Mr Willis Goes to Washington

Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic began, a media attack on masking, epidemiology, and vaccination came in the form of a film called “Plandemic,” made by Ojai resident Mikki Willis, which dropped on May 4th, 2020. Spread by thousands of anti-vax and QAnon followers — according to a follow-up investigation by the Stanford Internet Observatory — the film attained instant popularity. Among its many falsehoods — which have been refuted by Science, NPR, USA Today, among many others — the film planted the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 outbreak was part of a scheme by Anthony Fauci and others to create a new vaccine.

The film — featuring Willis interviewing discredited former researcher and anti-vax author Judy Mikovits of Oxnard — made Micki Willis nationally famous, but provoked a backlash in Ojai among former friends and associates. Not long after its release Willis left Ojai for Texas, where he lives with his family today. Willis went on to join the mob at the US Capitol on January 6th, and was photographed outside the Capitol Dome amidst a crowd chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” ensuring himself a moment of infamy on Twitter. (Willis insists that he never entered the Capitol building itself, and has not been questioned or arrested by authorities.)

Below the virtual fold is a web version of the story on Willis and “Plandemic” I wrote for Ojai magazine in May (reformatted and updated).

Willis has turned his back on his former progressive causes (such as composting, women’s empowerment, and Bernie Sanders) and now works with the likes of sanctioned right-wing attorney Lin Wood, on the defense of accused murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, among other right-wing media figures.

In April of last year Willis interviewed Judy Mikovits around the release of her book “Plague of Corruption.” In the interview — which Willis amplified unquestioningly — Mikovits claimed she was driven out of science by Anthony Fauci and others. In fact a study she published in 2009 claiming to have found a viral cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was withdrawn under allegations of malfeasance and subsequently renounced by Science magazine. Mikovits was then fired by her employer, the Whittemore Peterson Institute, and arrested in 2011 in Ventura County for allegedly stealing research materials. Mikovits no longer works in the field, but in the last fifteen months has published three popular books railing against vaccination, masking, and Fauci, among other targets.

In “Plandemic,” Willis mostly ignored Mikovits’ false claims about vaccination and instead focused on allegations not found “Plague of Corruption,” such as the false claim that wearing masks against COVID-19 “activates” the virus in the body.

This directorial choice brought “Plandemic” and Willis immediate and enormous fame — and scrutiny. Because “Plandemic” now has been banned from social media and excluded from streaming platforms, Willis said he has had to move his new work to other media outlets and has turned his focus to a new controversies far from Ojai and even California.

Willis said his filmmaking team now works as a “forensic filmmaker” with public footage for the defense team of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old charged with two counts of homicide in a Black Lives Matter protest that took place Aug. 25 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In an appearance in October 2020, Willis said that he also worked on footage of the Covington Catholic School student Nicholas Sandmann, accused of taunting a Native American veteran in a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, 2019. From other footage gathered from the scene, Willis’s team made a longer video that he says helped turn the tide of public opinion in Sandmann’s favor.

“We made the video that won the lawsuit against CNN and the Washington Post, and I was no longer the darling of the Left,” Willis said in a videotaped appearance at a Red Pill Expo in Jekyll, Georgia, in October 2020.

In interviews, Willis said that he rejects partisanship and extremism on both sides of the political spectrum, but complained of “the incredible volume of people [in Ojai] who became hateful and unwilling to have a dialogue after “Plandemic.’”

For himself, Willis continues to speak reverently of “sacred” Ojai, but last year moved with his family to Corpus Christi, Texas.

MIKOVITS AND ‘PLANDEMIC’

In “Plandemic,” Mikovits claimed that “wearing the mask literally activates your own virus.” In May of 2020, she alleged in an YouTube interview that public health authority Anthony Fauci “basically let this disease spread around the world so he could get glory, fame, and money.” She called for health authorities to lift lockdowns, and in August published a best-selling book against masking.

Despite — or perhaps because of —  the falsehoods, duplicity, and lack of verification, the alarming “Plandemic” film shot to overnight fame. “Plandemic” was released to the Internet on May 4, 2020, and went viral, recording nearly 1.8 million views within three days, according to the Digital Trends online publication. This far outranked other popular web videos released to the web that week, and went on to rack up more than an estimated 7 million views, according to Facebook’s Crowd Tangle research tool. Here’s an image depicting the groups spreading the video.

The spread of Plandemic on Facebook was powered by QAnon, anti-vax, and chemtrails groups, according to CrowdTangle datasets.

Facebook soon took “Plandemic” down.

“Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick can lead to imminent harm, so we’re removing the video,” Facebook said in a statement to news outlets on May 7, three days after it achieved explosive popularity and millions of views.

