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How Coronavirus Scammers Hide On Facebook And YouTube

March 19, 2020

By Robert Evans

On March 16th, 2020, virtually every major social media company released a joint statement on their efforts to curb the spread of disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. 

As of the writing of this article, the top comment on Facebook’s Twitter post of this statement is, itself, a piece of disinformation, furthering the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is a bioweapon cooked up by the Chinese government. 

It’s ironic that this poster declares the joint statement against disinformation to be a precursor to mass “deplatforming”. As this Bellingcat investigation shows, coronavirus disinformation is spreading rapidly on Facebook and YouTube. While steps have been taken to stop the spread of this nonsense, the purveyors of viral falsehoods have developed their own tactics to skirt censors. 

For an example of how this can look, let’s hop over to the Facebook page for the Cowichan Green Community, a non-profit organization in British Colombia. While googling through some phrases commonly used in coronavirus disinformation, I came upon this post on their page by one ‘Adam Siddhartha’:

He’s hawking a familiar line of disinfo to the 3,893 followers of this page: the idea that colloidal silver can stop COVID-19. This is not an uncommon find on Facebook. This page, with 950 followers, is just titled “Coronavirus Cure?” It appears to be plugging a book with the same name by a medical grifter named Nick McCarthy. This book was uploaded (in English) on both the Indian and UK versions of Amazon, possibly in an attempt to evade censorship. Luckily, Amazon has removed both listings.

But Adam Siddhartha is still on Facebook, and disinformation he posted weeks ago, back on February 29th, is still up. Facebook has, thankfully, marked the embedded video as “False Information” and blocked it. However, this does not work as well as you might think.

The title of the video in question is still very clear, and it’s easy enough to find it on YouTube itself, where the video has not yet been removed:

Adam’s posts get relatively little engagement. But this video, which claims that 5G cell towers are responsible for the symptoms associated with Coronavirus, has received 957,102 views since it was uploaded on February 22nd. Directly above this video, littered with lies about the Coronavirus, is a link to the CDC YouTube has embedded in all COVID-19 content. 

Luckily for us Dana Ashlie, the creator of this video, goes to the trouble of explaining exactly what she has done to evade censorship for this long. She claims that YouTube has a special list of terms that cause them to flag videos for further review and censorship. In order to get around this ban she has developed a list of abbreviations, saying “CV” for “coronavirus”, “CH” for China, “the WHO” for the World Health Organization, and so on. 

In the comments section of the video Ashlie went into further detail about how she helps her channel, which is filled with similar bogus information, to spread. She claims that monetized channels are less likely to get deleted, and so she continues to monetize her channel even though she knows YouTube will declare all her videos “not suitable for advertisers”. This comment has more than 1,100 likes. Dana Ashlie’s channel has more than 172,000 subscribers. 

It does not take very long at all to find different species of coronavirus disinformation propagating on Facebook. Much of the content focuses around various fake ways to “treat” or “prevent” the virus’s spread. Colloidal silver is a commonly touted cure. Ayurvedic treatments are also marketed for the virus, along with Miracle Mineral Solution, which is essentially just industrial bleach. Several sites urge people to take Vitamin C to prevent coronavirus spread, and of course pages claiming to sell indigenous medicine also market their own treatments (in this case, yet more silver). All of these examples were found by Bellingcat in less than a half hour. 

The ‘Granddaughters Waters’ Facebook page, which sells silver water for your COVID-19 needs, has 1,127 followers. And a stroll down to their ‘Related Pages’ section found us an even greater disinformation kingpin:

Mark Elkin runs a small network of Facebook pages, HEAL and Hidden Knowledge. Both trade in the standard sort of alternative health and pseudoscientific content you might expect from those names. Hidden Knowledge has nearly 7,000 followers, and is currently pumping out bogus coronavirus news with the best of them. Rather than fake cures, Mark focuses on spreading the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was engineered by the Chinese government for population control and to increase “vaccine implementation”. 

This post has not been shared widely, and one commenter notes that Facebook, “…really does not want this shared. It warned me 3 times that this is false information!” But while this information does seem to have been flagged, it has not been removed, and its creator Mark Elkin maintains a personal Facebook page with 18,272 followers. He bills himself as an “author, solar system influencer, earth change analyst”. He notes that his science education comes from Colbayne High School. 

Alex Jones, and Infowars, are other major purveyors of the “COVID-19 as Chinese bioweapon” conspiracy theory. While Jones has technically been removed from YouTube, his fans regularly repost his content on YouTube under a variety of names.  This one example, Trace The Truth 2.0, has uploaded numerous pieces of Infowars COVID-19 disinformation to its 743 followers:

Natural News, a fake health news empire run by Infowars contributor Mike Adams, can also be found on YouTube despite being officially banned from the platform. This video ‘How Globalist’s Justify Releasing Coronavirus Bioweapon’, was found uploaded by two different accounts and getting a combined 530 views. These numbers are not high, but they represent just a few examples of a sizable trend. This channel specializes entirely in uploading Natural News content; it has more than 17,000 views. It appears to have evaded a ban so far by typing out “N A T U R A L N E W S” rather than “Natural News”. 

It is clear that attempts are being made by Facebook and YouTube to halt the spread of disinformation. But this research makes it equally clear that lies about the COVID-19 pandemic are still spreading virally on both services. 

 

Robert Evans

Robert Evans has worked as a conflict journalist in Iraq and Ukraine and reported extensively on far-right extremist groups in the United States. He's particularly interested in the ways terrorist groups recruit, radicalize and communicate through the Internet. He has a podcast on the HowStuffWorks network (https://www.behindthebastards.com) and you can contact him via revanswriter@gmail.com or Twitter: https://twitter.com/IwriteOK

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20 Comments

  1. TS

    Fake news and disinformation are major concerns and should be taken seriously, but so are these political “anti-right-wing, pro-antifa” articles. It’s really sad because the majority of Bellingcats articles have such an amazing quality.

    Reply
    • CW

      TS, are you trying to imply that this article is somehow anti-right-wing? Personally I see zero connection and if that’s what you are implying, you’re very wrong. If not then what are you saying? This article is anti-crackpot and if the majority of crackpots are indeed right-wing (or left) it only highlights another problem. In all things, extremes are bad…for humans.

      Reply
      • oui oui

        I think that an AI is fed with what’s running in the news , the result is what could be living in more or less credulous brains . which concepts are activated and how
        then is produced what will activate these concepts in a way more favorable to these profiting from that and it’s published everywhere . parasitism
        here they would have to turn parasitism away from them if they had been named . these idiots could do it anyway
        when they are cornered arrives a breaking news

        Reply
      • TS

        Yes, that is what I am trying to imply. I have 3 problems with the article:

        1. It uses the framing effect to target/shame the right.
        2. It does not challenge key asumptions – 5G, bioweapon conspiracy.
        3. It is not factual/objective.

        Especially the bioweapon conspiracy. I really think Bellingcat should dig into that.

        Reply
        • BEi

          Dude, I recommend you more YOUTUBE movies with yellow subtitles. You will feel better.

          Reply
  2. Pete Mack

    @TS–
    Colloidal silver is toxic and will turn your skin blue.(Really!) Anyone pushing it, or shilling for silver because of it, is a snake oil salesman of the highest order. Yes, this kind of thing tends to show up on rightwing sites…but ayurvedic coronavirus cures are just as much quackery and lean left.

    Reply
    • Steven Veeneman

      Although there are cases where the skin turned blue from over ingesting silver, none of them produced other symptoms. Colloidal silver may or may not be effective for some uses, but I seriously doubt it is toxic. I don’t use it often but I keep a simple generation tool in my luggage when I travel and on several occasions have used it to promptly stop food poisoning in its tracks while on the road with a single dose.

