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In mid-March, filmmaker Robert Cibis — at the time best known for a 93-minute documentary about a master piano tuner — uploaded a short interview with the German physician and socialist politician Wolfgang Wodarg to YouTube. In the video, Wodarg alleges that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “hype” drummed up by sensationalist virologists and spread by scientists “who want to be important in politics because they need money for their institutions.”
Within days, the Wodarg interview had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times (the total now tops 2 million on YouTube), and Cibis and his production company, Oval Media, started raising money for a documentary, called Corona.film. Featuring Wodarg and other scientists, the film is billed as an exploration of “the coronavirus and its media influence.” On the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo, hundreds of people have chipped in donations totaling about $105,000 to keep the project going.
The trailer for Corona.film features a high-profile scientist alongside Wodarg: John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine, epidemiology, and population health at Stanford University. Ioannidis co-directs a major centre at Stanford that pushes for more rigorous biomedical research; a 2010 Atlantic magazine profile argued that he may be “one of the most influential scientists alive.” During the current pandemic, while praising public health officials, Ioannidis has criticized the lockdowns as based on too-thin evidence — a position that has earned him fierce, albeit respectful, criticism from many colleagues. (The pushback intensified this week over a new Ioannidis analysis that many of his colleagues pilloried online, with some citing oversights and inconsistencies in the data included in the study.)
In the teaser, after Wodarg calls for “a closer look” at “the coronavirus epidemic that we allegedly are having right now,” Ioannidis explains that, while elements of the pandemic “are serious,” he thinks “there is a very high chance we are exaggerating” the risk of the novel coronavirus.
Asked about Corona.film, Ioannidis told Undark he had never heard of it.
As SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has swept across the globe, killing hundreds of thousands of people and overwhelming medical systems in the US, Italy, Ecuador, and other countries, the pandemic has also nurtured a rich ecosystem of digital backlash. To be sure, some people have raised serious and reasonable questions about whether global lockdowns are worth the economic and social cost, which could be especially devastating in some developing countries. But many more hew to unfounded theories that the pandemic is, for example, caused by 5G towers; that it emerged from a lab in China; or that it is the result of a conspiracy by global leaders and plutocrats, especially billionaire Bill Gates.
The story of how footage of the Stanford professor ended up in Corona.film is just one example of how, amid the confusion of the pandemic, the views of serious scientific dissenters are being swiftly metabolized by a sprawling world of ideologues and conspiracy theorists. The tale runs through an independent film distribution company, and it involves a New York-based filmmaking team that has found millions of viewers online through an interview project that features a rich mix of marginal perspectives and pedigreed academics, Ioannidis most prominent among them.
The scientists in the films are “not conspiracy theorists, they’re not anti-vaxxers — they’re not like us,” says one of the filmmakers, John Kirby, who suggested, without citing specific evidence, that the pandemic has been engineered by a global elite seeking to expand its control over the world. “But they are incredibly eminent, respected people who are thankfully independent enough to raise a question.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Kirby and his filmmaking partner, Libby Handros, were working on a documentary about the assassinations of the 1960s, including the 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy, which some people have long-maintained was the result of a government conspiracy. Media coverage of the coronavirus, Kirby told Undark, sounded similar to how they see coverage of the Kennedy assassination: an obfuscation of a deeper, more frightening truth. “We sensed a rollout, a very large rollout,” Kirby said.
The filmmakers approached Ioannidis for an interview, producing an hourlong video in which he analyzes the Covid-19 response, speaking in detail about the difficulty of pinning down precise data about a fast-moving pandemic. With the Ioannidis interview in hand, Handros and Kirby pitched the series to Journeyman Pictures, an independent film distributor in the United Kingdom that works with hundreds of documentaries each year.
“We saw it as something interesting which would give, exactly as we called it, ‘Perspectives on the Pandemic’ — a broader perspective than we were getting from the increasingly controlled and narrow line being fed to us by the mass media every day,” said Mark Stucke, the founder and managing director of Journeyman Pictures.
Journeyman signed Handros and Kirby up and began sharing the Ioannidis video with its 1.4 million YouTube subscribers. “Off we went,” Stucke said. “And boom! It did go boom.”
The interview soon picked up hundreds of thousands of views. Thousands also tuned into a conversation with David L. Katz, a physician, former Yale professor, and expert in preventative medicine who has drawn attention for a New York Times op-ed arguing that the negative effects of the lockdowns could outweigh the benefits.
Millions more people watched a viral interview with Knut Wittkowski, a former biostatistician at Rockefeller University who argues that the virus should be allowed to spread unchecked among healthy people until enough people become immune — a strategy, widely criticized by experts, that has been partly adopted by the chief epidemiologist in Sweden.
Follow-up conversations with Wittkowski and Ioannidis, in which the latter described the results of his controversial study of COVID-19 prevalence in California, brought hundreds of thousands more views.
In a wide-ranging interview, Kirby and Handros spoke with Undark about the Kennedy assassination, Handros’ clashes with Donald Trump in the 1990s over a film she made, and Kirby’s opposition to current vaccine policies, as well as his suspicion that Bill Gates is planning and manipulating the pandemic response. “Most people are not ready to understand that this is not just sort of a public health crisis that governments are doing their best to respond to and maybe screwed up,” Kirby said, without offering clear evidence. “We just want to keep bringing out alternative, sometimes overlapping opinions from experts and journalists,” he added, noting that they may start covering a range of topics. “We want to ease people into some of the harder-to-appreciate stuff.”
