Anti-vaccine activists are particularly good at gaining views on virtually any social app, says Renee DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory who works to combat this type of misinformation. “They are on every single social platform—even TikTok,” she says. “If they can create content people will find if they search for a specific term, they’ll invest the time.”
The relationship between fringe and mainstream YouTubers can be symbiotic, according to Alice Marwick, an assistant professor in communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“Both members of the discussion are trying to benefit,” she says. “The fringe person from getting this mainstream, and the mainstream from getting a potentially increased audience.”
While YouTube bans creators who break the rules too many times in a row, some conspiracy theorists are using collabs and interviews as a workaround, getting other YouTubers to either host them or talk about them on their channels.
Bet-David’s recent videos are an example. His verified channel, Valuetainment, is part of “entrepreneur YouTube”—a personality-driven, self-optimizing scene full of suit-clad experts offering the keys to financial or creative success. Until recently, Valuetainment has not really been a haven for conspiracy theorists, although Bet-David did interview Jones once. His archives feature a ton of how-tos, motivational videos, business tips, and interviews with more mainstream conservative personalities and sports figures. He described himself to me as a “vaccine guy” who will continue to inoculate his children.
But attention has a way of shifting the incentives.
A few weeks ago, Bet-David said, he started getting emails from fans asking him to interview David Icke, a conspiracy theorist whose own channel was recently removed from YouTube after he repeatedly violated the platform’s policies on covid-19 misinformation.
Another entrepreneur-focused channel that did a largely sympathetic interview with Icke in March had been rewarded with millions of views and a swell of subscribers. Bet-David told me his fans believed he could “challenge” Icke. The result was a lengthy, at times combative, discussion. It didn’t do particularly well, peaking at less than half a million views.
But the Icke interview led to a surge of suggestions for new guests. “What started happening to me was I started getting emails saying, ‘Have you looked up on this topic?’” he says. He did, and went down the rabbit hole.
Anti-vaccine activists, along with other supporters of conspiracy theories, are strongly motivated to seek out bigger and bigger audiences, says Marwick. YouTube and influencer culture has long been vulnerable to their efforts, leading unwitting or unprepared personalities with large followings to host proponents of increasingly extreme views in the name of intellectual debate, curiosity, or controversy. Even when interviewers frame the video as a debate, Marwick says, “they’re just opening the Overton window to whatever fringe idea is being promoted by the guest.”
Bet-David’s resulting interviews with Kennedy and other major anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists were largely deferential, sometimes allowing them to speak uninterrupted and unchallenged for minutes at a time. The video titles were indistinguishable from those being put out by conspiracy theorists.
The most popular of these additions to Bet-David’s YouTube channel, “Dr Buttar Accuses Fauci, Gates & The Media For Using COVID-19 To Drive Hidden Agenda,” is a two-hour interview with Rashid Buttar, an anti-vaccine activist with his own small channel who has, among other things, claimed that the coronavirus is a bioweapon. In the video, Buttar asserts to Bet-David that the death count for covid-19 is being artificially inflated, that doctors and nurses speaking to the media are “paid actors,” that dead bodies seen on TV and in the news are “mannequins,” and that covid-19 is no different from the “regular flu.” He also urges viewers to “go out and demonstrate” that the pandemic is a hoax. These statements appear to be against YouTube’s rules, but the benefit for Buttar is clear: according to SocialBlade, a third-party analytics site for influencers, he had 4,200 subscribers on March 28. He just passed 250,000.
A similar, now-deleted interview by Bet-David with Judy Mikovits, a former chronic fatigue syndrome researcher who has become a major anti-vaccine personality, was titled “Former AIDS Scientist Exposes Dr. Fauci’s Medical Corruption.” She’s made several claims about the spread of the coronavirus violate YouTube’s rules. On Bet-David’s channel, she repeated her claim that a flu vaccine from the mid-2010s is actually “driving the pandemic,” that wearing a mask will “activate” the virus in the body, and that Anthony Fauci should be charged with “treason.”
Bet-David says he deferred to Mikovits, Kennedy, and Buttar in part because they are doctors or lawyers. “That guy went and became a doctor. You gotta give credit to a person who became a doctor,” he says of Buttar. In his mind, Bet-David was on a learning journey, unqualified to evaluate the hours of information his guests were sending his way.
In fact, many claims by conspiracy theorists are already discredited, DiResta notes. Anti-vaccine videos are “a mix of jargony pseudoscience woo that’s often already been debunked and huge big numbers designed to scare people, taken entirely out of context,” she says. “Audiences who aren’t immersed in the facts, and are unfamiliar with anti-vaccine rhetorical games, think they’re hearing something scandalous. And then they go on to tell their friends about it, or occasionally begin to follow the anti-vax influencer. “
I asked Bet-David whether he felt any responsibility over airing these views on his channel—particularly potentially harmful claims by his guests, urging viewers to ignore public health recommendations.
“I do not,” he said. “I am responsible for what comes out of my mouth. I’m not responsible for what comes out of your mouth”
For him, that lack of responsibility extends to misinformation that could be harmful to his audience. He is just giving people what they are asking for. That, in turn, drives attention, which allows him to make money from ads, merchandise, speaking gigs, and workshops. “It’s up to the audience to make the decision for themselves,” he says. Besides, he thinks he’s done interviewing anti-vaccine activists for now. He’s trying to book some “big name” interviews of what he termed “pro-vaccine” experts.
But the anti-vaccine activists might not need access to Bet-David’s channel any longer, anyway. Earlier this week, Mikovits claimed that she “got word” President Trump watched an interview she did with another YouTube channel. That video, which is still on available to watch, has more than 600,000 views.