Anthony Fauci controls a ring of medical establishment co-conspirators and that Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. The interview lasted for half an hour but required a team of four reporters to each take several hours debunking Kennedy’s falsehoods.
Taken together, his claims, and our point-by-point fact checks provide an eye-opening look at how hoaxes metastasize. Read it here.
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Ich bin ein anti-Vaxxer: Children’s Health Defense in Europe
By Virginia Padovese, Marie Richter, Chine Labbé, and Kendrick McDonald
While Facebook-owned Instagram cracked down on Kennedy’s personal Instagram, the Facebook page of iChildren’s Health Defense (CHD), the nonprofit organization chaired by Kennedy, remains active, as Kennedy seeks to expand his organization worldwide. In August 2020, CHD launched a new website — ChildrensHealthDefense.eu — with content specifically targeting a European audience. “The launch of this organization, Children’s Health Defense, in Europe is a beachhead; it’s an announcement to the world that we are not going to take it. We are building institutions to fight your institutions,” RFK Jr. stated during a launch event.
During an anti-lockdown protest in Berlin on Aug. 29, 2020, RFK Jr., gave a speech in which he warned that the pandemic gave governments “the ability to impose controls on the population that the population would otherwise never accept — creating institutions and mechanisms for orchestrating and imposing obedience.”
Breaking it down: Many European misinformation outlets translated and published his speech, amplifying the reach of his conspiratorial messages and giving CHD a global audience.
- At least ten German, five Italian, and five French-language websites rated Red — generally unreliable — by NewsGuard published a transcript or video of the speech, including JournalistenWatch.com, ByoBlu.com, and AubeDigitale.com.
- RFK Jr. referenced the 1963 West Berlin Speech by his uncle, President John F. Kennedy. Several French Red-rated outlets, and Italy’s Red-rated Oltre.tv, described the 2020 event as similarly “historical.”
- FranceSoir, the website of a former well-respected national newspaper that has recently published numerous false and unsubstantiated claims about COVID-19, spoke with RFK, Jr. two days after his speech. “If you can come to France, I definitely invite you,” publishing director Xavier Azalbert told him at the end of the interview.
- In an interview with the German version of RT, RFK Jr. falsely claimed that no vaccines recommended in the U.S. have been tested against placebos, and he praised the Russian propaganda outlet. In the U.S., “RT America is the only place that we can talk about many of these subjects,” he said, later adding, “Unfortunately we have to go to Russia, to Russian TV, to tell the truth.”
In some cases, the expansion built on existing connections between CHD and European anti-vaxxers.
- Italy’s Red-rated Corvelva.it became a “Coalition Partner” in February 2019 and is listed on a CHD page by that name with other like-minded groups from the U.S., Germany, and Canada.
- In a May 2020 story, Kennedy cited Antionetta Gatti, the wife of Stefano Montanari, the owner of Italy’s Red-rated site StefanoMontanari.net. That site, and CHD, published a letter from Gatti in July 2020 supporting the anti-vaccine movement and stating, “Italy was sold to Big Pharma and has become a huge laboratory where experiments are carried out on the population.” Gatti asked Kennedy, to “inform your people of what is happening in Italy.”
- In April 2020, the Red-rated French language Swiss website Antipresse.net, which has republished false and misleading information about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic, republished a CHD article and explained its interest in the celebrity factor RFK Jr. brings to the anti-vax movement. “It’s rare for a member of the U.S. establishment to attack another in such a frontal way, and with such grave accusations,” the site wrote. “But we know that the Kennedys like living dangerously.”
Why we should care: Antipresse.net’s quote sheds light on what might be a key reason for Kennedy and his group’s warm reception in Europe (not to mention in the U.S.). He’s seen as a member of the establishment willing to align with anti-establishment groups, lending authority and visibility to their cause. As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, public health officials will continue to face a challenge in establishing their own authority among skeptical groups prone to conspiratorial thinking.