After “Plandemic” was removed from Facebook, where it was most often shared, other social-media sites followed suit, including YouTube and Vimeo. It is not readily found on the Internet by search engine today.

“Plandemic” made Willis nationally famous, but with prominence has come public pressure and a great deal of criticism from former allies in Ojai. Willis continues to defend the film, and maintains an active personal presence on some social media, but in interviews and appearances in recent weeks, he expressed anger toward the so-called mainstream media and mixed feelings about fame.

WILLIS IN THE CAPITOL RIOT

On Jan. 6., Willis spoke at a “MAGA Health Freedom Event” on the east side of the U.S. Capitol, and joined — with a small film crew in tow — the crowds of Trump partisans from around the country who gathered at the U.S. Capitol. In the aftermath, a five-second cellphone video image of Willis, surrounded by a crowd of protesters chanting “Hang Mike Pence” at the Capitol, was widely circulated on social media and CNN.

Some commentators called on the FBI to arrest him.

After news of Willis’s attendance at the Capitol riots spread on social media around the country, the Kiss the Ground nonprofit organization (a Los Angeles-based 501c3 headquartered in Ojai), severed connections with him in a statement released to Instagram:

“This past weekend, Kiss the Ground was made aware that a member of its extensive advisory council was present at the insurrection at the Nation’s Capitol,” the Jan. 12 statement read. “Upon learning this, we immediately terminated Mikki Willis’ position at the advisory council.

Without equivocation, Kiss the Ground stands firmly on the side of American democracy and condemns the hatred and violence that ensued.”

Despite the furor on Twitter, Willis has not been arrested or charged.

In the aftermath, on Facebook and in interviews, Willis insists that he went “as a journalist” to the Capitol, but never inside. He condemns the violence that took place, and argues in a seven-minute unreleased film that the violent mob assault took place largely on the on the front side of the Capitol, where the Inauguration was held later in January, and not on the back side of the Capitol, which is where Willis joined another large crowd that was marching on the building.

In his speech at the “MAGA Health Freedom Event of the Century” on Jan.6 outside the Capitol, Willis spoke warmly of what he saw at the Capitol, describing it as “the human organism rising up” and “a beautiful thing to see.” He added that he “had done a 180” from his past as “part of the Far Left.”

For some of his critics, such as holistic foods entrepreneur John Roulac, a former Ojai resident and founder of the health food company Nutiva, who worked on a film about hemp with Willis in 2008, “Plandemic” is a part of the problem that the spirituality and wellness movement now has with right-wing conspiracism.

“Millions of Americans and many people I know were “red-pilled” by this conspiracy theory that moved very strongly into the wellness/alternative/New Age world,” he said. “Last spring, I saw this happening and started asking: What is going on? If you talk to these people, you will hear that very powerful people are controlling the financial destiny of the world and we need to push back. Okay, that’s not crazy — until they say the answer is Donald Trump.”

To be “red-pilled” is a reference to a pivotal moment in the hugely popular 1999 movie “The Matrix.” The idea is that an individual is presented with a choice in life: He can take a blue pill and stay in a pleasantly false fantasyland, or take a red pill, and go down the rabbit hole to see the dark truth of a conspiratorial, and often right-wing, perspective.

Roulac wrote an essay on the social media site, Medium, in September critical of Willis and the QAnon movement called “Is the Wellness Movement Being Tainted by QAnon and the New Age Right?” In the essay, Roulac challenged Willis on the subject of “Plandemic” and its anti-masking message.

“He recently released “Plandemic 1” (tens of millions of views), which claims that masks can actually harm you,” Roulac wrote. “It’s like he shouted fire in thousands of crowded theaters across the world. Convincing people to see masks as ineffective and dangerous could contribute to the illness and death of tens of thousands.”

John Roulac, who once worked with Willis, now considers him dangerous to public health.

Willis admitted that he does wear masks on occasion.

“I wear a mask primarily for the protection of other people,” he said, but added that researchers have pointed out issues with mask-wearing and proper fit and cleansing. “I don’t think I’ve seen a single person in this year-long experience not fumbling with their mask in a way that makes it useless and in some cases potentially dangerous,” he said.

For Roulac, the question is bigger than masks or Willis.

“To me, this is really an example of a society in disarray. People are unsure of their own financial future, they’re concerned about the climate crisis, and it’s as if, in response, they’re grasping at bizarre conspiracies,” he said. “Look at Christiane Northrup, a well-known M.D. who has gone full QAnon. This is rampant in the Ojai Valley. And I’m like — really? And so I wrote this article telling people that this isnot a good thing and to watch out. A lot of people got upset with me for saying it, but a lot of friends in Ojai wrote to thank me for speaking up.”

OJAI NEW AGE COMMUNITY DIVIDED

Willis and his Elevate filmmaking collective have a long history in Ojai. Willis rented a large hilltop mansion in Ojai called Glen Muse from retired software engineer Darakshan Farber in the fall of 2010. Impressed by Willis’s “magnetic” personality and his creative spirit, Farber lived for nearly two years at the estate with Willis and up to 15 people at a time from the Elevate collective, he said.

“I was intrigued by his vision and his spiritual approach,” Farber said. “He was a very spiritual guy, no doubt about it. But from what I saw, it was very difficult for them to focus on the business side with all the people and the transition; they were trying to live in this grand place for the sake of the collective.”

Farber said that, over time, he became disillusioned with Willis and asked him to leave. He later sold the estate and traveled overseas. He watched “Plandemic” in Thailand last year and was once again reminded of his time with Willis and the collective. He called the film “hogwash.”

“I have so many spiritual friends who were drawn to Mikki’s personality and his false authenticity,” he said, looking back. “It makes me very sad.”

For Nora Herold, a well-known channeler based in Meiners Oaks, who, like Farber, knew Willis personally, the conspiracism of “Plandemic” threatens the health of the spiritual community of Ojai.

“I think “Plandemic” is disinformation,” she said. “That’s not the same as misinformation, which implies a mistake, and a willingness to own that mistake. Disinformation involves an underlying agenda to promote theories or ideas that run counter to the traditional narrative. These ideas are there for an underlying reason, and that’s often because there’s a financial gain involved.”

Many in Ojai charge that Willis has been motivated in his choices primarily by money, but Herold and a few others see the potential for an even darker agenda. Herold said that QAnon references began to crop up in her work in Ojai in 2017.

“QAnon and COVID denial and anti-mask statements and extreme beliefs about sovereign identity create a split in the spirituality/wellness community,” she said. “The split in our community is reflected in a split in the larger world. I think it’s an ancient wound — a form of unhealed trauma.”

Jack Adam Weber, an author and climate activist in Ojai, said he also sees a connection between the conspiratorial rhetoric of “Plandemic” and the conspiratorial rhetoric of the cultic group known as QAnon.

“For New Agers, conspiratorial thinking is spiritual bypassing,” he wrote in an essay, invoking the idea that among the spiritually-mindedin particular, the pandemic evokes pain, and it’s easier to deny COVID-19 than to deal with that deeply rooted pain.

“Part of the reason for discrediting the pandemic is because the pandemic incites fear,” he said. “If I can’t get rid of the pandemic, let me try to attack the fear.”

In fact, the follow-up to “Plandemic,” called “Plandemic: Indoctrination,” which was released last fall and is still available online, ends with a fierce rejection of the emotion of fear.

Although Farber said he now distrusts Willis and hasn’t seen him in years, he doesn’t know how intentional Willis is in his choices.

“I wonder if Mikki almost unconsciously shifted from a purely spiritual world to this world where he gets more of an audience, more adulation, and more money, but I don’t know.”

WILLIS DEFENDED

Willis still has defenders in Ojai. Among them is Reno Rolle, a longtime resident, who said he has known Willis since 2003 as a filmmaker, neighbor, and family man, and continues to support him and his work. He scoffed at the idea that “Plandemic” could damage Ojai’s spirituality/wellness community.

“If the spirituality of the Ojai community is that fragile, then perhaps there’s a bigger question that needs to be expressed,” he said, adding that he knows Willis did not produce “Plandemic” to make money.

“On the heels of his ‘Plandemic’ project, I was approached by people who specialize in monetizing data because they thought I might be able to get to Mikki,” he said. “They suggested emphatically that if they had access to Mikki’s database, they would market to that database, and they guaranteed seven figures over the course of one week. I know it sounds incredible, but I’ve been in direct-response community marketing and these people are very credible and legitimate. Mikki flatly refused, because he was concerned people would think he had made ‘Plandemic’ for the money.”

Willis said he has not taken any opportunity to profit off the success of “Plandemic.” Looking back on his tumultuous year since making the viral film, Willis now says that his appearance at the Capitol riot was a mistake, perhaps his biggest mistake. However, he denies any involvement with QAnon. He blames the media for conflating his appearance at a rally on health and vaccination issues with support for former President Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign, and rejects the idea that he made “Plandemic” to become rich and famous.

“Consider this — for 30 years I’ve been doing good business in and around Hollywood,” he said. “I had collected a community of supportive investors and established solid connections with all the major distribution platforms, including Netflix and Amazon. Every one of these has gone away. I will never again have a film on a major distribution platform. You don’t make these choices for financial or political gain — I think fame is a curse, particularly in an age where one tweet can leave your entire career ruined.”

Update: This fall Willis will release a book version of “Plandemic,” which he is promoting with QAnon merchandising.

END

The article appears on page 44 of the Ojai Magazine above in pdf format.

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