It is perhaps a testament to these anxious, extremely paranoid times that one of the most famous scientists in the country right now is not actually a credible scientist at all. Dr. Judy Mikovits is at the center of the documentary Plandemic, a melange of pseudoscience and baseless conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite featuring such widely debunked claims that the COVID-19 death toll has been inflated and that masks spread the novel coronavirus, the 26-minute Plandemic went massively viral on social media, thanks in no small part to promotion from right-wing conspiracy theorists and mainstream influencers alike. Although Facebook and YouTube removed the video for violating anti-misinformation policies, it continues to be widely shared on various social platforms, even though most of its claims have been thoroughly debunked.
Within the anti-vaccine community, Mikovits is a well-known figure: After her 2009 research linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a mouse retrovirus was discredited and retracted from Science, Mikovits was fired from her post as research director at Nevada’s Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease. (She was arrested in November 2011 for allegedly stealing her notebooks from the lab. The charges were ultimately dropped.) Recently, Mikovits has reframed her fall from grace as the medical establishment silencing her attempts to raise questions about vaccine safety, and has achieved some level of notoriety in fringe communities as a whistleblower of sorts.
Yet thanks to the notoriety of Plandemic, Mikovits’ ideas have achieved mainstream visibility. She’s gained more than 100,000 Twitter followers since April, and her 2020 book, Plague of Corruption, has skyrocketed to the best-sellers’ list on Amazon, where it currently occupies the #7 slot (at one point, it had outsold the long-awaited follow-up to the Twilight franchise). Indeed, according to a thread by Stanford Internet Observatory researcher Renee DiResta, there is evidence to suggest that Mikovits’ appearance in Plandemic was actually part of an extensive marketing campaign for Plague of Corruption. (Skyhorse Publishing, the independent house that published Plague of Corruption, is also no stranger to publishing tomes devoted to conspiracy theories; a spokesperson from Amazon told Rolling Stone that Plague of Corruption “does not violate our content guidelines.”)
Coauthored by anti-vaccine blogger Kent Heckenlively (and featuring a forward by noted anti-vaccine huckster Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.), Plague of Corruption is, at first glance, an unlikely candidate for bestsellerdom. It’s replete with scientific jargon largely impenetrable to the average reader, and with its countless references to internecine medical establishment grudges and squabbles, it reads more like an embittered relative’s 10,000-word Facebook post against his former employer than a full-length book. Yet Mikovits knows her audience, and she sets herself up as a courageous whistleblower raging against the machine rather than a disgraced scientist with a grudge against an establishment that rejected her.
Plague of Corruption is, essentially, an act of self-hagiography. Throughout the book, Mikovits is compared or compares herself to, among others, Galileo, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Jefferson (in the latter instance, she quotes a lyric from Hamilton in the process). At one point, she quotes someone else describing her as “really brilliant.” Plague of Corruption is replete with villains, and one of Mikovits’ favorites (as also documented by Plandemic) is Dr. Fauci. “Whenever you ask yourself why the truth hasn’t been told in a critical area of public health, you’ll probably find the fingerprints of these men at the crime scene,” she writes, citing Fauci as an example. In one particularly egregious excerpt, Mikovits implies that Fauci ordered the murder of virologist Kuan-Teh Jeang, who died in 2013, as part of a cover-up burying Mikovits’ research. “The rumor is that [he] left a suicide note, which was confiscated by the National Institutes of Health police. I wonder if it resembles the torn-up note found in Vince Foster’s briefcase,” she writes, slyly sounding another far-right conspiracy theorist dog whistle.
Mikovits frames herself as someone who is punished for having the temerity to ask inconvenient questions, rather than as a discredited scientist. “If there’s one thing that’s characterized my career, it’s being open to new ideas and seeing how they may fit with what we already know, or think we know,” she writes. Presented out of context of Mikovits or her career, such statements are difficult for any rational person to find fault with, which is precisely what makes them so slippery: after all, asking old questions and being open to new answers is a central tenet of the American project. And this is what makes conspiracy theories so quick to spread and so difficult to curb: it’s easy to take issue with those who wage direct assaults on established truths, but much harder to fault someone for simply “asking questions,” or exercising their natural curiosity.
Of course, as we’ve learned with the success of Plandemic, the issue is that when it comes to a global public health crisis, it’s never just about “asking questions,” particularly when those questions are inseparable from political or self-serving agendas (or, in the case of Mikovits, arguably both). With a frightened public inundated with misinformation and primed toward governmental mistrust, it’s all too easy for bad ideas to gain traction, and social platforms (including the one that has allowed sales of Plague of Corruption to skyrocket) have played a crucial role in facilitating the process.