The TV hosts spreading bizarre Covid-19 theories around the world
From describing the coronavirus as “Made in China” or giving airtime to conspiracy theories, the global pandemic has allowed some TV and online broadcasters to create a blizzard of disinformation
- Visuals by Sofiya Voznaya
The coronavirus pandemic has given right-wing broadcasters around the world an opportunity to push disinformation and anti-science narratives to large audiences. On television and digital platforms, some commentators are hoping to expand their reach by giving time and space to “alternative” voices and conspiracy theories. From the promotion of strange and often dangerous cures to minimizing the dangers of a virus that has killed over 400,000 globally, these people and the guests they invite onto their programs are driving a borderless storm of bizarre ideas surrounding the crisis.
A staple of Russian state television for two decades, Vladimir Soloviev hosts a raucous live news talk show every Sunday night. The vitriolic journalist has long been known for his hardline support of Vladimir Putin and his denunciations of the president’s critics. In the past, he has referred to anti-Putin protestors as “shit” and “the devil.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has given plenty of fuel to Soloviev’s fire. On one broadcast in May, he spoke about the virus to a Russian doctor and TV personality who stated that “those who are meant to die will die.” Soloviev later said that the doctor’s words had been taken out of context.
Soloviev has also sought to frame the pandemic in geopolitical terms. One of his guests asserted that the U.S. created the coronavirus, in order to control the world, reduce the global population and “save the economic system by creating chaos” — though how the last point works is anyone’s guess. During the same 30-minute interview, Soloviev claimed that Covid-19 proves that globalization and NATO do not work and criticized the organization’s members for squabbling over the allocation of personal protective equipment.
After weeks of downplaying the virus and describing those following the government’s stay-at-home orders as “slaves,” Brazilian broadcaster Sikera Junior went off air in April, when he fell ill during one of his shows. Several days later, he announced to his five million Instagram followers that he was infected with Covid-19, along with several of his family members.
“It’s a surprise, right?” said Sikera, who lives in Manaus, one of Brazil’s hardest-hit cities. “We don’t believe it until it happens to us.”
Until that point, he had harshly criticized the media’s reporting on coronavirus-related deaths, accusing news organizations of “mass murder” and “psychological genocide” for the amount of coverage they have dedicated to the crisis, which has now claimed over 44,000 lives in Brazil. He has also said that self-isolation directives were “going to kill people ahead of time,” and echoed President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of Covid-19 as “a little cold.”
After testing positive for the virus, Sikera took to Instagram and promoted the use of the drug chloroquine. He triumphantly returned to the nation’s TV screens on May 26 by crashing through a studio wall with a forklift truck and announcing his full recovery from the virus.
When coronavirus first began to hit major U.S. cities in mid-March, Brandon Straka attempted to downplay the pandemic. The conservative commentator, who gained popularity in 2018 with a YouTube video on his decision to turn his back on the Democratic Party, has described the reaction to Covid-19 as “hysteria.” He told fans he would honor all his speaking engagements and called on them to continue with their lives as usual.
In early May, Straka bragged that, in order to attend a Michigan anti-lockdown rally, he traveled on six airplanes and “stood in a crowd of 1,000 people in the pouring, freezing rain, which is a prime breeding ground for coronavirus.” He attempted to use his experience to prove that the disease is not as serious as health professionals and experts say. “I’m healthy as a horse, and so are all of the people who were at that rally,” he claimed.
On April 10, Straka posted a photograph of himself wearing a T-shirt with an illustration of the virus in the colors of the Chinese flag and the words “Made in China” beneath it. He sells the shirts on his website.
YouTube channel with 1.23M subscribers
Shin Hye-sik is the founder and a host of one of South Korea’s leading far-right YouTube channels, Sin-ui-hansu (“The Divine Move”). Since the pandemic began, he has used the platform to spread disinformation about President Moon Jae-in and the handling of the pandemic by the country’s liberal government.
In early March, when South Korea’s Covid-19 cases were peaking, Shin and other commentators on Sin-ui-hansu alleged that President Moon’s administration was sending face masks to North Korea, while the people of South Korea went short of medical supplies
The accusation was based on the flimsiest of purported evidence. In one video, a commentator shows a picture of North Korean soldiers standing beside Kim Jong-un wearing black masks. He says, “As you know, people in South Korea also wear black masks,” suggesting that the face coverings may have originated in the country. The clip attracted more than 270,000 views and 25,000 likes. South Korea’s government dismissed the claim, and media outlets have debunked the story.
YouTube channel with 152K subscribers
In an April video on her popular YouTube channel, Joephy Chan, a former district councilor in Hong Kong, said that the origin of Covid-19 is “very unlikely to be China, but probably the U.S. or Australia.”
Chan based her claim on a study about the early spread of the virus in humans by scientists including lead author Dr Peter Forster from the University of Cambridge. Forster, however, has stated that, “It is a misinterpretation of our research to suggest that the novel coronavirus originated outside China.”
Chan’s video has received more than 480,000 views and 34,000 likes on YouTube.
Australian celebrity chef and media commentator Pete Evans — also known as Paleo Pete — recently diversified from peddling anti-vaccine propaganda to his 1.4 million Facebook followers into spreading Covid-19 misinformation. Earlier this month, Channel 9’s flagship “60 Minutes” show came under fire for giving airtime to his coronavirus conspiracy theories.
Last month, Evans was hit with a $25,000 fine by the Therapeutic Goods Administration — the Australian government’s regulatory authority for health products — for promoting a $15,000 light machine on Instagram Live as a remedy for what he referred to as the “Wuhan coronavirus.” A few weeks later, he left his role as host of Channel Seven’s “My Kitchen Rules” cooking show. Evans, who had hosted the program for a decade, moved on after a slump in ratings. His departure was described by the network as an “amicable” parting of the ways.
In a May 10 Instagram post criticizing news coverage of the pandemic, he urged his followers to “take off the mainstream media lens.”
The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.