French “documentary” gives voice to Covid-19 conspiracy theories

The controversial French film “Hold-Up” claims that it reveals a global conspiracy by world elites to control citizens through the Covid-19 pandemic. Jowharlooks at the reasons for its surprising success.

As France battles its second Covid-19 wave and nationwide lockdown, “Hold-Up”, a nearly three-hour long film that tells French and other leaders about their handling of the pandemic, has become the country’s talk.

The film is funded by an audience funding campaign and directed by former journalist Pierre Barnérias, and reveals the French government’s lies about Covid-19 and a global conspiracy to control the public. It contains testimonies from ordinary citizens and celebrities, including the former Minister of Health Philippe Douste-Blazy, who has since distanced himself from the project.

Hold-Up exploits known shortcomings and inconsistencies in global responses to the health crisis – including the French government’s initially conflicting guidelines for the wisdom of wearing face masks – to advance more controversial ideas and outright lies. It has been paralyzed by politicians and NGOs to present and disseminate several conspiracy theories, and most of its claims have been discouraged by fact-checkers.

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But the chorus of condemnation has done nothing to hinder the film’s success – and may even have encouraged it.

The Ulule funding site, which hosts crowdfunding, has since removed “Hold-Up” from all advertising on its website. The film itself has been withdrawn from several online platforms, only to reappear in several versions, especially via YouTube.

Shared by a handful of celebrities, including actress Sophie Marceau, “Hold-Up” has reached far beyond the traditional circles of conspiracy theorists. Since its launch on November 11, it has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. Clips from the film have also been widely circulated on social media, including Instagram and the Snapchat messaging app, which is popular with a younger audience.

Slick and convincing

According to Sylvain Delouvée, who researches social psychology at the University of Rennes 2, the film’s success is largely due to a polished format that evokes standards for investigative documentaries, from the spooky background music to “experts”.

“It has a documentary, but this is not journalism,” he explains. “The film has a single goal: to spread the idea of ​​a global conspiracy.”

The film’s main strength lies in its ability to confuse legitimate interrogations with imaginative hints, step by step.

“In the beginning, the tone suggests healthy skepticism and criticism,” says Delouvée. “Unlike typical conspiracy videos, the film takes its time before conspiratorial thinking gets moving.”

“Hod-Up” begins by listing the many issues and criticisms that have emerged in the public debate since the pandemic began, including controversies about face masks, the origins of the virus, the harmful effects of lockdowns and the role of the drug lobby.

“It is a hallmark of conspiracy theories to mix truth elements with false interpretations, truncated discoveries and complete lies,” Delouvée said.

One example is the film’s treatment of a 2010 Senate report on the so-called swine flu pandemic, which compiled a list of criticisms of the World Health Organization at the time.

“The senators, who are hardly prophets, go so far as to condemn a false pandemic,” the film’s narrator claims, attributing some of the worst criticism, including allegations that the WHO “invented” the pandemic, to the Senate report itself.

A litany of conspiracies

To wake up viewers, “Hold-Up” uses a well-known rhetorical technique, sometimes called Gish Gallop, which means that the audience is overwhelmed with as many arguments as possible, without giving them time to digest the information and think things through.

One of its main strengths is how it gathers and combines a variety of conspiracy theories. These include the alleged nonsense of face masks, claims that hydroxychloroquine is a proven cure for Covid-19, the theory of links to 5G mobile networks and the notion of a totalitarian global government – known as the New World Order – that has to enslave the people.

“It’s an accident where everyone can find something to agree on, whether it’s masks, 5G, vaccines or the new world order,” says Delouvée. “You do not have to agree to everything; one or another of the theories may suffice. ”

According to Arnaud Mercier, professor of communication and information science at the Panthéon-Assas University in Paris, this patchwork method has helped to “gather a wide audience around issues and criticisms that go beyond the usual conspiracy theories”.

As a result, “Hold-Up” has reached a very diverse audience, Mercier adds. “The worrying thing is that this has put people in touch with a lot of ideas that they were not exposed to before.”

Fertile soil

In addition to social media, the film’s surprising popularity is largely due to the spread via messaging services, such as WhatsApp. These help “create small communities, touch people close to us”, says Delouvée.

With its deceptively simple solutions, the film has also found fertile ground in connection with a pandemic that has overwhelmed health care, closed economies and left governments around the world to crawl for answers.

“The exceptional nature of this period, the general loss of stocks and the frequent inconsistencies of public authorities have created an environment where people are particularly susceptible to alternative theories,” Mercier explains.

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This has left journalists, teachers and politicians a problem: should they respond to the film, challenge its claims and risk giving it more publicity?

Mercier says the popularity of conspiracy theories requires greater clarity and consistency from authorities, experts and the media.

“The debate cannot be abandoned to people who spread nonsense,” Delouvée added. “It is important to continue to argue and expose the contradictions of conspiracy theorists.”

This article has been translated from the original into French.