YouTube is broadcasting Covid-19 conspiracy theory videos to millions of people, and in some cases running adverts alongside them, a Press Gazette investigation has found.
The Google-owned platform, which made $15bn in revenue last year, claims to have cracked down on dangerous and misleading content. But several such videos were only removed after being flagged by Press Gazette, and some had been live for weeks.
A video claiming that 5G causes coronavirus had been live on the website for more than a month and viewed more than 1.5m times. The video, which was one of the most-viewed under the search term “coronavirus 5G”, was kept live between 25 March and 1 May, despite YouTube announcing a crackdown on such content in early April.
Our investigation also found:
- A video viewed more than 80,000 times from a “verified” YouTube account in which an interviewee called for the “execution” of mainstream media, “taking out those bastards that have lied and lied and lied”. The YouTube channel boss said the guest was being metaphorical
- Adverts for a United Nations charity featuring alongside videos in which conspiracy theorist David Icke suggests Iran was badly affected by coronavirus because of its relationship with the United States and Israel
- A 45-minute excerpt from last month’s London Live interview with Icke – which broadcast regulator Ofcom said “had the potential to cause significant harm to viewers” – that has been viewed more than 6m times
- A video condemning tech entrepreneur Bill Gates as an “antichrist”, using as evidence a conspiratorial article that has been debunked by Reuters.
One critic condemned YouTube and Google owner Alphabet for profiting from the content – and only acting to remove it after it was highlighted by Press Gazette.
“Journalists shouldn’t be their cleanup crew,” said Jason Kint, chief executive of US digital publishing trade body Digital Content Next, which has been lobbying for the tech giants to tackle fake news for several years.
London Real is a digital video channel that traces its roots back to 2011, when it was founded as a podcast. Chief executive Brian Rose – a former City of London broker, according to his LinkedIn page – says he set it up as “an antidote to the numbing effects of mainstream media”.
London Real’s YouTube channel is “verified” and has 1.8m subscribers – more than many mainstream news organisations, including the Daily Mail, ITV News, The Guardian and the Washington Post.
Some videos from London Real feature adverts alongside them, and the channel in turn advertises its channel and services alongside other users’ content, suggesting both Rose and YouTube benefit financially from the content.
Interviewees to have appeared on the channel include former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and Hollywood actress-turned-activist Rose McGowan.
However, some of its most popular guests appear not to be politicians or celebrities, but conspiracy theorists like David Icke.
Last month, UK broadcast regulator Ofcom censured London Live – the local TV station owned by Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev – for broadcasting an interview with Icke. Ofcom judged that the conspiracist’s “largely unchallenged” claims about Covid-19 “had the potential to cause significant harm to viewers”.
The interview was conducted by Rose, under the London Real brand. A 45-minute excerpt from what appears to be the same interview – “DAVID ICKE – THE TRUTH BEHIND THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC: COVID-19 LOCKDOWN & THE ECONOMIC CRASH” – has been viewed on London Real’s YouTube channel more than 6m times since it was uploaded on 18 March.
In another Icke video – “ITALIAN CORONAVIRUS IS MORE DEADLY THAN IN OTHER PLACES: Why David Icke Believes Italy Was Hit Hard”, a shorter excerpt from the same interview – the interviewee appears to suggest Iran has been badly hit by coronavirus because of its relations with the United States and Israel.
Press Gazette found adverts alongside this clip, including an appeal for the UN Refugee Agency.
A spokesperson for the charity said: “UNHCR was unaware our ads were appearing alongside the content in question. There is an algorithm which affects the placement and appearance of our ads, and we are unable to control much with respect to the videos that they follow on YouTube.”
“Execution” of mainstream media
In a separate London Real video, uploaded on 28 April and viewed more than 80,000 times, Rashid Buttar – a regular interviewee on the channel – promotes conspiracy theories linking Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and big pharma companies to the outbreak of Covid-19.
Buttar, who is promoted as a former Army surgeon, also accuses the mainstream media of being complicit in spreading lies about the disease, and calls for the industry to be executed.
In the clip, “BILL GATES’ INVESTMENTS in BIG PHARMA, THE WHO & CDC 💉Dr Rashid Buttar on The Coronavirus Truth”, which again promotes a longer interview at LondonReal.TV, Buttar says:
If there was going to be an execution of an industry right now – if an execution of an individual, execution of somebody to make this world right – it would be mainstream media. Taking out those bastards that have lied and lied and lied, and had a manipulation of the truth to basically satisfy their puppet masters.
When asked about this clip, London Real said Buttar was speaking metaphorically.
In another London Real interview, uploaded on 30 April and viewed more than 90,000 times, Buttar implored people not to wear facemasks and to go outside.
“The one thing you should be doing if you’re worried about Covid-19, get your facemask off,” he says, in a video titled “WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WEAR FACEMASKS: Media Misinformation Will Make People Sick”. “Second, go out… It’s important.”
In a third video, Buttar alleges that members of the public are going to be given a vaccine for Covid-19 in the future that will “make more people sick”.
Buttar also claims that the public are being kept in lockdown because “they don’t want people to see what the truth is”, including the roll-out of the 5G network.
Unlike some other conspiracy theorists, Buttar does not claim that 5G causes Covid-19, but he does say the technology can cause people to become ill in other ways.
He added: “The truth is that everything is fine. The truth is that people aren’t dropping dead. The truth is that the hospitals are idle. Ambulances are sitting there. Paramedics are playing cards. They’re bored. Doctors are being laid off. Nurses are furloughed. That’s the truth.”
After Press Gazette contacted YouTube and London Real for comment on Friday, 1 May, these videos of Buttar became unavailable to view. A message now says: “Video unavailable. This video is private.”
5G conspiracy theories
One of the most prolific Covid-19 conspiracy theories circulating the internet links the disease to the 5G wireless technology.
In early April, after 5G masts across the UK were destroyed by protestors, The Guardian reported that YouTube was cracking down on 5G-coronavirus conspiracy videos.
“We also have clear policies that prohibit videos promoting medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment, and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us,” a YouTube spokesperson told the newspaper. “We have also begun reducing recommendations of borderline content such as conspiracy theories related to 5G and coronavirus, that could misinform users in harmful ways.”
However, Press Gazette found a video – “WHERE THE CORONAVIRUS APPEARED | Bill Gates, 5G and China [ENG SUB]” – directly linking Covid-19 to 5G that had been live on the site since 25 March and viewed more than 1.5m times. The video was deleted after Press Gazette brought it to YouTube’s attention on Friday, 1 May.
The uploader, Vlad Freedom, is not a verified user, but this video did feature an advert alongside it (see below), suggesting he and YouTube profit from the content.
In the video, which appears to be in Russian but offers English translations, the narrator says:
My sources inform me that 5G technologies can be used to exercise control over a human body and make it more vulnerable to the virus. The places where 5G towers are installed, the [virus] can spread much faster.
The video came up third in a YouTube search result for “coronavirus 5G” when results were ordered in terms of most viewed. The London Real interview with Icke came top, despite there being no reference to 5G in it.
Another post from 27 April claimed to reveal the secrets of a “former Vodafone boss”. This video was viewed hundreds of times before being deleted after it was flagged by Press Gazette.
In the video the alleged former Vodafone boss said:
What is happening is that 5G, the frequency and the power which is 10 times more powerful than 4G, is reacting adversely with human cells, causing cells in our bodies to be poisoned, toxic and our natural defence mechanism is pushing out that toxicity in the form of a virus.
So what you’re seeing is not coronavirus per se, you’re seeing cell poisoning manifesting with fluids, chemicals, viruses that the body is trying to dispose of because it is harmful to its physical body…
All that’s occurring in the world is a reaction to human bodies to the electrification of the universe through 5G satellites.
Young Pharaoh, another verified YouTube user, posted a video titled “EX CIA SPY SAYS COVID-19 CONTAINS “NANOPARTICLES” WHICH ARE ACTIVATED BY “5G”” on 3 April. The video remained live until it was flagged by Press Gazette on 1 May – after it had been viewed more than 200,000 times.
Bill Gates, “antichrist”
In addition to 5G, one of the most popular targets for conspiracy theorists is billionaire tech entrepreneur Bill Gates.
One YouTube video, uploaded on 21 March and viewed nearly 2m times, suggests that Gates may be the “antichrist”.
The video cites an online article, “Bill Gates will use microchip implants to fight coronavirus”, which has been debunked by Reuters.