How a US video platform became a safe haven for French conspiracy theorists
By Sophia Tewa and Chine Labbé
Odysee is a US-based video sharing platform. None of its team members speak French, says Odysee marketing director, Julian Chandra. Yet, since its September 2020 launch, this site, built by the founders of a well-known publishing platform that uses blockchain technology, has become a mini-phenomenon in France.
Breaking it down: From November 2020 to February 2021, French-language videos from Odysee were shared on social media more frequently than English ones. According to data from NewsWhip, a social media intelligence company, 561 French-language videos appeared on Facebook or Twitter, compared to 120 English-language videos. Many videos with the highest levels of engagement (such as likes and shares) covered conspiracy theories.
- An estimated 28% of the site’s desktop traffic comes from France, as of February 2021, according to SimilarWeb. And part of that success can be found in the world of conspiracy theories.
- In late 2020, many French conspiracy theorists turned to Odysee after they were deplatformed from more mainstream sites. French tech news website Numerama even called Odysee “the YouTube of conspiracy theorists.”
- In November 2020, for instance, the French conspiracy documentary “Hold-Up” found a temporary home on Odysee after Vimeo removed it. Since then, the three-hour long documentary — which rehashes many long-debunked conspiracies about the COVID-19 pandemic, including the idea that the virus was created by the Pasteur Institute, a French research institute — has been removed from the platform for copyright violation, Chandra told NewsGuard.
From the beginning, Odysee CEO Jeremy Kauffman openly positioned his platform as a freer alternative to YouTube, which, he said, had become “far too strict.” Yet Chandra told NewsGuard that he did not see Odysee as an equivalent of Parler or Gab — two self-declared free-speech, right-wing social networks that have attracted many Trump followers after the former U.S. president was banned from Twitter and Facebook. He also said he did not want Odysee to be painted as a “repository for deplatformed content” either.
“Odysee is a generalist platform, apolitical in nature… as a company, we don’t endorse or promote anything that you see on the platform, it’s just a platform,” Chandra told NewsGuard in a February 2021 phone interview. “If you are looking for a platform that is predominantly made up of controversial personalities that were deplatformed at one point or another, that’s a platform like BitChute or Parler or Rumble. It is not Odysee.”
The French adoption of Odysee in recent months tells a different story.
- Far-right essayist Alain Soral’s Egalite Et Reconciliation video channel — which was suspended from YouTube in July 2020 — has more than 37,000 subscribers on Odysee. (Egalite Et Reconciliation also has a channel on Gab.)
- Silvano Trotta, a popular YouTuber who has promoted many conspiracies, including the idea that the moon is hollow and that 9/11 was a hoax, joined Odysee in September 2020 after receiving several warnings on YouTube and worrying that his account would be removed. In a video promoting his new channel — now boasting more than 56,000 subscribers — he said: “You can’t say anything anymore on YouTube… The rules of the YouTube community have become close to that of a sect.”
- French QAnon channel Les DeQodeurs, which was suspended from YouTube, already boasts more than 26,000 subscribers on Odysee.
Odysee asserts that appealing to extremist users and conspiracy accounts is not the platform’s goal. “That’s really interesting that they were able to discover Odysee and adopted it,” Chandra told NewsGuard. “I think that’s more an effect of them finding out about Odysee before we were able to kind of begin marketing in that region,” he added, saying that a lot of that French content “doesn’t register” in their data. “It’s not a lot of traffic for us,” he maintained.
Conspiratorial Odysee content is also being shared in English and reaching viewers in the U.S., even if in smaller numbers than in France.
- One video with nearly 100,000 views advances the conspiracy that the company Dominion Voting Systems rigged the November 2020 election with its voting machines.
Why we should care: This kind of content can have an effect on fixtures of a functioning society such as democracy and healthcare. Failing to acknowledge its popularity is an obstacle in the fight against misinformation. A search for the word “QAnon” on Odysee, for example, reveals videos claiming the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous and that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen by Democrats.
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