The fake news about the effectiveness and effects of vaccines in Covid-19 appear to have benefited, on a large scale, osteopath doctor Joseph Mercola, according to a survey on the impact of misinformation made by experts at the request of the New York Times.
Mercola, who has already been widely criticized by his peers and has also been subject to sanctions and investigations for his use of treatments not approved by the science, is an influential figure among anti-vaccine conspirators, having recently published an article full of false information regarding vaccines given during the pandemic.
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In the article in question, where he talks about the mRNA vaccines, Mercola starts rambling on the “legal definition” of the word “vaccine”, proceeding with baseless arguments such as “coronavirus vaccines are a medical fraud”, saying that “they do not prevent infections, nor offer immunity, nor do they prevent transmission of the disease”.
All of the doctor's arguments are easily disproved by industry experts, but that doesn't matter. According to the New York Times, his 3,4-word article has been translated into Spanish and Polish, acquiring traction and becoming ammunition for those who run campaigns against vaccination – a problem that has always been serious in the US, but begins to gain ground in Brazil.
According to data from the CrowdTangle tool, only in the Facebook Mercola's article received interactions from at least 400 users of the social network, thanks to trigger expressions that say that “instead of [preventing infections], these vaccines alter your genetic coding, making you a factory of viral proteins that don't has a shutdown button”.
The clinical entrepreneur has already published, on his official website and pages on social networks, more than 600 articles that disperse fake news about the pandemic - since its inception -, usually using catchy titles, but not necessarily corresponding to the written content - in the In journalistic jargon, the practice is called “clickbait” (“Click Bait”, literally translated).
Because of his actions, Joseph Mercola has been marked as part of the so-called “Dozen of Disinformation”, a list of 12 people responsible for the proliferation of fake news related to the pandemic, according to the NGO Countering Digital Hate. On that same list are Robert F. Kennedy Jr – nephew of assassinated President John Kennedy, leader of the anti-vaccination organization Children's Health Defense and recently banned from Instagram for disseminating false information - and Erin Elizabeth, founder of the disinformative website Health Nut News and girlfriend of Mercola.
“He [Mercola] is one of the pioneers of the movement anti-vaccine,” Kolina Koltai, a University of Washington researcher on conspiracy theory studies, told the NYT. "He is a master at capitalizing on moments of uncertainty, such as the current pandemic, to grow and expand this movement." Officials say figures like Mercola have been experiencing a resurgence in recent weeks as US vaccine distribution has slowed recently amid the advance of the Delta variant, a new strain of Covid-19.
According to data released by the CDC (Center for Disease Control, in the translation of the acronym in English), 97% of hospitalized by Covid-19 in the US are unvaccinated patients.
The strategy used by Mercola is ingenious, but not exactly new: rather than directly accusing vaccines of not working, he raises discussions about issues raised in articles that have already answered them, raising doubts not in the argument itself, but in the scientific community that disproved potentially misleading information.
This is an important detail, given that fake content filters on social networks only identify directly accusatory material. Think of it like this: if you say, directly, that vaccines will alter your DNA, the Twitter will block your post. If you raise a discussion about an already refuted study that claims this, the most that will happen is that your post is marked with a caution notice – but it will remain on the air.
“He's been making a living on social media, which he's smartly and relentlessly exploits to bring more people into his 'herd,'” said Imran Ahmed, director of Countering Digital Hate. It is from this NGO the report that coined the term “Dozen of Disinformation”, which has even been cited in congressional hearings at the White House.
Questioned by the New York Times, Mercola said, via e-mail, that this situation struck him as "quite peculiar", considering that, according to him, his Facebook posts "had only a few hundred likes", and that he did not understand how “its relatively low number of shares could cause such calamity to the multibillion-dollar vaccination campaign promoted by Joe Biden”, the president of the United States, whom he accuses of “being in collusion with social networks in a censorship campaign”.
However, the newspaper questioned him about the veracity of his articles, which Mercola neither confirmed nor denied: “I am the lead author of a peer-reviewed publication on vitamin D and the risk of Covid-19 and I have all of the right to inform the public by sharing my medical research,” he said.
The New York Times was unable to confirm the veracity of this information and Mercola refused to name which publication it was.
Mercola uses capitalization tactics very similar to what we saw with conspirators like Alex Jones, from the InfoWars channel: he makes a clinically absurd claim, and offers an alternative product from his own store as a form of treatment. An example: he, in the past, said that radiation harmful to humans was potentiated by the use of…spring mattresses – and that this could only be prevented with a supplement that his shop – and only his shop – sold.
In 2012, he began preaching the “benefits of tanning beds,” claiming that this practice helped prevent cancer. At the same time, he started selling tanning units (beds with internal ultraviolet lighting) for prices between US$ 1,2 thousand (R$ 6.244,64) and US$ 4 (R$ 20.815,46). All his claims, however, were disproved: according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the practice can double the risk of skin cancer; and a study by the University of Dundee stated that indoor tanning is "as lethal as cigarette smoking is to the lungs."
Although he claims his numbers are low, the fact is that Mercola has created a number of companies to employ dozens of people just to serve fake content. In addition to your website, which bears your name; he has also created companies such as “Mercola Health Resources” and Mercola Consulting Services” with offices in Florida and the Philippines. With that power, every post and video he produces in English is immediately translated into more than a dozen languages.
Its official Facebook page has nearly two million followers, and its Spanish page has over a million. On Twitter, there are 400 followers, in addition to 300 subscribers to YouTube. Questioned by the newspaper about the doctor's presence, the companies offered a series of justifications: Facebook and Twitter said they had already taken down several posts signed by Joseph Mercola's companies; Facebook said it banned him from its paid advertising program, and YouTube said Joseph Mercola is not part of the platform's video monetization program.
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