Is this doctor the most influential disseminator of Covid-19 disinformation online?

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The article that appeared online on February 9 began with a seemingly innocuous question about the legal definition of vaccines. Then, in his next 3,400 words, he said the coronavirus vaccines were “a medical fraud” and said the injections had not prevented infections, provided immunity or stopped transmission of the disease. .

Instead, according to the article, the shots “alter your genetic coding, turning you into an unswitched viral protein factory.” His claims were easily refutable. No matter. Over the next few hours, the article was translated from English into Spanish and Polish. It has appeared on dozens of blogs and has been picked up by anti-vaccination campaigners, who have repeated the false claims online. The article also took to Facebook, where it reached 400,000 people, according to data from CrowdTangle, a tool owned by Facebook.

The entire effort goes back to one person: Dr. Joseph Mercola. Mercola, a 67-year-old osteopathic doctor in Florida, has long been the subject of criticism and regulatory action by the US government for his promotion of unproven or unapproved treatments. But more recently, it has become the main disseminator of coronavirus misinformation online, according to the researchers.

The activity earned Mercola, a natural health proponent with Everyman behavior, the dubious distinction of first place in the “Dozen of Misinformation”

Internet-savvy entrepreneur who employs dozens, Mercola has posted more than 600 Facebook posts that cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines since the start of the pandemic, reaching a much larger audience than other vaccine skeptics, according to a New York Times analysis. His claims have been widely echoed on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

The activity earned Mercola, a natural health advocate with Everyman’s behavior, the dubious first place distinction of the “Disinformation Dozen,” a list of 12 people responsible for sharing 65% of all anti-spam messages. -vaccines on social networks. , according to the US nonprofit Center for Combating Digital Hate. Others on the list include Robert F Kennedy jnr, a longtime anti-vaccine activist; and Erin Elizabeth, founder of the Health Nut News website, who is also Mercola’s girlfriend.

“Mercola is the pioneer of the anti-vaccine movement,” says Kolina Koltai, a University of Washington researcher who studies online conspiracy theories. “He is a past master in the art of capitalizing on times of uncertainty, such as the pandemic, to develop his movement. “

Some prominent media figures have encouraged vaccine skepticism – most notably Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, although other Fox figures have urged viewers to get the snaps. Now Mercola and others at Disinformation Dozen are in the spotlight as vaccinations in the United States slow down, just as the highly infectious Delta variant has fueled a resurgence in coronavirus cases. More than 97% of people hospitalized for Covid-19 in the United States are not vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

US President Joe Biden has blamed lies online for causing people to refrain from receiving the injections. But even though Biden urged social media companies to “do something about disinformation,” Mercola shows the difficulty of the task.

Over the past decade, Mercola has set up a massive operation to promote natural remedies, disseminate anti-vaccination content and profit from it, say researchers who have studied its network. In 2017, he filed an affidavit claiming his net worth was “over $ 100 million”, or over $ 84 million.

Joseph Mercola

And rather than claiming directly online that vaccines don’t work, Mercola’s posts often ask pointed questions about their safety and discuss studies that other doctors have refuted. Facebook and Twitter have allowed some of its posts to stay online with warning labels, and companies have struggled to create rules to remove nuanced posts.

“Social media has given him new life, which he skillfully and ruthlessly uses to bring people under his control,” says Imran Ahmed, director of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which studies disinformation and hate speech. His “Disinformation Dozen” report was cited in hearings in the US Congress and by the White House.

In an e-mail, Mercola says it is “quite special for me that I am named the # 1 disinformation super-broadcaster.” Some of his Facebook posts have only been enjoyed by hundreds of people, he says, so he doesn’t understand “how the relatively low number of shares could possibly cause such a calamity to the multibillion vaccination campaign. Biden dollars “.

Mercola has started a cycle. It starts with making unproven and sometimes far-fetched health claims and then selling products online that it promotes as alternative treatments.

The efforts against him are political, Mercola adds, and he accuses the White House of “illegal censorship through collusion with social media companies.” He does not specify whether his coronavirus claims are factual. “I am the lead author of a peer-reviewed publication regarding vitamin D and the risk of Covid-19 and I have every right to inform the public by sharing my medical research,” he said declared. The New York Times was unable to verify the claims of the study, which was published by Nutrients, a monthly journal of Molecular Diversity Preservation International, a nonprofit in Switzerland.

Originally from Chicago, Mercola opened a small private practice in 1985 in Illinois. In the 1990s, he began to turn to natural medicine and opened his main website, mercola.com, to share his treatments, cures, and advice. The site urges people to “take control of your health.”

In 2003, he published a book, The No-Grain Diet, which became a New York Times bestseller. Since then he has published books almost every year. In 2015, he moved to Florida. As his popularity grew, Mercola began a cycle. It starts with making unproven and sometimes far-fetched health claims such as spring mattresses amplify harmful radiation, and then selling products online – organic yogurt vitamin supplements – that it promotes as alternative treatments.

Mercola headquarters in Florida.  Photography: Joseph Mercola

Mercola Headquarters in Florida. Photography: Mercola

To underpin the transaction, he created companies like Mercola.com Health Resources and Mercola Consulting Services. These entities have offices in Florida and the Philippines with teams of employees. Using this infrastructure, Mercola took advantage of current moments to quickly publish blog posts, newsletters and videos in nearly a dozen languages ​​to a network of websites and social media.

Its audience is substantial. Mercola’s official English Facebook page has over 1.7 million subscribers, while its Spanish page has 1 million subscribers. The New York Times also found 17 other Facebook pages that appeared to be run by him or were closely related to his businesses. On Twitter, he has nearly 300,000 subscribers, more than 400,000 on YouTube.

Mercola understands very well what makes something go viral online, according to two former employees, who refuse to be identified because they have signed non-disclosure agreements. It regularly performs A / B testing, they say, in which many versions of the same content are posted to see what spreads fastest online. In her email, Mercola says, “Translation and a variety of media positions are the norm for most content-oriented websites. “

Facebook says it has labeled many of Mercola’s posts as fake, banned advertising on its main page, and deleted some of its pages after violating its policies. Twitter says it also deleted some of Mercola’s posts and tagged others. YouTube says that Mercola is not part of a program that he can make money from from advertisements on his videos.

In 2012, Mercola began to write about the virtues of tanning beds. He argued that they were reducing cancer risks while selling tanning beds with names like Vitality and D-lite for $ 1,200 to $ 4,000, or € 1,000 to € 3,300 each. Many articles were based on discredited studies.

When the coronavirus hit last year, Mercola jumped into the news, with articles questioning the origins of the disease

The United States Federal Trade Commission filed false advertising claims against Mercola in 2017 based on the health claims regarding tanning beds. He settled and sent 248 million euros ($ 2.95 million) in reimbursement to customers who purchased the tanning beds. The United States Food and Drug Administration also sent warning letters to Mercola for selling unapproved health products in 2005, 2006, and 2011.

Many of Mercola’s claims have been amplified by other vaccine skeptics, including Elizabeth. She worked for Mercola.com from 2009 to 2011, according to her LinkedIn page. But while Elizabeth and others are blatantly anti-vaccine, Mercola has emerged more approachable because he takes less radical positions than his peers, Koltai says. “It takes away the idea that an anti-vaccination activist is a marginal person.”

In an email, Elizabeth says she is “shocked to have been targeted as one of the 12” of the “Dozen of Disinformation” and calls it a “witch hunt”.

When the coronavirus hit last year, Mercola jumped into the news, with articles questioning the origins of the disease. In December, he used a study that looked at the wearing of masks by doctors to say that masks were not stopping the spread of the virus. He also started promoting vitamin supplements as a way to fight the coronavirus. In a February 18 warning letter, the Food and Drug Administration said Mercola had “misleadingly portrayed” what were “unapproved and mislabeled products” on Mercola.com as established Covid-19 treatments.

In May, Mercola deleted many of its own Facebook posts to escape the social network’s crackdown on anti-vaccine content. Facebook also recently deleted its February 9 post. But Mercola continued to raise questions about vaccines. In a recent Facebook post, he used another study to assess the usefulness of the Pfizer vaccine against variants of Covid-19. A title of the article states that the vaccine is only 39% effective, but it does not cite another statistic from the study that says the vaccine is 91% effective against serious illnesses.

“Is that possible? We were told 95% efficiency,” he wrote. Within hours, the post was shared over 220 times. – New York Times

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