Covid conspiracy documentary goes viral in France, raising anti-vax fears

Hold Up peddles a number of conspiracy theories about the pandemic (screengrab)
Hold Up peddles a number of conspiracy theories about the pandemic (screengrab)

A controversial film denounced as peddling coronavirus conspiracy theories by a vast range of experts has gone viral in France, prompting alarm that it may hamper the country’s recovery by fuelling anti-vaccination sentiment.

The lengthy crowdfunded movie, Hold Up, purports to uncover a conspiracy by global governments and pharmaceutical companies to use the pandemic to assert control over citizens, among other wild and heavily debunked claims about 5G and eugenics.

It has been widely excoriated by politicians, scientists and other experts as “blockbuster conspiratorial propaganda”, with Laetitia Avia – a rising star in president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party – saying: “We could laugh about it if the situation was not so serious.”

The film has already racked up millions of views on social media sites, and has received endorsements from a number of celebrities and fringe politicians, including actor Sophie Marceau – some of whom have quickly withdrawn their support.

Former health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy is among the film’s 37 interviewees. He has since clarified that he was not aware of the nature of the film and disassociated himself from it in strong terms, adding: “The health crisis we are going through is serious enough not to add confusion to the painful times we are living.”

There are fears that its slick production values and gradual onslaught of baseless theories could introduce new viewers to a host of ideas deemed a threat to the nation’s efforts to curb the virus, in a nation where vaccine scepticism is high.

A survey by think tank Fondation Jean-Jaures suggested last week that 43 per cent of people in France could refuse to be vaccinated for coronavirus. This compares to 21 per cent in the UK, and 36 per cent in the US.

The platform upon which the film was crowdfunded, Ulule, has also distanced itself from the project, with chief executive Alexandre Boucherot saying that while all campaigns are moderated before approval, Hold Up’s initial “euphemistic” pitch became more radical once it had been signed off on.

“Very quickly we realised that it went beyond the supposed initial framework (the pluralism of voices) to become a banner of conspiracy theses very far from what we defend on Ulule,” Mr Boucherot wrote on Twitter.

The company will has suspended its promotion of the campaign and will donate its resulting profits to fact-checking organisations.

Part of the film’s persuasiveness lies in its initial focus on legitimate criticisms of the response to coronavirus, picking apart inconsistencies in past advice on face masks and hydroxychloroquine, which soon begin to merge with an array of baseless theories.

“In the beginning, the tone suggests healthy scepticism and criticism,” Sylvain Delouvee, a social psychologist at the University of Rennes told France24. “Unlike typical conspiracy videos, the film takes its time before the conspiratorial thinking gets into motion.”

“It’s a hallmark of conspiracy theories to mix elements of truth with false interpretations, truncated findings and outright lies,” Mr Delouvee said.

He added: “It has the trappings of a documentary, but this isn’t journalism. The film has a single objective – spreading the idea of a global conspiracy.”

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