Some of the content in “Perspectives on the Pandemic” veers more directly into anti-government politics. In the first interview with Wittkowski, published in early April, the scientist said: “I’m not paid by the government, so I’m entitled to actually do science.” He also suggested that, left unchecked, the virus could exact a death toll of 10,000 in the US and disappear on its own.
Today, the official US death count is above 90,000, with cases rising in much of the country. In a phone conversation and follow-up emails, Wittkowski defended his projections, arguing that, while specific predictions may not bear out, he was correct to question lockdowns, and that the current death count was dramatically overstated. (There is growing evidence that it is actually an underestimate.) He claimed that the course of the pandemic was as predictable as the effects of gravity. “‘Social distancing’ is a strategy for the government to reduce the democratic rights of the people,” he wrote.
Rockefeller University has publicly distanced itself from Wittkowski, explaining in a statement that comments about “discouraging social distancing” he has made “do not represent the views of The Rockefeller University, its leadership, or its faculty.” But his videos for “Perspectives on the Pandemic” have received widespread attention, including in the New York Post and The Epoch Times — an outlet, analysts say, that has been instrumental in pushing the thus-far-unfounded claim that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in a Chinese lab — and the American Institute for Economic Research, a right-leaning think-tank. Wittkowski has also appeared on an internet talk show hosted by Del Bigtree, a prominent anti-vaccination activist.
Earlier this month, YouTube removed one of Wittkowski’s interviews for “Perspectives on the Pandemic,” citing unspecified violations of its policies. This week, YouTube removed Wittkowski’s other interview, as well as the first, long, interview with Ioannidis.
According to YouTube, the Ioannidis video violated the platform’s COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Policy, which, among other rules, states that YouTube “doesn’t allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts the World Health Organisation (WHO) or local health authorities’ medical information about Covid-19.” A YouTube spokesperson did not respond to a request on Friday afternoon for specific details about how the Ioannidis interview had violated that policy.
Journeyman Pictures is asking YouTube for clarification regarding the decisions.
After watching the Ioannidis interviews, Cibis approached Journeyman about using the footage in his COVID-19 documentary. The distributor had worked with Oval Media on a previous documentary, also featuring Wodarg, that alleges corruption at the WHO. Stucke agreed, which is how Ioannidis ended up featuring prominently in a trailer for the film, alongside Wodarg, who has continued to argue, despite the mounting global death toll, that the pandemic is largely a fabrication.
Cibis told Undark that he had been surprised — and a little frightened — by the strong reactions to his original interview with Wodarg, acknowledging that it may have been “just naive” to publish the video without any research or context. But he rejected characterizations of Wodarg as a conspiracy theorist. His new film, he said, will have diverse perspectives — although he added that he has concerns about using footage from one high-ranking Italian public health official who has warned that the virus is particularly dangerous, because Cibis feels it was “unscientific and just fear-making.”
Stucke, meanwhile, said that while he was aware that Handros and Kirby fit “comfortably at the conspiratorial end of the world of journalism,” he thought their project seemed sound, and that they were speaking with qualified sources. The Wittkowski interview, though, ultimately gave him pause. He said that if he had seen this interview first and as a standalone piece, rather than in the context of other interviews in the series, “I would have probably thought twice about saying ‘Yes, go for it.’” He admitted to knowing little about certain details of the Cibis project.
Some participating scientists, too, seemed surprised about the context in which their interviews were being presented. Asked whether he was aware of the conspiracy-oriented side to the “Perspectives on the Pandemic” project, Yale University’s Katz replied “No” in an email, adding that the idea that the Covid-19 pandemic was the result of a conspiracy is “ludicrous.”
The interview was “long-form, meaning I could speak my full views — so it seemed a good venue,” Katz wrote.
“All that I really count on the production side to do,” he added, “is (a) not alter my views by editing them or taking them out of context; [and] (b) give me an audience.”
Ioannidis said he was unaware that Journeyman had licensed footage of his interview to the German filmmakers. He also expressed surprise that there might be a conspiracy-oriented dimension to the “Perspectives on the Pandemic” series. “I am clearly not aware of that,” he said. “I’ve talked with John Kirby for two hours during these interviews. None of these questions arose.”
“People with different conflicts of interest, they will probably use ammunition from perspectives or data or science that has nothing to do with their agenda. It is a concern,” Ioannidis said. “I do share that concern, but it’s impossible to censor science, or to, let’s say, factor every possible crazy perspective into account before you say, well, ‘These are my data, and this is what I think about them.’”
But Leah Ceccarelli, a scholar of rhetoric and communication the University of Washington who studies scientific controversy, was skeptical about that line of argument.
“Of course, the scientist wants to present the ethos of the disinterested searcher for truth,” she said. “‘As a scientist, I’m just telling you the way that it is, and it’s not my job to think about the politics of this.’”
But that, Ceccarelli said, is “totally naive.”
Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark.