An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Correctiv, Maldita.es
This article is the English translation of the originals “Wie die Corona-Leugner ein Netzwerk in Europa aufbauten”, published on Correctiv the 6th of April 2022, and “La red europea de los corona-negacionistas: sus conexiones y su ‘modus operandi’ entre España y Alemania” published on Maldita.es on the 6th of April 2022
Face masks produce hypoxia, vaccines modify our DNA, PCRs don’t work, coronavirus was created in a laboratory… These are some of the more than 1,000 false contents, hoaxes and claims without evidence that we have debunked at Maldita.es since the coronavirus pandemic started more than two years ago. All this disinformation has shaped an ‘infodemic’ that has run parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of these hoaxes have been created and spread by the denialist group Médicos por la Verdad (Doctors for the Truth, in Spanish). A journalistic investigation by Maldita.es and Latam Chequea revealed that this organisation has links with others alike in Latin America. Now, Maldita.es and CORRECTIV, both part of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), have joined forces to reveal the connections between COVID-19 disinformation groups in Spain and Germany.
The leaders of these groups in Germany and Spain are, respectively, Heiko Schöning and Natalia Prego, both doctors (although we have found no evidence that Schöning has ever worked as one). Both have attended several international events and have met at least six times since July 2020.
Doctors for the Truth origin: Heiko Schöning and Germany
Doctors for the Truth was created in Germany. In this country, Heiko Schöning (described as a “military doctor” at the anti-vaccine event World Freedom Forum webpage) created the association Ärzte für Aufklärung, literally ‘Doctors for Enlightenment’, during the spring of 2020, although he is no longer listed as a member or otherwise on their website. As early as March 2020, Schöning started spreading disinformation concerning Covid-19.
This group founded by Schöning has been very active in Germany. According to the German television channel Das Erste, the doctors of this group handed out certificates exempting citizens of the obligation to wear a mask upon request. As the German television explains, these documents were sent to anyone, regardless of their health status, even if they did not have a condition that prevented them from carrying it. The German police warned in August 2020 that these documents, which could be downloaded, did not exempt them from the obligation to wear a mask.
Schöning also founded the Außerparlamentarischer Corona-Untersuchungsausschuss (ACU) in July 2020 (Extra-parliamentary Coronavirus Investigation Committee, in German), where he takes the floor and discusses the pandemic with international guests in live videos for hours and thus drives the international networking of the Corona denier scene forward. He is also Vice President of the so called World Freedom Alliance and member of the World Doctors Alliance, two denialist associations with members from several countries. Schöning can be seen in different videos of this group.
Schöning was arrested in September 2020 at a demonstration in London by the Metropolitan Police, but he was released 22 hours later. The following month, Brexit Alliance Group MP David Kurten asked the Mayor of London about why he was arrested, but the councillor claimed that neither he nor the Metropolitan Police could comment on an ongoing investigation. The Berlin State Office for Health and Social Affairs has confirmed Maldita.es and CORRECTIV that Schöning “was licensed to practice medicine by LAGeSo on September 17th, 2004”, but there is no evidence that he worked as a doctor anywhere. CORRECTIV confronted Heiko Schöning with the research results and asked him for a statement, but he didn’t answer.
Schöning also spreads disinformation through his Telegram channel, with more than 10,000 followers. In 2021, he published a book titled Game Over: COVID-19 | ANTHRAX, where he claims that the pandemic is a “previously planned crime” and asserts that there is a “global mafia” whose alleged conspiracies he describes. In addition, Schöning also has bank and PayPal accounts that he uses to ask his followers for money.
Natalia Prego: the equivalent of Schöning in Spain
If Heiko Schöning is at the origin of many of the groups responsible for the ‘infodemic’, his role in Spain is played by Natalia Prego, the founder of Doctors for the Truth there. Like Schöning, Prego plays a leading role in both national and international events. For example, she attended the presentations of other conspiracy groups in Spain, such as Psychologists for the Truth, as well as other similar events that took place abroad like the launching of Doctors for the Truth in Poland.
The relationship between Prego and Schöning can be traced back, at least, to the very creation of Doctors for the Truth in Spain. On July 25, 2020, this group of Spanish denialists who identify themselves as doctors presented itself in society with a press conference in Madrid in which the German leader also took part. Two months later, Prego registered the name with the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office.
But, before founding Doctors for the Truth, Prego had already created and spread hoaxes about COVID-19: on March 15, 2020, the first day of the coronavirus lockdown in Spain, an audio recorded by her went viral. Prego criticised the isolation of the healthy population because, according to her, the “generalised isolation, due to sedentary lifestyle and total inaction, causes complications in pathologies”. She also stated that “the figures offered by the WHO do not justify the institutionalised social alarm that is being carried out”.
Maldita.es has already debunked this audio and spotted over 20 falsehoods spread by Prego. Some of her hoaxes assert that pregnant and postpartum women cannot be vaccinated (both debunked here), like children under 16 (here) or people with allergies (here).
She also states that asymptomatic people cannot spread COVID-19, that PCRs give many false positives and react to different families of viruses and that masks cause many diseases, make us re-inhale CO2 and decrease oxygen levels in blood.
Prego was fired from the private clinic where she worked
Prego worked in a private clinic at a town called Vilagarcía de Arousa (Pontevedra province, Spain), and she was fired after her first disinformation audio went viral. Maldita.es has contacted this clinic, which refused to comment on this matter. They have only pointed out: “We have no contact with Dr. Natalia Prego since her audio”.