The video clip’s host says the article will be “quite a concern for any Bible-believing Christians, knowing what the public says about the end times. Knowing that the Bible says there will be an antichrist, a man that proclaims to be God that will try to unite the world in a one-world government, with a one-world financial system and establish a one-world religion.”
‘Journalists shouldn’t be their cleanup crew’
Digital Content Next chief executive Jason Kint has been pushing social media giants to tackle fake news issues for years.
In 2016, he wrote to the bosses of Google and Facebook challenging them to clean up “the blatantly false and misleading ‘fake news’ that has come to litter the digital landscape”.
He said: “Over the years, you have claimed repeatedly that you are not media companies; instead, the word ‘utility’ has been used, occasionally by your own executives. But if even one per cent of the water in our local utility was polluted, wouldn’t it be right to move heaven and earth to clean it up?”
Presented with the findings of Press Gazette’s investigation, Kint said: “My key question would be, how are they doing nearly four years [on from this letter]? Have they indeed moved ‘heaven and earth’? Not even remotely close and these videos offer proof.”
He said: “Consistent with our letter, I would however hesitate greatly before I would argue the videos should be taken down entirely. Admittedly, I haven’t reviewed every minute of the videos so I reserve the right to state otherwise and certainly the video suggesting journalists should be executed was abhorrent to me.
“My biggest focus would be on how they get to millions of views. How does THAT happen? Our concern has been with the design decisions which provide velocity and reach for these videos to spread. These are the same design decisions which also serve their advertising and fatten their bank account. Rather than delete them entirely, why doesn’t YouTube make it so that they are never recommended and therefore do not receive any views unless explicitly sought out by a user?”
Noting that several of the videos Press Gazette found have been deleted, Kint added: “Journalists shouldn’t be their cleanup crew.”
Kint also noted that YouTube parent company Alphabet makes money from this content, even where no adverts appear.
He said: “They may argue there isn’t an ad running next to the clip but inevitably a user who views this clip is making money for Google in other ways before and after the video and behind the scenes with their data.”
YouTube removes content
After Press Gazette contacted YouTube for comment on Friday, 1 May, several of the videos highlighted by this investigation were removed. On 2 May, YouTube also deleted the account of David Icke.
Tech giants like YouTube owner Google are coming under intense pressure over fake news amid the coronavirus crisis.
Last week, Google, Facebook and Twitter came under fire from UK members of parliament for being “unable to answer basic questions” during a hearing on fake news before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sub-committee on online harms and disinformation.
After being sent the results of our investigation, a YouTube spokesperson said:
All videos uploaded to YouTube must comply with our Community Guidelines and we quickly remove flagged content that violates these policies. We also have strict policies that govern what kind of videos we allow ads to appear on and we enforce these advertising policies vigorously. We’re committed to providing timely and helpful information at this critical time, including by raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation and showing information panels using data from global and local health organisations.
YouTube claims to have removed thousands of Covid-19 videos judged to be dangerous or misleading since early February.
London Real: ‘Execution’ was metaphorical
Brian Rose defended London Real’s coverage. “We pride ourselves in delivering long form, nuanced conversations that cannot be distilled down to a soundbite to be used for clickbait headlines or fake news,” he said.
He denied that Buttar was calling for mainstream media journalists to be executed in one of his interviews. Rose added: “He actually refers to an industry and is speaking in a highly metaphorical way. Would we broadcast content which we believed genuinely incited violence? Absolutely not. We have been very clear about this on multiple occasions. We believe that education is the only way to create change.”
Asked about the broadcast of some of Buttar’s other messages – including advice for people to not wear masks – Rose said: “Our content and guests offer up a wide range of insights, views and opinions. We believe our audience has sovereignty over the ideas they choose to consume and that as providers of a wide range of materials, we offer content that delivers a disparate series of alternative world views.
“Our mission is to create a mass-scale transformation of humanity into a fully empowered, conscious, and cooperative species.”
And asked about his interview with Icke, he said: “Ofcom’s decision is in of itself contradictory and provides little clarity for any journalist or broadcaster as to what it considers ‘harmful’.”
He added that over the weekend, London Real had broadcast a three-hour conversation with Icke on its own video platform and claimed that 1m guests watched it. “So clearly there is a demand for the voices we feature and we will continue to provide the people the information they desire in accordance with our mission.”
Rose added: “We will be sharing with our subscribers the questions you asked and our answers in order to ensure that you abide by your own journalistic integrity.”
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog