Conspiracy theorist gets thousands of YouTube views spreading coronavirus rumors

UFO-obsessed Youtuber continued to publish misleading videos that targeted Latin America even after conspiracies were debunked

(Source @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

A conspiracy theory channel on YouTube with more than 1 million subscribers has published 25 videos in less than 40 days spreading falsehoods and rumors about the incidence of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Latin America. The Conciencia Radio channel kept publishing — and people kept watching — false claims even after a fact-checking agency debunked the channel’s content.

YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world, behind only its parent company, Google. In December 2019, the platform announced measures to slow the spread of disinformation and misinformation on its website, such as steering viewers to trustworthy sources when they look for coronavirus-related information. The case of Conciencia Radio, nonetheless, shows that falsehoods about the virus are still being shared on YouTube.

At the time of publishing, more than 95,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in at least 75 countries, leading to over 3,200 deaths, according to public health data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. In Latin America, Brazil confirmed the first case on February 26, Mexico identified four cases between February 28 and 29, and Ecuador registered its first case on February 29. The YouTube channel Conciencia Radio, meanwhile, started spreading the claims prior to any confirmed infections in Latin America.

More rumors, more views

Conciencia Radio was created in March 2008 by conspiracy theorist Alexander Backman. According to his blog, his interests include alien abductions, chemtrails, the Illuminati, biblical giants, and preparing for End Times. Although the channel’s location is set to the United States, the content has been published in Spanish and appears to target mostly Latin American audiences. The channel has a verification badge, given by YouTube to channels with more than 100,000 subscribers, that identifies the person or organization running the channel.

Conciencia Radio’s “more information” page on YouTube. The channel was created on March 20, 2008. Since that date, it has garnered 167.5 million total views. (Source: Conciencia Radio/archive)

On January 22, the channel started to include narratives related to the coronavirus, claiming that COVID-19 has been present in Latin American countries since the beginning of February. Currently, there is no evidence to support this, as the first documented cases in Latin America did not occur until late February. It also shared conspiracy theories claiming that China released the virus as a biological weapon and suggested that the virus was genetically engineered to carry — and therefore spread concurrently — HIV as well.

According to a search using social analytics tool BuzzSumo, the Conciencia Radio’s views and subscribers have increased since January, when the channel published its first video on the coronavirus. The channel has generated more 13,600 subscribers since January, and more than 2.2 million views. A historical data graph also showed peaks in January and February 2020, which indicated that videos on COVID-19 had generated more views to the channel than average.

Image shows channel’s metrics on views and subscribers (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab via BuzzSumo, top; NoxInfluencer, bottom)

Many videos from Conciencia Radio relied on untrustworthy sources. For instance, to suggest the novel coronavirus was a biological weapon, the YouTuber cited the websites VeteransToday, previously reported by the DFRLab as a “junk news” website known to republish “Russian-origin content,” and globalresearch.ca, which has shared other conspiracy theories in the past.

The most-watched coronavirus video published by the channel claimed that the virus had been genetically engineered and contained DNA strands of HIV and Hepatitis-C. To support his claim, channel operator and video host Alexander Backman used an early-stage research paper published on January 31 on bioRxiv, where scientists and researchers can share their studies before they are peer-review by other scientists and published. On February 2, after the scientific community voiced concerns on Twitter about the research, the authors withdrew the study from bioRxiv. Backman, however, continued to repeat the claim on other videos.

Analysis shows that most videos that received more than the average number of views were about the coronavirus, including the most watched video between January 27 and February 24, 2020. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab via NoxInfluencer)

Debunked videos

The fact-checking agency Colombiacheck has debunked two videos published by Backman claiming that COVID-19 had reached Colombia. On February 12 and 14, Conciencia Radio published two videos in which Backman claimed that seven COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Colombia and that one person had died. Backman said that he had heard the information from “sources” but did not elaborate. He also claimed that Colombian President Iván Duque and the Hospital Federico Lleras Acosta in Ibague were hiding confirmed cases from the Colombian people. Meanwhile, the official Twitter account of the Colombian Ministry of Health and Social Protection stated on February 14 that there were no COVID-19 confirmed cases in Colombia, despite Backman’s claims.

Colombiacheck explained that the infections in Ibague corresponded to a different coronavirus that is not related to COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Since the mid-1960s, seven human coronaviruses have been identified, which makes it possible to get diagnosed with a coronavirus and not necessarily infected by the new 2019-nCoV virus. Despite being exposed by the fact-checking agency, Backman continued to publish false claims about the COVID-19 coronavirus on his channel.

Autocomplete amplification?

YouTube’s autocomplete search feature might have accidentally amplified the information that there were cases of coronavirus in Colombia. The DFRLab used an incognito account to look for “coronavirus en Colombia” (“coronavirus in Colombia” in Spanish) and the autocomplete mechanism suggested “Coronavirus en Colombia Alex Backman.” When clicking in the search, the user was taken to Backman’s channel, where no warning or label flagging the content as false appeared.

Autocompletion is a feature used to make searches quicker by trying to predict what the user will type next. The mechanism behind the feature is not publicly available, but algorithms usually provide the most frequently searched terms. There is no way to determine, however, how widespread this particular autocomplete search result was to YouTube users.

Image showing YouTube’s autocompletion mechanism suggesting the name of Alex Backman. The DFRLab used an incognito window and was not logged into any accounts so that the search was not affected by previous activity. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab via YouTube)

After the test account finished watching the video, however, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm did not suggest other conspiracy content related to the coronavirus. In the past, YouTube has been criticized because its algorithm suggested suspicious content to viewers. In the case of Backman’s channel, the algorithm suggested content from trustworthy sources that published true and verified information about COVID-19 in Colombia.

Conclusion

In the months since the outbreak began, the novel coronavirus has been discussed on social media widely, including in Latin America. On YouTube, Conciencia Radio has uploaded content based either on rumors or conspiracy theories. The example of Conciencia Radio suggests that, despite efforts made by YouTube to limit the spread of misinformation through videos, conspiracy theories continue to be a major threat — including in the case of the novel coronavirus.


Esteban Ponce de León is a Research Assistant, Latin America, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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