In addition, the Official College of Doctors of Pontevedra, of which she is a member, announced its disagreement with Prego’s statements in a press release stating also that it had submitted a file to the Central Commission of Medical Deontology of Spain on her “allegedly denialist” statements due to their national impact. Isidro Lago, president of the Official College of Doctors of Pontevedra, explained that “the Central Commission of Medical Deontology has verified that there is a violation of the code of ethics by this doctor and on March 30, 2022, after a very long and guaranteed process for the person investigated, we have filed a proposal for sanction for Natalia Prego“. At the moment, this sanction is not public.
Like Schöning, Prego uses her Telegram channel (with more than 27,000 subscribers) to spread hoaxes about coronavirus, masks and vaccines. She also published a book –Accepting the Challenge of Healing– in 2018, two years before the pandemic. Also, like her German counterpart, she has several bank accounts, PayPal and crowdfunding websites through which she asks her followers for money.
Prego and Schöning have met at least six times since July 2020
The event held on July 25, 2020 was the first one where Prego and Schöning were seen together, but not the last. Seven days later, on August 1, Prego participated in a conference of the ACU (the counterpart of Doctors for the Truth in Germany) with Schöning in Berlin. Since then, they have co-participated in events and demonstrations in person in, at least, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain and Hungary. Besides, they have appeared together at several online events. Schöning has also appeared through a recorded message in, at least, one Doctors for the Truth event in Spain.
Schöning was one of 218,957 people who arrived from Germany to Palma de Mallorca in June 2021. But not for tourist reasons: at that time, around 250 students were in lockdown at different hotels on the island due to a coronavirus outbreak. While some of these teenagers complained because they wanted to go home instead of quarantining and in the midst of controversy over their behaviour in the hotels, Schöning flew to Mallorca to give them support.
On July 1, the Spanish National Police forced Schöning to leave Mallorca’s airport for breaking into the presentation of the Digital COVID Certificate held by the Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Reyes Maroto, without a mask, according to elDiario.es.
Besides participating in events in Spain, Prego has also attended some abroad in countries like Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Italy. When Schöning was arrested in London, his Spanish counterpart called for his release.
A former Irish politician, a former banker and a teacher who created a village for pseudoscience believers: other European denialist leaders
In addition to Germany and Spain, there are also other European COVID-19 and vaccine-denying profiles showing up at international events held in other countries. One of them is Dolores Cahill, former leader of the eurosceptic Freedom Party of Ireland (which asked her to leave for not devoting enough time to her political commitments, according to the Irish newspaper Independent) and former professor at the University College Dublin. She is currently a member of the World Doctors Alliance and president of the World Freedom Alliance.
Cahill became known for claiming that COVID-19 vaccines cause “cytokine storms”, which is false. In June 2020 she stated in a video along Natalia Prego that “for the coronavirus there is absolutely no need to wear a mask because, as the mask covers you, you have less oxygen”, something that has also been widely debunked.
Other members of the World Freedom Association are Maneka Helleberg, a teacher, leader of the conspiracy group Freedom Sweden and founder of a village for people who believe in pseudo therapies, and Mads Palsvig. This former banker calls the coronavirus pandemic the “Third World War”. According to Tjekdek fact-checkers, members of the IFCN, he has spread hoaxes about masks causing cancer and claiming that there would be as many deaths from the vaccine as from COVID-19. Both statements are false.
Same hoaxes, different countries
The nexus between German deniers and the leaders of Doctors for the Truth in Spain are not limited to attending events together: they also spread similar hoaxes. In a press conference of Ärzte für Aufklärung in August 2020 where Heiko Schöning participated, among others, it was stated that masks did not work, that PCR gave false positives and that COVID-19 vaccines cause genetic alterations – statements debunked by CORRECTIV.
In Spain, these same hoaxes have also spread: Natalia Prego stated in a video (dated October 2020) that PCR tests lead to false positives (which is false). Regarding the masks, Ángel Ruíz-Valdepeñas also said in his viral video that they were useless to stop the virus (not true either). About the disinformation referring to an alleged genetic manipulation through the vaccine, Prego has also spread this hoax through a video.
In addition, Maldita.es and CORRECTIV have been able to verify that both in Spain and in Germany the main channel for the spread of disinformation for these corona-deniers is Telegram.
An investigation by Maldita.es, CORRECTIV, AFP, Pagella Politica/Facta and Full Fact of 2020 has already revealed that many of the hoaxes that were spread during the first wave of the pandemic were repeated in several countries in Europe with only a few days of difference.
What influence international networking actually has on the Corona protests in European countries is not totally clear.
They were probably most successful in 2021, says Josef Holnburger, managing director of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (Cemas) in Germany, talking to CORRECTIV. Especially in September when there were large demonstrations by the World Freedom Alliance, for example. “In the last few months, that has clearly fallen asleep,” he says. Part of the reason, he says, is that there has been a rollback in many countries, so there is less pressure to act. “Of course, it’s harder to motivate people to protest the mask requirement when there isn’t one,” Holnburger says.
But when actors refer to each other on their Telegram channels, or show up together in YouTube videos, they use each other to give their narratives more emphasis. And a network, once established, can also be reactivated at any time.
Photo: Flickr, Кирилл Чеботарь