Last week, Nick Backovic introduced Think Logically, our new fortnightly series designed to help facilitate media literacy and combat the prevalence of dis and misinformation at the level of our reception to the daily bombardment of conflicting narratives in the media ecosystem. In this article, I will be showing how basic film studies knowledge and rhetorical analysis techniques can be used to pick apart the appeals to emotion made by disinformation. Armed with this knowledge, people can identify how viral conspiracy content manipulates feelings in addition to furthering disinformation.
Today, I’ll be taking a closer look at Plandemic – the viral video starring Judy Mikovits who suggests that a grand cover-up has taken place over the dangers of vaccines and that it is tied to those at the heart of the US coronavirus response. Rather than present a blow-by-blow rebuttal of Mikovits’ claims, I will apply some simple analytic techniques detailed below to show a holistic approach to viral disinformation videos can encourage an awareness of emotional manipulation than extends beyond false claims.
Social Media and Emotionality
In a 2018 article, ‘The aﬀective politics of the “post-truth” era: Feeling rules and networked subjectivity,’ scholars Megan Boler and Elizabeth Davis argue that “at a time when news organizations are capitalizing on “post-truth”, we need a better understanding of emotion and aﬀect that works beyond the simple opposition of rationality and emotionality that continues to overdetermine our political imaginary” - that is, as both sides of partisan issues characterize the other as overly emotional, we need to understand how disinformation and feelings-driven politics capitalize on emotional responses across the political spectrum.
They suggest that a keen eye on the emotionality of discourse is “critical for understanding the relationships between digital media, subjectivity, and politics.” This is especially true as social media algorithms are designed to drive content to peoples’ newsfeeds that is predetermined to be emotionally resonant, resulting in filter bubbles and affective feedback-loops. In the case of Plandemic, this content-driving reaches a critical mass and the video goes viral. It is then driven out of these filter bubbles as it gains popularity and algorithms determine it will be resonant content to a wider and wider audience through further feedback-loops.
It is essential to look beyond addressing these videos in terms of falsehoods and instead ask how they are able to deliver these falsehoods in such persuasive and accessible ways. Crucial to an effective critical awareness of videos like Plandemic is addressing the multimodal delivery and framing of its claims.
A multimodal approach means that the analysis of verbal text is supplemented by a parallel analysis of the other features of discourse that surround it. Every component in videos such as this feeds into the whole to persuade audiences. This means addressing the full range of the video’s compositional and organizational structures – its visual, musical, and linguistic components – in order to understand how this video was able to find traction with such a diverse audience as quickly as it did. This means audiences must be equipped with critical thinking tools that draw on film analysis, musicology, and discourse analysis to pick up on the covert persuasive techniques used to deliver conspiracy theories and falsehoods in a way that emotionally resonates with the mainstream.
With the concepts of emotion and multimodality in mind, this article is going to cast a closer eye on the choices of director Mikki Willis along with the language used and how they prime the audience to engage with the interview on an emotional level and sympathize with Mikovits beyond the content of her claims.
Not Your Usual Conspiracy Video
To start at the very beginning, one thing that becomes immediately clear while watching Plandemic is that it does not seem like your typical conspiracy video. There is no dramatic score or Loose Change style anonymous narrator, nor is there an Alex Jones type reacting to decontextualized news clips with righteous fury. Instead, Willis casts a far calmer, softer, and more intimate tone for his interview.
After a brief title card for his production company, Elevate, we are introduced to Mikovits and Willis via silent slo-mo footage of them walking down a quiet strip of shops. The duo are framed in medium and medium close-up shots, creating a warm, intimate and welcoming tone of the video. The scene is scored by some pensive ambient guitar. For music bods, it may be worth noting that the style of playing is akin to contemporary church or worship music - perhaps making an appeal to a potential Christian audience, especially in the US. Before any dialogue then, the video has created a mood that draws the viewer in and is welcoming enough for them to drop any preconceived notions of this being a ‘conspiracy video’.
Next, we can focus on the language used. Rather than consider the dubiousness of the claims, we will consider the emotional weight of what is said. Willis’ soft-spoken voiceover introduces Mikovits as “one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation” who revolutionized the treatment of HIV/AIDS but then published a controversial article revealing that certain vaccine production methods were “unleashing devastating plagues of chronic diseases” upon the population. Willis’s voiceover builds Mikovits up as a lifesaver who has suffered injustice as a result of trying to expose an existential threat to people across the world - including whoever is watching the video. This is the charged and persuasive language familiar to conspiracy videos, but the calm delivery accompanying the nonverbal tone set through the video’s cinematic and musical elements disguises the rhetoric.
Willis’ voiceover continues. Here, at 37 seconds in, the rhetorical framing pulls the crux of the interview into focus, introducing the cover up and consequences for Mikovits’ actions:
For exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma waged war on Dr. Mikovits, destroying her good name, career, and personal life. Now, as the fate of nations hang in the balance, Dr. Mikovits is naming names of those behind the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.
