Peddlers of Medical Misinformation Are Using Social Media 'Censorship' as a Selling Point

Mike Adams, Health Ranger
Screenshot: YouTube
Speech OnlineSpeech OnlineThis week, we’re looking at the state of free speech on the internet, how we got here, and where we’re going.

No one has ever accused Mike Adams, the self-proclaimed Health Ranger, of being an understated guy, but recent events have taken him to new, shouty heights. After Adams’ website, Natural News, had its page suspended by Facebook in June for violating the company’s spam policies, Adams likened the suspension to genocide and said President Trump should use the military, if necessary, to break up tech companies. But Adams—and other peddlers of medical misinformation, including many anti-vaccine personalities—are also working hard to make their supposed muzzling by social media companies into a selling point and a profit-driver.

In an email blast on June 30, Adams accused Google of gaming search results to “to defame and attack all natural health topics, all while banning natural health websites from its search results.” He added that the search engine giant “has gone all-in with Monsanto, Big Pharma, chemotherapy, pesticides, 5G, geoengineering, fluoride and every other poison you can imagine.”

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Screenshot: Natural News/Mike Adams

And then, naturally, he turned around and offered to sell his audience the supplements So Powerful That Google Is Trying to Hide Them (emphasis his):

P.S. Despite Google’s malicious attacks on health and nutrition, the truth is that nutritional supplements works. For the next day or so, we’ve got an event running on PQQ, CoQ10 and other specialty supplements that dramatically increase your intake of cell-supporting nutrients (including brain-supporting nutrients). Check out the details here.

It is emblematic of the strange moment we’ve arrived at in the selling of misinformation online, particularly the medical variety. In recent months, several social media giants have announced their intention to crack down on that misinformation, including most particularly anti-vaccine content. (Pinterest made the “vaccine” hashtag literally impossible to search for since virtually every search result showed up anti-vax content.)

But the process has been late, slow, and inconsistent. Take Instagram, which banned some anti-vaccine hashtags in March, but left others alone. Today, some of those banned hashtags, like #vaccineskill, have made a noticeable comeback, and there are anti-vaccine accounts aplenty, including Vaccine Truth, which has 60,000 followers. Or take the lively world of fake cancer cures: the Wall Street Journal recently noted that YouTube and Facebook are still overrun with the same fake cancer treatments that have been circulating online for years. That includes black salve, a longtime faux treatment for skin cancer that in actuality just burns skin away without killing cancer growths, and the entire opus of Robert O. Young, who promotes things like juicing regimens and “alkaline infusions” to cure cancer, infusions that critics say are functionally just injections of a baking soda cocktail. Young went to prison in 2017 for practicing medicine without a license, and he was ordered to pay over $100 million in a civil lawsuit filed against him by a terminal cancer patient who’d used his treatments the following year. Yet he’s back on Facebook and busily selling his products through a network of interconnected pages.

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In other words, the social media companies’ supposed “crackdown” has been bizarre, partial, and in some cases, not permanent. The entire muddled process has certainly complicated business for people who make a living selling misinformation. But it’s also given them a recognizable new selling point, a way to claim to the audience they still very much have on these same social media platforms that their ideas simply must work, which is why Big Government and Big Pharma are trying to muzzle them.

This is, of course, a time-worn tactic, the same one used by the extremist politcal commentators and figures who’ve been banned on social media over the last few years. Deplatforming, as the Washington Post put it yesterday, has become the rallying cry of the Laura Loomers and Milo Yiannopoulos’s of the world, a continual yowl that they’re not allowed on social media because the Powers that Be view them as a threat to the establishment. It’s also a pretty strong throughline in the bonkers social media summit held at the White House this week, featuring a consortium of trolls and far-right grievance peddlers, all of whom insist that they’re being muzzled and silence even as they filed into the White House grounds for an audience with the most powerful person on Earth.

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To be clear: There are legitimate reasons, including legal precedent, to restrict medical misinformation, but it’s also important to balance those restrictions with respect for free speech. The line can be sticky: two professors from University of California Hastings College of the Law, Dorit Rubenstein Reiss and John L. Diamond, recently explored whether anti-vaccine groups that worked to convince the Somali community in Minnesota not to vaccinate their kids could be held liable for negligent misrepresentation. (The short answer: possibly, but it’s complicated.)

As legal scholars carefully wade through that debate, people who sell junk science and information are trying to adapt their business models to this current moment. Arguably nobody’s having a harder time doing that than Infowars and Alex Jones, whose Infowars Life store has historically been a major profit-driver and is full of questionable supplements and health-oriented products. After being banned and restricted on virtually every major social media platform, Jones has a new section of Infowars Life store that asks for straight cash donations. Jones also recently appears to have entered into a partnership with Jeunesse, a multi-level marketing company that’s been accused in several separate class-action lawsuits of being a pyramid scheme. (Jones, of course, spans the worlds of both medical and political misinformation with his career, and Infowars has been heavily covering the social media bans by framing them as a bias against “dissidents” and free-thinkers.)

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Other infamous people are seemingly continuing more or less as usual. One who’s been under the microscope more than usual is Kerri Rivera, a major promoter of the false claim that autism is caused by parasites and can be cured by “Miracle Mineral Supplement” (MMS), a sodium chlorite solution that forms a powerful bleach when mixed with an acid. In March, Amazon banned Rivera’s book promoting MMS. Yet she’s still able to market the book and other dubious products on her Facebook page—even if the company says it will “minimize” the spread of such posts. And major anti-vaccine activists like Larry Cook, who’s built a huge network of anti-vaccine pages, still promote her products, now using the tagline that she’s a dangerous truthteller whom the “vaccine industry/Big Pharma” wants to silence.

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Or take the makers of Vaxxed, the popular anti-vaccine movie made by a team that includes Andrew Wakefield, the discredited former gastroenterologist who first posited a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The movie has been a bona fide phenomenon in the anti-vax world, and a sequel is in the works. When MailChimp shut down Vaxxed’s account in June, the filmmakers simply announced the development on Facebookwhere they have nearly 95,000 fansand offered a buy-one, get-one-free deal on the film.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out that all of this circles back to the fact that censoring anti-vaccine disinformation won’t necessarily solve the problem of its existence. They’ve argued that the real problem, instead, lies in Facebook’s and other social media’s algorithms:

Algorithms like Facebook’s Newsfeed or Twitter’s timeline makes decisions about which news items, ads, and user-generated content to promote and which to hide. That kind of curation can play an amplifying role for some types of incendiary content, despite the efforts of platforms like Facebook to tweak their algorithms to “disincentivize” or “downrank” it. Features designed to help people find content they’ll like can too easily funnel them into a rabbit hole of disinformation.

That’s why platforms should examine the parts of their infrastructure that are acting as a megaphone for dangerous content and address that root cause of the problem rather than censoring users.

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In the meantime, as social media companies and tech giants struggle to figure out what their responsibilities are, the people who’ve made such a profitable business from them will keep adapting to every new restriction they come up with. Their business depends on it, and businessat least for nowis still very good.

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About the author

Anna Merlan

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.

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