Cashing in on vaccine fears

Last of two parts

By Francis Allan L. Angelo

We continue with the in-depth report on how so-called influencers are cashing in on anti-vaccine disinformation. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity in partnership with HuffPost.

Spreading vaccine fears. And cashing in.


By Liz Essley Whyte



The vaccine-skeptical corners of the internet promote the same names again and again: the Bollingers; Dr. Joseph Mercola, who runs a supplement empire while dispatching near-daily anti-vaccine missives; Erin Elizabeth Finn, Mercola’s “better half,” who markets her own line of extracts and serums while airing vaccine doubts on her Health Nut News platforms; Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, who offers a $595, eight-week course in anti-vaccine talking points despite a federal judge having found her “unqualified” to weigh in as an expert witness on a vaccine-related lawsuit (“Television interviews do not an expert make,” he wrote).

Then there’s Mike Adams, “the Health Ranger,” whose online store offers everything from organic beans to a $439 juicer to a conspiracy-heavy newsletter (a recent headline: “Their real plan: The vaccinated will die; the unvaccinated will be hunted”). And there’s Dr. Rashid Buttar, a popular anti-vaccine evangelist despite being reprimanded twice by his state’s medical board in 2010 and 2019, including for treating autism in a child he had never met with an unproven skin medication. Or Larry Cook, who claims to reach 2 million people every month and whose “Stop Mandatory Vaccination” site sells memberships for up to $299 per month, accepts advertisements and solicits donations that go to pay his personal bills. Or Dr. Christiane Northrup, who rose to fame with her New York Times-bestselling books on women’s health and menopause and in recent months told her newsletter subscribers that “powers” have “suppressed” information on how to prevent coronavirus infection, which should really be done by taking vitamins and cleaning your cell phone.

The CCDH, the misinformation-fighting nonprofit, earlier this year estimated that about 65% of the social media content containing false claims about coronavirus vaccines could be traced back to a dozen influencers, including the Bollingers. Ten of them also sell products to their followers.

“These are old-fashioned snake-oil salesmen,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the CCDH. “They are willing to let people suffer death, disease in order to make profits for themselves.”

Northrup, for example, has more than half a million Facebook followers. She posts frequent videos of herself playing the harp, pausing to share details of her life or tidbits of health misinformation. In one recent video, she said without evidence that women who have “been around” those who have received coronavirus vaccines “suddenly the entire inside of their uterus just you know comes out,” then discussed the “[artificial intelligence] that has been put in the atmosphere by the dark ones” and an alfalfa bath she took that morning. On her website, she sells her books, audio lectures, her own line of dietary supplements and “vaginal moisturizers.” She also advertises products, such as “tea crystals,” for others who pay her for referrals, according to a disclosure on her site. Northrup attended Dartmouth Medical School in the 1970s and continues to introduce herself as a physician. But Maine records show she terminated her medical license in 2015.

Many of the anti-vaccine doctrines that Northrup and others trade in can be traced back to 1998, when British researcher Andrew Wakefield published a now-retracted and repeatedly debunked study linking the measles vaccine to autism. Fears snowballed, notoriously among affluent California parents, but also in other communities, as Somali immigrants in Minnesota and Orthodox Jews in New York began to refuse to immunize their children. Influencers such as the Bollingers and a sprinkling of celebrities embraced the anti-vaccine gospel, and the movement ballooned. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 84% of Americans thought it important to vaccinate children — down from 94% in 2001. Ten percent believed the scientifically discredited claim that vaccines cause autism, and another 46% weren’t sure.

The pandemic helped boost the influence of many of the anti-vaccine movement’s stars. CCDH found that anti-vaccine influencers gained 8 million social media followers in the first half of 2020, bringing their total to nearly 60 million by July. Social media platforms have taken steps in recent months to crack down on some of these personalities, removing certain pages or making them harder to find via searches, but much of their influence remains.

The coronavirus seems to have been good for business, too. “Warning: Due to Coronavirus (COVID-19), we are seeing record demand for this offer,” read a banner on Tenpenny’s website earlier this year, above an ad for a “hydrated zeolite” spray that promised to “fight back against heavy metals and toxins” ($79.95 for a 30-day supply).

Anti-vaccine influencers often point to pharmaceutical profits as a reason drugmakers can’t be trusted. But their own messaging is also lucrative. Cook once said he had made $40,000 in one week from sending out referral links to the Bollingers’ vaccines documentary, according to an acquaintance who preferred not to be named. He now sells $99 training videos to teach others how to make money from anti-vaccine messages. “People click over, they watch it, I make money,” he said about a link to an online anti-vaccine docuseries. “So it’s a win-win.”

Mercola, the owner of a major dietary supplement brand who has promoted what he called “nearly magical” alternative treatments for the coronavirus, through a foundation donated more than $2 million over five years to the leading anti-vaccine nonprofit, the National Vaccine Information Center, tax records show. He claimed in 2017 that his net worth exceeded $100 million, according to a Washington Post investigation.

Public Integrity reached out for comment to all the anti-vaccine influencers mentioned in this article, but only Finn and Mercola responded.

