Cashing in on vaccine fears

First of two parts

By Francis Allan L. Angelo

Here is an 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

Heather Simpson never thought to question vaccines. Her parents vaccinated her when she was a child, and she got tetanus and flu shots as an adult.

But when she and her husband were thinking about starting a family, she saw an ad for the documentary series “The Truth about Vaccines,” and “fear crept in,” she later wrote.

Simpson paid about $200 for the series, which taught her the tenets of vaccine skepticism.

“I left that docuseries just thinking this is it. This is how autism happens. This is how allergies happen,” the 30-year-old Texan said. “How else would it happen?”

When her daughter was born in 2017, Simpson decided not to immunize her. She began posting on social media about her vaccine fears. She then went viral in 2019 for uploading a photo of her Halloween costume of, as she put it, “the least scary thing she could think of — the measles.”

Scientists widely agree vaccines prevent dangerous diseases and do not cause autism or allergies. But in a few years Simpson had gone from accepting that consensus to preaching against it. And it all started with the documentary series made by Tennessee couple Ty and Charlene Bollinger, who got their start by questioning mainstream cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

More than 450,000 people signed up to view the series the year it debuted, according to figures the Bollingers posted online, and 25,000 bought copies. At the price Simpson paid, the couple would have grossed $5 million in sales.

For the Bollingers and a network of similar influencers, speaking out against vaccines, including the coronavirus shots, is not just a personal crusade. It’s also a profitable business.

The Bollingers, for example, sell documentaries and books; other influencers hawk dietary supplements, essential oils or online “bootcamps” designed to train followers in anti-vaccine talking points. They frequently share links to each other’s content and products. Although the total value of anti-vaccine businesses is unknown, records indicate that the top influencers alone make up a multimillion-dollar industry. In 2020, the Bollingers told a court their cancer business had raked in $25 million in transactions since 2014.

In their videos, the Bollingers speak in earnest, unscripted, Southern-accented tones, as if they were friendly neighbors sharing lawn-care tips. Evangelicals with four children, they pepper their messages with Bible verses. They are among the most influential conduits for anti-vaccine messages online, with more than 1.6 million followers on various social media platforms and 2 million they say subscribe to their emails. The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a U.K.-based organization that fights misinformation, has counted them among the dozen personalities responsible for most of the anti-vaccine misinformation on the internet.

“The bottom line is we have such a large following,” Charlene said recently in an interview with conspiracy hub InfoWars. “People are listening to us. They know that we care about them.”

Their latest target: the coronavirus vaccines.

The Bollingers have falsely claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines edit a recipient’s genes. They’ve insinuated that the shots caused an uptick in COVID-19 deaths in Tennessee. They’ve called vaccination “this abominable COVID shot.”

Anti-vaccine messages from influencers like the Bollingers reach more than their most devoted followers, and are a major reason scientists worry the U.S. will continue to see coronavirus outbreaks.

“The anti-vax and vaccine-hesitant community has been very loud on social media,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, a science communicator with the COVID Tracking Project who dispels vaccine myths on Instagram. “They’ve had a steady drumbeat of doubt, and we’re just playing catch-up.”



Before he became an outspoken vaccine opponent, Ty Bollinger was a Texas accountant and former bodybuilder wondering why so many of his relatives had died of cancer.

A Baylor University graduate, he was five years into his accounting career and newly married when his 52-year-old father doubled over in pain while eating, as Ty has often recounted. Doctors suspected gallstones but instead during surgery found extensive, cancerous stomach tumors. His father died 25 days later. (The Center for Public Integrity reached out multiple times, but the Bollingers did not agree to be interviewed for this story. This account is based on public records and what the couple has shared online.)

Cancer killed five more of Ty’s relatives, and finally, in 2004, his mother. He began to research the disease at libraries and bookstores. The result was his first book, “Cancer: Step Outside the Box,” which argued that “Mother Nature” could treat cancer better than doctors and medications.

His next book, “Monumental Myths of the Modern Medical Mafia and the Mainstream Media and Multitude of Lying Liars that Manufactured Them,” recounted how he “woke up” while researching cancer, convinced that federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration were suppressing information about natural treatments for the disease. A California doctor he’d consulted for his research then sent him a DVD claiming that 9/11 was an inside job. “You’re crazy!” Ty remembered telling the doctor. But he and Charlene watched. “We were sickened by the fact that, for the first time in our lives, we realized that the USA wasn’t what we always thought it was,” he wrote. “Little did we know that many people love being deceived and living in the matrix.”

