Misinformation surrounding the origins of COVID-19 is a popular topic on Chinese social media, particularly as Chinese state media seeks to deflect scrutiny from the Chinese government’s mishandling of the initial outbreak. Over the past week, a widely viewed video on Chinese social media suggests that COVID-19, along with SARS, are bioweapons engineered by the United States. The video features Dr. David Martin, an American financial analyst, former professor, self-help entrepreneur, and conspiracy theorist, speaking to a supposedly official European Union Summit. Both Dr. Martin’s conspiratorial claims and the officialism of the summit, however, deserve scrutiny. On May 3rd, 2023 a small cohort of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) gathered in Brussels for the third annual International COVID Summit (ICS). As described by a public group on Facebook, the ICS is a summit where ‘top world doctors and scientists are exposing the truth about the Covid-19 pandemic and the about the upcoming terrors that will attempt to remove our freedoms.’ The group also platforms content related to anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests.
The first ICS took place in 2021 after being established by MEPs belonging mostly to right-leaning, populist parties. The unofficial Summit invites public health experts from across the world to provide 15–30-minute presentations on a topic of their choice related to the broader COVID pandemic. However, what unites these various presentations and really every participant in the conference is their collective skepticism of proven scientific facts associated with the pandemic and overall criticism of the world’s reaction to the pandemic. Each speaker, many of whom have relied on data and statistics that have been widely discredited, has typically connected their presentation back to the broader theme that policies associated with the pandemic have unjustly robbed people of their liberty and freedoms. If the audience was made up solely of MEPs, then there were at least 70 of them in attendance at the unofficial 2023 summit. The MEPs who helped organize and spoke at the summit include Romania’s Cristian Terhes, Italy’s Francesca Donato, Germany’s Christine Anderson and Croatia’s Ivan Sinčić and Mislav Kolakušić. While finding full recordings of the 2023 ITC was especially difficult given its unofficial nature, MEP Terhes posted a two-part recording of the full summit on his YouTube page (Part One and Part Two).
In his 20-minute presentation to the summit, Martin argued that the U.S. government and leading vaccine-maker Pfizer nefariously manufactured and released coronavirus before both the 2003 SARS pandemic and COVID-19 pandemic in order to ensure that the world would accept a universal vaccine template. While he claimed to present evidence of U.S.-sponsored biological terrorism on slides during his presentation, none of the summit recordings showed these slides and therefore leave most of his claims without proof of hard evidence for viewers.
Martin has gained a cult-like following on Chinese social media over the last few days because the content of his speech confirms a China preferred narrative that the U.S. biolabs around the world are culprits of one of the worst pandemics in human history. This was partially demonstrated, for example, by one of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor’s surveys, which showed that a majority of Chinese netizens believe Russian conspiracy theories about the discovery of American biolabs in Ukraine. One Chinese netizen, who goes by Milan Noble Warrior (米兰大侠) added Chinese subtitles to Martin’s presentation and reposted it onto Baidu on May 29th. After being on the internet for just one day, the post already has over 8,000 comments, 27,000 likes, and 640,000 total views. Many of the netizens’ comments praised Milan Noble Warrior for posting the video and applauded Martin as a hero exposing what they believe to be the ugly truth about the United States.
Martin’s background warrants scrutiny. He has few discernable ties to China (other than advising some financial firms in mainland China), so his sudden popularity surge on Chinese social media likely has more to do with the content of his message rather than some prior political connection. Martin has published multiple self-help books, hosted a 2013 TED Talk presentation about finance, and played a starring role in the 2020 conspiracy theory-based documentary “Plandemic: Indoctornation”, and has appeared as a guest analyst on networks including CNBC and Bloomberg. He is perhaps most well-known for his YouTube channel. His content regularly features conspiracies related to vaccines, mask-wearing, and other health measures. Some of his videos have been taken down for violating YouTube’s terms of service. He’s posted 275 videos and has nearly 65,000 subscribers, and a big reason for this is due to the popularity of his weekly series titled “Butterfly of the Week”.
Started in 2009, this series covers topics ranging from religion to self-help and wellness but also incorporates a strong conspiratorial element associated with COVID-19. Martin’s wife, Kim, is a registered nurse, consultant, and free-lance self-help expert from Australia and she typically co-hosts episodes with him. While Kim Martin does not seem to have the same media and business-generated fame as her husband, they both have shared in numerous videos that she convinced him to start sharing his thoughts to the public particularly since the pandemic began given their skepticism of it.
The virality of Martin’s speech has provided the small and relatively unknown ICS with significant publicity across YouTube and social media. Overall, Martin’s conspiracy theories lack scientific foundation, yet he’s still been able to disseminate his misinformation primarily through his mostly uncensored YouTube videos. His ICS speech, despite not providing any visual video evidence for his shocking claims, has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens because his views reflect the preferred narrative put forward by the Chinese government that the COVID pandemic may have originated in the United States and not China. In addition, the name brand associated with the European Parliament, even if the ICS summit is not an official EU event, helped make the conference and thus Martin’s platform seem widely accepted within the governing body even though it was not. Chinese social media outlets and officials tend to use foreign sources of information to spread its preferred narrative, and this could be yet another example of this tactic. There is no doubt that conspiracy theories such as the ones Martin has leveled are exactly the kinds of dangerous sources of influence that compromise people’s health and put lives at risk.