The description here is almost cinematic, exposing “deadly secrets”, “minions of Big Pharma”, and the entire second sentence here frames our hero and villains of the piece; all human life is in danger, and Mikovits is the woman to save us. The language is obviously incredibly loaded, but Willis’ soft delivery masks this. The intent is to get the viewer to totally sympathize with Mikovits less than a minute in: she is a hero, a lifesaver, and looking out for you and the good people of America. The contemporary Christian score and the intimate vision of quiet Americana in the footage accompanying the words underpin this sentiment to show the viewer what exactly is at stake.
To illustrate how all these parts become an effective whole, pause for a minute and imagine Willis’ words delivered with anger, set to a dramatic score with footage of anonymous lab workers. Would people have continued watching past the first minute? Would the video have enjoyed even a fraction of the virality it achieved? Willis’ directorial choices in the introduction to the interview can easily be dismissed as tasteful, but the emotional priming done by Willis’ chosen elements beyond disguising conspiracy ideas in a tasteful aesthetic cannot be ignored.
At this point, Plandemic segues into the interview proper with a rapid-fire set of questions and answers (these will be discussed soon). As this plays out, a caption for Willis-as-interviewer appears on screen listing him as “father/filmaker [sic].”
We don’t need to know he’s a father, only that he’s a filmmaker to contextualize who he is in relation to Mikovits and what we have been shown so far. However, the inclusion of Willis’ status as father is another emotional plea for the reader to be on the side of the documentary. Moreover, this caption is Willis’ way of speaking directly to the viewer. We know he is the filmmaker, but we also know that as the filmmaker, it is his choice to bill himself as a father first in the caption. After introducing Mikovits as a hero-done-wrong in this story, Willis bills himself as a father using his skills as a filmmaker to ensure the truth comes out.
The initial interview questions then lock the direction of the video into place:
Willis: So, you made a discovery that conflicted with the agreed upon narrative.
Dr. Mikovits: Correct.
Willis: And for that, they did everything in their powers to destroy your life.
Dr. Mikovits: Correct.
Willis: You were arrested.
Dr. Mikovits: Correct.
Willis: And then, you were put under a gag order.
This exchange serves to allow Mikovits to confirm Willis’ claims in the voiceover. Not only is she going up against ‘the machine’ of Big Pharma to save us all (as per Willis’ voiceover), she is a rebel, a victim, and has been unable to speak out, until now. The interview is not interested in challenging Mikovits’ story or raising counterpoints for the viewer – all that is contained within “the agreed upon narrative” – instead, this is framed as Mikovits the hero and rebel telling a supposed gagged truth.
From here, the Plandemic settles into a traditional interview format. There have been numerous articles fact-checking Mikovits’ claims in the video as it continues, however little attention has been paid to the more subtle forms of manipulation in the interview through Willis’ scripting and editing. Reading through the interview transcript, it is easy to see Willis’ leading questions, betraying what appears to be a neutral stance as interviewer. Questions such as “how can a man who’s giving — any person who’s giving global advice for health own a patent in the solution of the vaccine? Isn’t that a conflict of interest, or shouldn’t it be?” prime not only Mikovits to give a specific pointed answer damning Dr. Anthony Fauci, but also the viewer in following and accepting the story being told through the interview format. Again, a holistic and multimodal approach allows us to account for how these leading questions are remarkably apparent on the page, but less so as part of a video interview.
Willis’ use of intercuts during the interview also serve to further a specific message. When Mikovits mentions the names of those who are to be painted in a bad light, such as Dr. Fauci or Bill Gates, there are brief, decontextualized cuts to short pieces of dialogue – usually a sentence or two. In contrast, three medical doctors are used as brief talking-heads in the interview to support Mikovits’ claims, setting up the notion that medical professionals are beginning to ‘rebel’ against the ‘agreed upon narrative’ surrounding COVID-19. Perhaps the most egregious use of intercuts occurs when Mikovits recounts her arrest for stealing intellectual and physical property from a lab she worked at (although she denies this, and attests that the items were planted in her house). While she describes being arrested, footage of a heavily armed SWAT raid plays. This footage is, in fact, from a police raid in Santa Ana, California related to the murder of a 15 year old boy. Reports of Mikovits’ arrest do not mention any kind of raid, and instead explain how she turned herself in to the authorities in Nevada after initially being arrested in California – thus validating the accusation levied against her that she was a “fugitive from justice.”
Through this brief multimodal analysis of the way in which the claims of Plandemic are delivered, I hope to have illustrated that it is crucial that we are critical not only of the information presented to us online, but also of the ways in which it is presented. We have a responsibility to equip citizens of the Internet with an awareness of how directorial choices shape our emotions and our reception to information. Promoting the use of film and discourse-analysis techniques alongside critical thinking skills will allow for a keener awareness of the subtle nonverbal techniques used to appeal to feelings. With more people armed with knowledge of what to look for beyond persuasive language, we can stop the next Plandemic before it has a chance to spread.