Bollinger went on in the 2013 book to detail more of his false, conspiratorial beliefs: that HIV tests are meaningless and common AIDS medications are toxic; that planes spew poisonous “chemtrails” across the sky to control the weather; and that everything from the Oklahoma City bombing to the Boston Marathon bombing to 9/11 were inside jobs meant to strengthen government power. Bollinger also alleged that elites were covering up the true extent of the Fukushima nuclear disaster: “I’d bet that by 2020, Tokyo is uninhabitable.” (In 2021, central Tokyo is still inhabited by more than 9 million people.)

Bollinger’s new career skyrocketed with a 2015 docuseries, “The Truth about Cancer.” In addition to raking in millions of dollars in sales, the couple later said all their films had been watched by more than 20 million people combined. A 2016 follow-up book was a New York Times bestseller. Cancer also became the center of their growing social media empire. More than 1.1 million people now follow The Truth About Cancer on Facebook, and another 500,000 follow the Bollingers via other online pages or social media platforms.

In 2017, the couple launched “The Truth About Vaccines,” the docuseries Simpson, the Texas mom, watched. The Bollingers framed the documentary as an earnest search for truth from both sides of a debate, but really the episodes strung together dozens of interviews with vaccine skeptics.

Around the same time, the couple began to sell dietary supplements. “[We want to] make sure that you have a reliable source of bioavailable, whole-food-based supplements,” the Bollingers told their customers. But in 2018 the Environmental Research Center, a California environmental group, notified the Bollingers’ supplement company of an impending lawsuit alleging that some of their products contained dangerous amounts of lead, a poison that can cause brain and kidney damage. Shortly after, the Bollingers announced they had parted ways with the supplement business they helped start with a partner and said they couldn’t go into detail due to a non-disclosure agreement. A month later, their former firm agreed to pay $119,500 to settle the California case, without admitting to selling contaminated products. The Bollingers subsequently sealed what they called a “strategic alliance” with a competing supplement brand, Ancient Nutrition, which they still promote.

In a March article on his vaccines website, Ty Bollinger recommended five substances he said would “mitigate damage” in those who had already taken certain coronavirus vaccines. The article contained affiliate links for iodine, zinc and quercetin, which suggests that Bollinger likely received a cut of the sales. But the article did not disclose in close proximity to the links that they were advertisements, as required by Federal Trade Commission regulations. The site contains only this general disclaimer if users scroll to the bottom of the page: “If you purchase anything through this website, you should assume that we have an affiliate relationship with the company providing the product or service that you purchase, and that we will be paid in some way.”

The Bollingers’ work has made them wealthy. Their 10,000-square-foot home with a pool and pool house in rural middle Tennessee is valued at more than $1.4 million. “While we have generated income from our documentary films, we find nothing wrong with making a living,” Ty wrote this year.

In recent months, the Bollingers have increasingly discussed vague, right-wing conspiracies via online videos and platforms such as Telegram, though they keep much of that content off their prominent cancer website. “Italy, it goes through the Vatican. We know that [former president Barack] Obama is in on this with [left-leaning billionaire George] Soros,” Charlene said in a video in January. It was unclear what she was referencing. “Something big is happening.”

And in July of last year, the Bollingers set up a political fundraising committee, the United Medical Freedom Super PAC, to support candidates for public office who want to “transform the medical and health systems in America.” To date, they’ve used it to raise more than $60,000, Federal Election Commission records show, but have not donated any funds to candidates or other political campaigns. Instead, the PAC has paid out honorariums to various anti-vaccine or right-wing activists — including more than $11,000 to Roger Stone,  President Donald Trump’s long-time friend and confidant who was convicted of lying to Congress and pardoned by Trump.

January 6 found the Bollingers outside the U.S. Capitol, speaking at a rally they helped organize, as insurrectionists stormed the building. “We pray for the patriots that are there now inside, they’re trying to get inside that Capitol,” Charlene said on a flag-draped stage in a video that was later aired on CNN. “Lord, use these people to eradicate this evil, these swamp creatures, this cesspool of filth and waste.” (The Bollingers later called the CNN report a “fake news media hit job.”) There’s no indication the Bollingers breached the Capitol building themselves, though vaccine critic and hydroxychloroquine booster Dr. Simone Gold later faced charges for doing so.

For now, the Bollingers continue to hawk their DVDs, post online and speak at conferences, spreading doubt about the coronavirus vaccines. “Our goal is to reach billions,” said Charlene in an April podcast. “We’ve reached millions, but we want to reach billions, because everybody deserves the truth.”