By EU DisinfoLab Research Coordinator Roman Adamczyk
Disclaimer: All the videos that are mentioned as “available on YouTube” were still online as of 10 May 2021. Politico and EU DisinfoLab reached out to YouTube for comment before publication. YouTube did not provide any comments to the EU Disinfolab questions, which were the following:
- Can you provide figures on the audience reached by Hold-up videos on YouTube?
- Does YouTube consider that “Hold-Up” infringes the company’s Covid-19 disinformation policies?
- Has YouTube implemented any action towards “Hold Up” and, if yes, which and on what basis?
- What are the actions YouTube will implement to avoid similar conspiracy documentaries from being hosted on your service?
However, shortly after being contacted, YouTube removed all the videos from the platform.
On 11 November 2020, the French company Tprod released a COVID-19 conspiracy documentary called “Hold-up”. The documentary is based on interviews of several French-speaking controversial figures and conspiracy theorists, which have been part of the main sources of COVID-19 disinformation in the French language.
The 2h43 long conspiracy movie includes false information linked to the COVID-19 pandemic on a large range of topics. French fact-checker AFP Factuel identified in Hold-up more than 30 misleading or false assertions that they classified into four categories :
- Origin of the virus
- Danger of masks
- Hydroxychloroquine, cures, and vaccines
- The pandemic as a secret plot to control the population
To a large extent, “Hold-up” can be considered a French equivalent of the American conspiracy documentary “Plandemic”. Using manipulative rhetoric and baseless claims, both suggest that there is a secret global plot behind the COVID-19 pandemic and promote unfounded and dangerous medical claims. The coverage of Hold-up by French media outlets has been extensive, similarly to what we saw for US media around Plandemic.
According to YouTube’s COVID-19 medical misinformation policy published 20 May 2020, “YouTube doesn’t allow content about COVID-19 that poses a serious risk of egregious harm”. The company highlights a long list of medical disinformation examples, many of them that can be found in Hold-up, that are not tolerated on the platform (e.g Claims that hydroxychloroquine saves people from COVID-19). YouTube says: “If your content violates this policy, we’ll remove the content and send you an email to let you know”.
In the case of Plandemic, which was released just before the last updates of YouTube’s COVID-19 medical misinformation policy mentioned in this document, a spokeswoman for YouTube told CNBC that “the video was removed for making claims about a cure for Covid-19 that has not been backed by health organizations.” Some measures were taken rapidly by Youtube to try to limit the spread of Plandemic. Still, it didn’t prevent the US conspiracy video from generating millions of views on the platform.
Here we will show how YouTube’s lack of clear actions against the COVID-19 conspiracy documentary Hold-up allowed this “Plandemic à la Française” to accumulate millions of views, and has contributed to its continuous dissemination on multiple platforms for months.
Full versions of Hold-up are still available on YouTube
On 6 May 2021, we made a very simple query on YouTube using the keywords “Hold-up” and “documentaire” (We classified all the videos based on the view count and had a look at all the videos with more than 10k views). In the most viewed videos, we found 12 complete versions of the French-speaking COVID-19 conspiracy documentary that are still online:
|Video ranking||Publication date||View count on May 6th||Interactions generated on Facebook by the Youtube video|
As shown above, most of them were published in the wake of the release of the documentary on 11 November 2020 and have managed to accumulate more than 1.1 million views. Although 6 months have passed since the release of Hold-up, they are still available on the platform and can be disseminated everywhere online (Facebook, Twitter…)
Deleted versions of Hold-up were viewed millions of times
Thanks to web archives and our initial monitoring around the release of Hold-up, we have been able to identify two other viral full versions of the French COVID-19 conspiracy documentary, which are now not available anymore on the platform. These 2 versions had remained on YouTube for months and were able to generate at least 3.5M views
According to web archives, this version of Hold-up was available on YouTube until at least 2 February 2021 (almost three months after the release of the documentary) and has generated at least 2M views.
For example, a link to this YouTube video was still advertised in a tweet containing COVID-19 disinformation on 25 January 2021.
Moreover, the link to this video was also widely shared on Facebook generating more than 97k interactions.
The video page now says: “The video has been removed by the uploader”.
We identified a second extremely viral full version of Hold-up, which remained at least one month on the platform according to web archives and had managed to collect at least 1.5M views.
It is also possible to find Facebook posts linking to this video without any fact-checking label related to the Hold-up conspiracy theory..
This specific YouTube video “has been removed for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines”.
YouTube’s slowness to sanction disinformation actors
Hold-up producers managed a YouTube channel which was initially named “Thana TV”. This channel had around 35k subscribers in July 2020 and was already giving a platform to controversial figures before the release of Hold-up.
For example, in the screenshot below (archive from 28 July 2020), it can be seen that Thana TV had already published several videos during the first phase of the pandemic involving Alexandra Henrion-CaudE. She is a controversial French researcher who was fact-checked several times for spreading COVID-19 disinformation.
In December 2020, the Thana TV channel onYoutube was renamed “Hold-up média” by the producers of the documentary.
Thana TV did not publish a full version of Hold-up, but shared several interviews that were part of the conspiracy documentary and contained debunked disinformation. For example, a long version of an interview with a French doctor named Christian Perrone could be found on their channel, which includes fact-checked disinformation about hydroxychloroquine.
In February 2021, the “Hold-up Media” channel was finally deplatformed for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines. The suspension of Hold-up’s Youtube Channel occurred almost three months after the release of the conspiracy documentary. In the meantime, the channel had managed to reach 110k subscribers.
How other platforms dealt with Hold-up
It should be noted that Hold-up has associated social media accounts. As of writing at the beginning of May, the Twitter account and the Facebook page linked to Hold-up‘s main website were still up. Their Instagram account has been removed.
For 24 hours, it was possible to buy or rent the conspiracy documentary Hold-up on the website of the American company Vimeo. Due to mediatic backlash, Vimeo rapidly removed the video. While it is unclear how many people bought Hold-up on Vimeo,we did not find any evidence that the “Free videos” section of Vimeo has been used significantly to also disseminate Hold-up, suggesting that Vimeo was not responsible for amplifying or actively promoting its dissemination.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Odysee.com has become an important alternative for French-speaking disinformation actors and conspiracy theorists who want to evade more aggressive content moderation measures taken by the main social media platforms. Therefore, it came as no surprise to see many full versions of Hold-up circulate on this platform after its release.
In three days, the most successful occurrence of Hold-up available on Odysée had been viewed more than 160k times.
Thanks to CrowdTangle, we were also able to see that full versions of the conspiracy movie on Odysee were also frequently recirculated on Facebook. One Odysee video led for example to 46K interactions on Facebook. And we also found at least 2 other Odysee videos which generated more than 20k interactions.
Copyright to the rescue?
Although Odysee has very lax content moderation policies, it is now almost impossible to find a full version of Hold-up on the platform. A complaint about the documentary was filed under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and now most full versions of Hold-up on Odysée cannot be accessed anymore.
Oddly enough, it is easier today to watch Hold-up on YouTube than to watch it on an alternative platform like Odysee. Intellectual property is a powerful tool for moderating content, but it is clearly an exceptional case when copyright is evoked to remove disinformation. We are still in great need of regulation that is adapted to disinformation per se.
In conclusion: addressing the double standard through regulation
After the release of US video “Plandemic”, YouTube was vocal about its intention to do more to address the spread of COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories. Still, this analysis of YouTube’s reactions to Hold-up – the “Plandemic à la française” – demonstrates that its efforts are far from sufficient. YouTube acted quickly and aggressively to remove Plandemic; but in the case of Hold-up, YouTube’s inaction allowed the dissemination of conspiracy theories with serious harmful consequences for public health. This discrepancy clearly raises the question of enforcement and suggests a double standard in YouTube’s content moderation policies between language markets and regions.
Harmonised regulation, including a clear and transnational liability framework for platforms, is needed to ensure that platforms are equally responsive to disinformation outside of the countries where they are headquartered. The EU’s proposed Digital Services Act is a step in this direction. Meanwhile, this study also highlights the need for platforms to cooperate with one another in the face of dangerous disinformation incidents, like those related to Covid-19 disinformation and viral conspiracy content. Conspiracy content does not stay within the bounds of one platform or service, but strategically leverages many, and the enforcement loopholes between services, to reach wide audiences and ensure the resilience of borderline content. Effective regulation must account for these malign maneuvers, and encourage platforms to account for them as well, through cooperation and information sharing in cases of dangerous disinformation.