      Reply
  3. Just a Geek

    It is not just social media. I’ve just spend an hour going through comments on the BBC news stories about Coronavirus and reported about two dozen ‘ventilators for sale’ scammers. I suspect these privately sold ventilators do not actually exist and they are keeping the cash, even if they do, then the care needs to be delivered by properly trained healthcare professionals.

    Reply
  4. Chris

    I don’t know anything about colloidal silver but just to point out that vitamin C, which is extremely affordable as a remedy, is the subject of three ongoing coronavirus clinical trials in China, where numbers of fatalities has plummeted. Results have so far been dramatic. There are many peer reviewed studies on the effectiveness of large dose vitamin C for the treatment and prevention of viral illness going back to the 1930s. In Wuhan they recently produced 50 tons of the vitamin to deal with the crisis.
    This is not a recommendation but working for me. I started getting symptoms about a week ago and taking 300mg every waking hour since. I’m still not over it but I’ve been fully functional the whole time – able to work and exercise – no fever, cough or lung damage. Personally, I think assuming because a treatment (which could save lives) doesn’t come from Big Pharma it’s automatically a scam, is no better than the actual scams.

    Reply
    • Steven Veeneman

      Today Doris Loh posted an extremely detailed paper with boatloads of footnotes to her timeline on Facebook in which she begins with how Chloroquine works against malaria and after which she proceeds though that mechanism to the Covid-19 attack on normal hemoglobin, following the thread using references of recent studies down to the actual mechanism in which Ascorbic Acid does a much better job of interrupting the death spiral of Acute Respiratory Distress through several actions of ascorbate in the blood. This paper is worth reading, even more so if it disappears. For now it’s easy to find on the Facebook timeline of Doris Loh. Significantly the actual paper is hosted on an Italian website.

      Reply
  5. Chris Robinson

    Bloody hell more nutters on this site than I expected. Seems a lot of your audience are into conspiracy theories. Another great site bites the dust

    Reply
    • BG

      @Chris Robinson, there are always lots of oddballs in the Bellingcat comments, but is it really a surprise that a website that often literally investigates conspiracies attracts those interested in conspiracy theories? Personally I reject the idea that “conspiracy theories” are broadly all completely nuts and should be rejected out of hand. I understand by some definitions the term “conspiracy theory” _always_ means a theory positing a conspiracy “when there are more plausible explanations”. But I would point out that any well-executed conspiracy will of course have more plausible explanations, and secondly that there is no contender for a term meaning “a theory about a conspiracy that _is_ plausible”. We are stuck unfortunately with the same term – conspiracy theory – for everything from mundane political collusion and coordinated disinformation, to interdimensional lizard people. But when Bellingcat investigates “The Impossible Conspiracy Fueling Russia’s MH17 Defence” (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/03/09/the-impossible-conspiracy-fuelling-russias-mh17-defence/), what else would you call it?

      My point really is that I don’t see how being attractive to conspiracy theorists – including those who entertain the outrageous, non-evidence based theories – doesn’t somehow invalidate Bellingcat. You’ll attract their like any time you are talking about conspiracies of any kind.

      Reply
  6. Steve Velsko

    Does Bellingcat view the “accidental release” theory as a conspiracy theory (i.e. the COVID-19 outbreak originated as a biosafety lapse at the Wuhan Institute of Virology)? Some weak evidence supporting the notion was discussed by Yanzhong Huang in a Foreign Affairs article on March 5th. This might be an example of “a theory about a conspiracy that_is_plausible” as per BG’s comment.

    Reply
  7. melanie salmon

    Do you mind not “burning the books” so to speak – I would appreciate being able to read a mixture of interpretations and to make my own mind up…with humility, Melanie

    Reply
  8. Vusi Maseko

    Many who tried to shoot down proven facts concerning what was going on in a country in Africa are remembered. The truth will find its way. The world has become a creche.

    Reply

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