The article posted on February 9 began with a seemingly innocuous question about the legal definition of vaccines.
Then, in his 3,400 words or so, he said the coronavirus vaccines were a “medical fraud” and the injections did not prevent infection, generate immunity, or prevent disease transmission.
Instead, the article claimed that vaccines “alter your genetic code, turning you into a viral protein factory that doesn’t have a shutdown switch.”
His claims could be easily refuted. It does not matter. Over the next several hours, the article was translated from English into Spanish and Polish, appeared on dozens of blogs and was picked up by anti-vaccine activists, who 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 was initially attributed to one person: Joseph Mercola.
The 67-year-old osteopathic doctor from Cape Coral, Florida (southeastern United States) has long been the target of criticism and government regulatory actions for promoting unproven or frowned upon treatments. But more recently, it has become the main disseminator of coronavirus misinformation on the internet, according to the researchers.
Internet-savvy entrepreneur who employs dozens of people, Mercola has posted more than 600 posts on Facebook that cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines since the start of the pandemic, reaching a much larger audience than other vaccine skeptics. , according to an analysis by The New York Times. His claims have been widely repeated on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
The activity earned Mercola, a natural health advocate who behaves like an ordinary person, to be ranked first on the list of the “Dozen of Disinformation,” a group of 12 people responsible for sharing 65% of all. anti-vaccination messages on social media, according to the Center Against Digital Hate, a nonprofit. Other members on the list are Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime vaccine activist; and Erin Elizabeth, founder of Health Nut News, who is also Mercola’s girlfriend.
“Mercola is the pioneer of the anti-vaccination movement,” said Kolina Koltai, a University of Washington researcher who studies online conspiracy theories. “He is a master of the art of capitalizing on times of uncertainty, such as the pandemic, to build momentum.”
Some media figures have encouraged mistrust of vaccines, including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox News, though other Fox figures have urged viewers to get the shot.
Now Mercola and others in the Disinformation Dozen are being watched as U.S. vaccinations slow just as the highly infectious delta variant causes a resurgence in Covid-19 cases. More than 97% of people admitted to hospitals with the disease have not been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Joe Biden has blamed lies on the internet for preventing people from getting injected. But as Biden urged social media companies to “do something about disinformation,” Mercola demonstrated just how difficult that task is.
Over the past decade, Mercola has built a large operation to promote natural health treatments, disseminate anti-vaccine content and profit from it, according to researchers who have studied its network. In 2017, he made a public statement saying his net worth was “over $ 100 million.”
And instead of directly stating that vaccines don’t work, Mercola often asks ambiguous questions about their safety and discusses studies that other doctors have refuted. Facebook and Twitter allowed some of their posts to remain visible with warnings, and businesses rushed to create rules to remove questionable posts.
“He has been given a new lease of life through social media, which he skillfully and ruthlessly uses to get people to follow him,” said Imran Ahmed, director of the Center Against Digital Hate, which studies disinformation and hate speech. His report on the Dozen Disinformation was cited in Congressional and White House hearings.
In an e-mail, Mercola said it was “very special for me to be cited as the top disinformation spreader”. Some of his Facebook posts were only liked by hundreds of people, the doctor said. He therefore said he did not understand “how the relatively small number of shares could cause such a calamity to Biden’s billion dollar vaccination campaign.”
The efforts against him are political, added Mercola, who accused the White House of “illegal censorship by conspiring with social media companies.”
He did not say whether his claims about the coronavirus were based on facts. “I am the lead author of a peer-reviewed publication on vitamin D and the risk of Covid-19, and I have every right to inform the public by sharing my medical research,” he said. he declares. The New York Times has not verified the claims of the study, which was published by Nutrients, a monthly magazine of the Basel, Switzerland-based nonprofit Molecular Diversity Preservation International.
Originally from Chicago, Mercola opened a small private practice in 1985 in Schaumburg, Illinois. In the 1990s, he began to turn to natural medicine and opened his main website, Mercola.com, to publicize his treatments, cures and advice. The site asks people to “take charge of their health”.
In 2003, he published the book “The grain-free diet” [a dieta sem grãos], who went on to become one of the top sellers on the New York Times list. Then he published books almost every year. In 2015, he moved to Florida.
As his popularity grew, Mercola began a cycle. He started by making unproven and sometimes absurd health claims such as box springs amplify harmful radiation, then selling products online – organic yogurt vitamin supplements – that he promotes as alternative treatments.
To perpetuate the operation, she created companies such as Mercola.com Health Resources [recursos de saúde] and Mercola Consulting Services [serviços de consultoria]. These entities have offices in Florida and the Philippines, with teams of employees. Using this infrastructure, Mercola leveraged the best news to quickly publish blog posts, newsletters and videos in nearly a dozen languages to a network of websites and social media.
Your audience is substantial. Mercola’s official English-language Facebook page has over 1.7 million followers, while its Spanish page has 1 million. The Times also found 17 other Facebook pages that appear to be run by him or are closely related to his business.
On Twitter, he has nearly 300,000 subscribers, more than 400,000 on YouTube.
Facebook said it characterized many of Mercola’s posts as false, banned advertising on its main page, and removed some of its pages for violating site policy. Twitter said it also deleted some posts from Mercola and tagged others. YouTube has stated that Mercola does not participate in a program where he could earn money from advertisements on his videos.
In 2012, Mercola began to write about the virtues of tanning beds. He said they were reducing cancer risks while selling tanning beds with names like Vitality and D-lite for $ 1,200 to $ 4,000. [R$ 6.165 a R$ 20 mil, na cotação atual] each. Many articles were based on discredited studies.
The Federal Trade Commission also sent warning letters to Mercola for selling unapproved health products in 2005, 2006, and 2011.
When the coronavirus emerged last year, Mercola took to the news, with posts questioning the origins of the disease. In December, he used a study that looked at the use of masks by doctors to say that masks do not prevent the virus from spreading.
He also started promoting vitamin supplements as a way to avoid coronavirus. In a February 18 warning letter, the FDA [agência americana responsável pela regulação de alimentos e medicamentos] said Mercola had “misrepresented” what were “unapproved and mis-labeled products” on Mercola.com as established treatments for Covid.
In May, Mercola withdrew many of its 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 the vaccine. In a Facebook post on Friday (23), he used another study to ask how well Pfizer’s vaccine was against the Covid-19 variants. A headline in the post said the vaccine was only 39% effective, but it did not cite another study statistic that said the vaccine was 91% effective against serious illnesses.
“Is that possible? We were told it was 95% effective,” he wrote. Within hours, the post was shared over 220 times.