Instagram And YouTube Have Been Accused Of "Moral Failure" Over Coronavirus Conspiracy Sales
Social media platforms are facing criticism for allowing accounts to profit from product sales alongside wild conspiracy theories about the virus.
Instagram and YouTube have been accused of a “moral failure” by allowing accounts that share coronavirus conspiracy theories with millions of viewers to profit by selling clothing, nutritional supplements, online courses, and more alongside the misinformation.
The accounts sell goods through their online stores while making false links between the coronavirus and 5G mobile phone networks, a mass electronic ID programme, and “international bankers”, according to research by the Centre For Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and BuzzFeed News.
One video from an account called “London Real”, featuring an interview with the notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke, was removed by YouTube on Tuesday after breaching new rules prohibiting videos that make the claim the coronavirus is linked to 5G. The video also breached a policy prohibiting videos denying the existence of COVID-19, according to YouTube.
However, a separate interview with David Icke on the London Real channel called "THE DANGERS OF A 5G WORLD" was not been removed by YouTube, despite having the video hashtags "#Coronavirus" and "#COVID19" — implying a link between 5G and coronavirus.
YouTube said it removes content that disputes the existence of COVID-19, suggests symptoms are caused by 5G, or says taking a test for the virus will cause people to contract it.
As well as making money by pushing misinformation to its audience of 1.56 million followers by earning revenue from ads run on YouTube, London Real is trying to sell merchandise on links promoted across multiple social media platforms.
The “new generation media business” prominently shares links to a “business accelerator” online course lasting eight weeks and costing $2,997.
The website also sells tickets to “London Real Summit 2020”, described as “an action-packed day where you will learn the mind, body and wealth strategies of some of the most influential and successful business, spiritual and fitness leaders on the planet.”
A basic ticket costs $97, while a “diamond” package, including a meet and greet and VIP drinks reception, costs $1,497.
London Real is also promoting a “special cryptocurrency investment event” advertised as “A Moneymaking Situation BIGGER Than The Crypto Boom of 2017”.
BuzzFeed News has approached London Real for comment but had not received a response by the time of publication.
On Tuesday, BuzzFeed News revealed how a network of conspiracy theorists was profiting from a hoax that 5G cellular technology is spreading COVID-19, selling a USB stick they falsely claimed offered protection from 5G radiation and infection from the coronavirus.
YouTube said it would reduce the spread of anti-5G content on its platform, while Facebook said it now considers any content linking 5G technology to the coronavirus as harmful.
However, the new research suggests that social media giants are still struggling to get to grips with the growing problem.
“Coronavirus misinformation, conspiracism and quack cures have been tolerated by social media companies for far too long despite the clear threat they pose to the safety of individuals and our society as a whole,” Imran Ahmed, chief executive of CCDH, told BuzzFeed News.
“In their press statements, Instagram and YouTube clearly claim to recognise the danger of coronavirus misinformation. This further aggravates their moral failure to act in stopping dangerous messages from reaching millions of people.”
Ahmed called on ministers to take action. “The government needs to consider every measure available to them and, if necessary, legislating further, to ensure companies and executive who are enabling coronavirus misinformation are forced to act meaningfully, immediately and effectively,” he said. “The time for excuses is over.”
Other accounts promoting misinformation about the coronavirus sell merchandise alongside.
An Instagram account called Project Knowledge, which links to a page selling conspiracy-themed clothing, has almost half a million followers and has posted about coronavirus being a Chinese plot, describing it as a “plandemic” linked to “an electronic ID program that uses generalized vaccination as a platform for digital identity.”
One post linking coronavirus to 5G mobile networks was removed by Instagram, but others remain on the platform.
The account’s biography included a link to a website called Choq, apparently based in Texas, which sells vitamin supplements called Choq.
This Choq link was removed after BuzzFeed News contacted Project Knowledge and Choq for comment, before being reinstated.
The biography also links to a “2nd Instagram account”, also called Project Knowledge, which has around 160,000 followers and posts less contentious content — a likely backup in case the main account is suspended.
Other big accounts selling merchandise include one called @_rizzaislam, which has almost 400,000 followers and sells books.
It has made multiple misleading claims about the virus, including “you’re less likely to get coronavirus if you’re black” — which was removed after BuzzFeed News asked Instagram for comment on it — as well as sharing a video entitled “David Icke exposes the coronavirus being planned 10 years ago by the Rockefeller”.
An account called @The_Real_Hollyweird_Is_Evil, with over 120,000 followers, has shared multiple outlandish conspiracy theories, including a video saying “Bill Gates either predicted or planned the coronavirus”.
The page is also selling merchandise including sweatshirts promoting a conspiracy theory about the deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and a T-shirt saying “say no to vaccines”.
BuzzFeed News has approached these Instagram accounts for comment.
Instagram said it is starting to remove false claims that link COVID-19 to 5G technology and that could lead to physical harm.
A spokesperson for Choq told Buzzfeed News after publication of this article that views expressed by its marketing affiliates don’t represent the views of the company. The spokesperson denied that Choq is “engaged in the promotion of wild conspiracies to increase web traffic,” saying that it “has never participated in such unscrupulous behaviour”.