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Investigating conspiracy theories a growing part of COVID-19 coverage Date: 05/21/20

Marshall Allen

By Bara Vaida

As misinformation about COVID-19 continues to proliferate in the digital world, journalists are challenged more than ever to debunk falsehoods and get accurate information to the public.

Marshall Allen, an investigative reporter at ProPublica, took on that challenge after some friends on Facebook and his brother, who is a pastor in Colorado, asked him what he thought about the trailer for the conspiracy theory documentary “Plandemic” when it began to be widely shared in early May.

While it was obvious to Allen that the video was full of errors, he decided not to take the usual approach of crafting a point-by-point rebuttal of the video’s assertions. Instead, he appealed to readers’ desires to draw their own conclusions and gave them the tools to figure out how to determine what is real and not real. The result was his May 9 article, “I’m an investigative journalist. These are the questions I asked about the viral ‘Plandemic’ video.

Here, Allen talks more about why he decided to tackle this issue right now and shared his thoughts on how journalists can help the public better understand and trust our work.

Why did you decide to write about “Plandemic” for ProPublica?

I saw my friends on Facebook posting about Plandemic. Initially, I was going to dismiss it because (debunking conspiracy theories) isn’t typically my job at ProPublica, but we do have flexibility to do different kinds of things here. So I said to my editor that I had had enough friends, maybe five of them, writing about Plandemic, and they are people I respect. They were posting things like: “This sure is interesting.” They weren’t endorsing it, but they were sharing it and recommending people watch it, and it was concerning to me that there was something about the video that was taking hold of people’s attention. I am an evangelical Christian, and a lot of my friends are in that conservative category. They are really distrustful of the media, and I know they feel like they can’t trust what the media reports. They do know me, however, and do trust me and asked me what I thought about it. So, I pitched it, and my editor said: ‘Go ahead and write about it.”

In your article, you provided criteria for how to determine what is credible, rather than fact check the video yourself. Why did you take this approach?

My goal wasn’t to enter into the debate about the validity of the video. Obviously, I don’t think the video is credible. I think it was full of conspiracy theories. I could have spent hours debunking the claims in the video. But I thought that (approach) would create more polarization, so instead, I linked to PolitiFact, which has (fact-checked) the specific claims in the video. I was really looking at the presentation of the information versus the content.

What I wanted to do was something broader. How do we spot a conspiracy theory? I knew this video wasn’t going to be the (last) conspiracy theory video. I was also thinking about the (November 2020 presidential) election. We have all these nefarious governments, who are manipulating us online and using our Facebook feeds against us. I was trying to help some people see (how to spot) what is credible and what isn’t.

Why is it so challenging for people to discern what is credible and what isn’t?

I am not an expert on media literacy. It does seem like media literacy is at an all-time low. Young people don’t read the newspaper. I am 48. I grew up in Denver, and I delivered the Denver Post (newspaper) when I was a kid. I would read the paper every day. I was very engaged with sound journalism. I have teenage boys now, and they aren’t reading the newspaper. They get news on their Apple news feed, and one of them is pretty active on social media. The media has changed so much (since we were kids) It has gotten more manipulative. Older people don’t realize this, I think. They watched news when there was only a few channels and newspapers and information was vetted. So, now you have younger people who aren’t savvy with media, and you have an older generation who is more gullible because they assume things online are real when they aren’t. People take things at face value that are not credible.

Any advice for journalists about what we do about media literacy?

We can’t assume that our audience understands anything about what we do as journalists. This is interesting to me as a Christian, with friends and family who are skeptical of the media. They don’t really understand what we do. They are immediately biased against news because they think we are politically minded. I don’t know why they think that, but I can suspect why. They don’t understand the level journalists go through to be very careful. To be fair and to fact check. The general public doesn’t understand what we do either. So maybe we need to be more explicit and provide more clarity about how we do what we do, and the lengths that we go through to be careful. We can’t assume that they know that. 

Does that explain why Mikki Willis, who made the Plandemic video, thinks he was adding “balance” to the media? He thinks journalists report opinion and don’t try to determine what is factual?

It is really is hard to know what he thinks we do, but I think he thinks everything we do is propaganda. That what we do is unfairly biased and manipulative. What was clear to me, (in talking to him), is that he wasn’t holding himself to the same standard that you and I would hold ourselves to as journalists. That wasn’t even a goal (of his video). His goal was to show a biased point of view, which in his view, is the other point that isn’t in the mainstream media. He didn’t really check out Judy Mikovits (the scientist who is featured in the video) and whether she was really criminally charged or not. He just said (to me), “I trust her. I know her. I know friends of hers, and I trust them, so, therefore, I am going to just report what she is saying.

You are he saying, he thinks journalists act like he does and don’t check their facts?

He isn’t thinking we (journalists) are restraining ourselves. That there is a level of restraint and discipline that we apply that other storytellers or video storytellers don’t. We (journalists) narrow our stories to something that we can nail down and verify. There is a big difference (in the story told) if you can only report on what you can verify and nail down. It is going to be much narrower than these broad-ranging and vast conspiracy theories.

What else did you learn through this process that journalists can use to respond to conspiracy theories?

When I called the filmmaker, he was super pleasant to talk to. I fact-checked my story with him. I told him that what I am saying is that I don’t think your film is credible. I am suggesting this is propaganda. And I said, would you use that word to describe your work? I was straight up with him about what I was writing. He said: “It seems like you are fair, not many of you are.” He said very few people had called to talk to him directly. So, I would say, (if you are writing about someone expressing a conspiracy theory) reach out to them and ask them, before we go criticizing them. We should call the actual source.

But by doing that, don’t we just give them some level of credibility, which they should not have?

I did wonder (about) that question. If I call him, am I giving him credibility? But we felt there was no way to do this story without talking to him. I didn’t want to just poke holes in the Plandemic video. I wanted to point out the ways I don’t think it is credible. So yes. You are bringing more attention to it by writing about it, but hopefully, you are helping people understand how to assess what is credible and what isn’t. And his own quotes showed we should be concerned about the veracity of the film. I told him I was having a hard time understand what the point of the video was, but that it seemed he was saying this pandemic was part of a vast “plan” to help rich people sell vaccines. And he said that the video is exploratory. (Going back to the issue of restraint.) We would only put a headline and something in a story that could be supported by the reporting. He didn’t have that same feeling of restraint. 

Was your article effective? Did it help your Facebook friends understand why they shouldn’t believe what is in the video?

After I posted my story, some of the same people who wrote on Facebook (about the video) wrote to me and said: “I appreciate it. That is helpful.” (Others) told me it helped them understand how to sort good information versus bad information, and they could share it with people susceptible to falling for it. I think there are good people out there who don’t know quite what to believe. There is so much fear and confusion and uncertainty. This pandemic is a scary thing, and people are vulnerable because of it.