Many of us who maintain a social media presence have at least one acquaintance, “Facebook friend” or real-life, actual friend who has in the past year shared some type of official-sounding, medical jargon-laden post questioning the value of the COVID-19 vaccines—or worse, directly asserting or implying that such vaccines are ineffective, harmful, deadly, or will lead to untold health problems.
According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a U.S./UK nonprofit dedicated to fighting online disinformation and hate, nearly two-thirds of the anti-vaccine propaganda peddled in online forums and social media can be traced to exactly twelve individuals, colloquially labelled the “Disinformation Dozen.” If you are someone who spends a significant time in social media forums, the chances are high that you have seen, scrolled through or otherwise had some awareness of their activity online, be it in your local school board’s Facebook feed or other community sounding boards where supposedly informed individuals trade opinions and information.
According to the New York Times, and as confirmed in the CCDH’s comprehensive report profiling these individuals, the number one purveyor of this vaccine misinformation is a gentleman named Joseph Mercola, described by the Times as an osteopathic physician. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he currently headquarters his company in the state of Florida, which, as USA Today’s Nada Hassanein illustrates, is rapidly emerging as the nation’s predominant “hotspot” for spiking COVID-19 infections, almost entirely among those who have refused to be vaccinated against the virus.
On Saturday, the Times’ Sheera Frenkel profiled Mercola and cited multiple examples of his work, beginning with an article he published that appeared on Facebook in February. As Frenkel reports, that article, clocking in at 3,400 words, “declared coronavirus vaccines were “a medical fraud” and said the injections did not prevent infections, provide immunity or stop transmission of the disease.” The article (now deleted by Facebook) purportedly claimed that COVID-19 vaccines “alter[ed] your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch.” Spread by other anti-vaccine activists and translated into multiple languages, these assertions eventually reached 400,000 Facebook viewers.
Mercola, described as an “internet-savvy entrepreneur who employs dozens,” has, according to Frenkel’s reporting, published approximately 600 articles on Facebook since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mercola is the pioneer of the anti-vaccine movement,” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. “He’s a master of capitalizing on periods of uncertainty, like the pandemic, to grow his movement.”
As the vaccination effort in this country approaches what can charitably be described as peak acceptance, the focus of many in the media has justifiably been on such political propaganda outlets such as Fox News, whose motivation for disseminating such lies can be attributed to political ends. It has become increasingly obvious, however, that many of those who refuse to be vaccinated (and thus contribute to the spread of COVID-19 through mutations such as the current delta variant) are having their political preconceptions against vaccinations reinforced through pseudo-medical misinformation they read online.
Several of the individuals profiled in the USA Today article (linked above via Yahoo News) illustrate the huge role social media has taken in fueling and perpetuating the COVID-19 pandemic in this country. As one physician in Florida’s Calhoun county—one of the epicenters of the recent surge in the state’s COVID-19 cases, with a current vaccination rate of only 23%—observes, it is virtually impossible to dissuade people from believing something they read on social media about these vaccines, particularly when it carries the imprimatur of medical expertise.
“We're a small community. We all know people who passed away from COVID. When someone passes away, it’s people we know,” Davis said. “But I still don’t feel like that overrides what people have seen on social media.”
Davis has heard it all – from the myths that the vaccine will turn people magnetic to the virus being a hoax. She tries to quell fears, countering the false claims with research and data but patients often shut the conversation down.
The responses she and other medical providers in Florida hear from people who refuse the vaccine typically include assertions that the vaccines are untested, “experimental,” and that there is too much contradictory information about them online. Significantly, some of these opinions are being influenced by medical providers themselves; one gentleman quoted in the USA Today article was told by his wife, a registered nurse, that “the vaccines hadn't been studied enough.”
As Frenkel’s article points out, the general scientific and medical illiteracy most of the U.S. population provides the perfect breeding ground for purveyors and profiteers of unreliable information. Mercola is a case in point:
[R]ather than directly stating online that vaccines don’t work, Dr. 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 his posts to remain up with caution labels, and the companies have struggled to create rules to pull down posts that have nuance.
According to Frenkel’s article, Mercola, who originally practiced in Illinois, began in the 1990s to shift his practice toward alternative medicine and promoting natural health cures and treatments. A prolific author, he has even had a book on the New York Times’ bestseller list. As his fame (and wealth) have increased, he has developed a multinational presence through various consulting companies and offices. His selling tactics, bolstered by a Facebook following of over 1.7 million (he has a Spanish language page with one million followers as well), resort to a routine pattern, according to Frenkel:
It starts with making unproven and sometimes far-fetched health claims, such as that spring mattresses amplify harmful radiation, and then selling products online — from vitamin supplements to organic yogurt — that he promotes as alternative treatments.
As Frenkel reports, both Twitter and Facebook have taken down and issued cautions about several of Mercola’s postings. He has been sued by the Federal Trade Commission for purveying disinformation regarding the cancer-reducing qualities of tanning beds, and he has received a warning from the FDA regarding his claims about the efficacy of vitamin treatments in treating COVID-19 infection, and for selling unapproved health products. None of these actions appear to have dissuaded him from continuing to post misinformation. Frenkel cites a recent example of Mercola continuing to raise questions about the efficacy of the vaccines through his social media feed.
As noted above, Mercola is hardly the only one responsible for vaccine denialism; he simply has the biggest audience. It’s clear though, from what is happening on the ground in Florida, for example, with the widespread refusal among a susceptible, medically ignorant population to accept these vaccines (even in the face of increased infections and deaths), that this country faces an almost perfect storm of disinformation.
Fear is indeed the “mind-killer.” By cynically downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic over the past year and a half, Republicans like Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and their allies in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures have fostered an environment where people’s fears and doubts take precedence over science. Those fears and doubts are then exponentially amplified and reinforced by what they read on social media. The anti-vaccine movement has taken full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to sow doubt and regurgitate false or misleading information.
What we are witnessing right now in this country is the predictable outcome of these two insidious, destructive, and wholly complementary narratives, almost in real time.