“For a matter of years I ran my website without selling one single product or carrying a single product,” Finn wrote in an April email. “I’ve never taken a single penny in donations like most health sites either (that would include most nonprofit and for-profit websites). Eventually I started a small boutique line because I couldn’t pay my team out of pocket forever.”

“Disagreeing with big pharma and the federal agencies they’ve captured is a detriment to anyone,” Mercola said in a statement. “Placing yourself in the crosshairs of these coordinated attacks is not financially or personally beneficial.”

Northrup did not respond to an email from Public Integrity directly, but posted an online video discussing it and calling the reporter one of “these people” who think “everyone can be bought.”

“What’s hard for these demons to believe is that there are those of us like you who are in this for humanity, who are in this to be light workers, who are doing God’s work on the earth,” Northrup said. “What’s in it for us? Our souls.”

Public Integrity requested interviews with individuals who know the Bollingers, including a man public records indicate is related to Ty. Adams, a friend of the Bollingers, then wrote on one of his websites that the reporter was using “mafia-style” “journo-terrorism” to promote “genocidal holocaust” by “targeting family members” of those in the anti-vaccine movement. Adams also posted the reporter’s email and cell phone number and requested that readers contact her, resulting in a days-long barrage of spam calls and more than 100 vulgar, insulting or threatening messages. The article was cross-posted on several other domains, including InfoWars. Commenters responded with more personal information about the reporter, as well as ideas on how to harm her family: “I butcher a family as easy as stepping on a roach,” one wrote.

“They HATE the truth because everything they do is rooted in lies,” the Bollingers wrote on their Telegram channel, telling followers to read Adams’ article about the reporter. “Do they not know that they will soon face God?”

Adams’ network of sites has singled out specific journalists on multiple occasions. He once called for a “website listing all the publishers, scientists and journalists who are now Monsanto propaganda collaborators,” compared them to Nazi war criminals and included a quote that suggested killing “those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.” Even his article walking back his original post and decrying violence called a specific journalist a “shill” and defended the comparison to Nazis.

Anti-vaccine influencers are “a classic example of bad actors who are proficient in digital spaces, at creating outcomes which are bad for us and society,” Ahmed said. “They react the way you would expect them to.”

Spreading vaccine fears. and cashing in.

(This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity in partnership with HuffPost.)


By Liz Essley Whyte



Early this year Connecticut mental health counselor Renee Rattray was dismayed to learn a close friend didn’t want to get a coronavirus vaccine. Her friend cited common false conspiracy theories — such as that the vaccines alter DNA or were designed by billionaire Bill Gates to track people — then sent her a video of Mercola interviewing another anti-vaccine influencer.

Rattray eventually gave up on persuasion, even though the friend has a job that requires close proximity to others and has a health condition that makes her more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“I’m worried about her,” Rattray said. “She doesn’t admit that she’s been influenced by anyone. … The more I push her, the more she pushes back.”

Even when anti-vaccine influencers aren’t able to completely convince listeners, their messages plant seeds of doubt. A March Axios/Ipsos poll showed that a small slice of Americans believe conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccines, but between a quarter to half, depending on the question, weren’t sure whether they were true. And those people were less likely to say they would get vaccinated.

“People trying to reduce confidence through misinformation — that’s unfortunate and it’s something that’s sort of hard to fight,” said Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine who teaches a class to future doctors on conspiracy theories. He urges his students to be compassionate and not condescending, since all of us are vulnerable to misinformation when it seems to confirm our prior beliefs. “It’s all innuendo, but it’s wrong, and it does spread like wildfire.”

Some epidemiologists are optimistic that even if too many people refuse the vaccine for the U.S. to reach full herd immunity, the nation will soon be able to immunize enough people to minimize the disease’s spread.

“The more immunity we get, the better,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

Half of Americans have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists say it’s still important to reach those reluctant to get a coronavirus vaccine. Pockets of unvaccinated people could still see outbreaks, endangering the immunocompromised and those who are unable to be inoculated for medical reasons, such as those allergic to a vaccine ingredient. And the more chances the virus has to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.

Experts say that means they must reach the reluctant from all angles — talking about the safety data behind the vaccines, pushing back against conspiracy theories, emphasizing the years of scientific study behind the shots — while avoiding condescending or strident tones.

“It requires consistent messaging,” Malaty Rivera said. “It also requires a lot of empathy.”

Simpson is one person who has changed her mind. She reevaluated her distrust of science after she was hospitalized for endometriosis. “The western medicine they gave me helped me so much,” she wrote on Facebook. “I realized many anti-vaxxers are anti-vax based on the theory that scientists and doctors are in on a conspiracy to kill or maim children for money. It dawned on me that I definitely don’t believe that.”

Simpson said she lost three of her best friends since she posted on Facebook about coming around to vaccines. But other friends stuck by her side through her “anti-vax thing” for the past few years, patiently answering her questions and allaying her fears.

“It was people who actually cared about me and my kid,” she said. “That helped me the most.”

In April, she got her first dose of Pfizer’s coronavirus shot. And she’s started taking her daughter to receive her childhood immunizations.