According to this researcher, the government had supposedly suppressed study data showing that African-American boys had a “340 percent increased risk for autism” after being vaccinated. “Despite being cast to the lunatic fringe by the mainstream media for his remarks,” the article said, the scientist “has confirmed Trump’s suspicions.”
The claim was false — but the story was an enduring hit. Since it was first published in November 2015, the link has popped up in alternative-health and anti-vaccine communities with names like “Vaccination Information Network” and “Healing ADHD & Asperger’s Without Hurting.” It’s been shared by Trump supporters, a fan account for the hacking group Anonymous, the conspiracy theory subreddit, and a former X Factor contestant on Twitter. All told, it’s garnered more than 141,000 likes, shares, and (overwhelmingly positive) comments on Facebook, according to the social media–tracking tool CrowdTangle. Meanwhile, a Time story that poked holes in the claim got 3,300.
Welcome to the vast universe of self-built social media empires devoted to spreading false, misleading, and polarizing science and health news — sometimes further and wider than the real information. Here, climate change is a government-sponsored hoax, fluoridated water is poisonous, cannabis can cure cancer, and airplanes are constantly spraying pesticides and biological waste into the air. Genetically modified food is destroying humanity and the planet. Vaccines are experimental, autism-causing injections forced on innocent babies. We can’t trust anything that we eat, drink, breathe, or medicate with, nor rely on physicians and public health agencies to act in our best interests. Between the organic recipes and menacing stock images of syringes and pills, a clear theme emerges: Everything is rigged — by doctors, Big Pharma, Monsanto, the FDA — and the mainstream media isn’t telling us. (Also, there’s usually a link to buy vitamins.) This messaging reflects a new, uniquely conspiratorial strain of libertarianism that hijacks deeply intimate issues — your body, your health, your children’s health. It shares magnificently.
Indeed, gone are the days when these types of stories would struggle for traction in a media landscape dominated by a few television networks, newspapers, and radio stations. Now anyone on Facebook can take their snake oil straight to the masses — and their message is reverberating in the highest levels of government. Vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who says he’s in touch with Trump about a “vaccine safety commission,” recently announced a $100,000 “challenge” to prove their safety. Andrew Wakefield, who helped start the anti-vaccine movement with a fraudulent 1998 study that linked vaccines to autism, showed up at an inaugural ball. The president has called climate change a “hoax” and appointed a skeptic to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pseudoscience is closer than ever to the mainstream.
Perhaps the loudest voice in the anti-science news ecosystem is Mike Adams, a Texas software engineer turned media mogul who claims he cured himself of “chronic back pain, high cholesterol, depression, hypoglycemia, and borderline type-2 diabetes” through holistic medicine and a regimented diet. The transformation inspired him in 2003 to found the empire now known as Natural News (tagline: “The world’s top news source on natural health”).
Since then, Adams — who dubs himself “The Health Ranger” in keeping with his straight-talking, living-off-the-earth persona — has churned out every imaginable conspiracy theory about medicine, wellness, food, and the environment, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that refutes his claims. (Adams denied multiple interview requests through an assistant.) In addition to Natural News — which has a staff of 20, a built-in social network, and a blog network — Adams claims to run more than 100 websites, including a search engine that separates “independent” from “mainstream” news, holistic medicine and wellness sites, and “alternative news” sites. He runs an herbal supplement store (and peddles its products in Natural News articles), a newsletter, a podcast, a comic strip, and a nonprofit dedicated to sharing “lifesaving knowledge for enhanced nutrition and food self-reliance.”
He has a lab that conducts “forensic investigations” of food, which Natural News then covers; one claiming to have discovered low levels of heavy metals in organic food made it onto The Dr. Oz Show in 2014. He’s recorded rap songs about GMOs, written books and e-books (How to Halt Diabetes in 25 Days), and published an “independent, peer-reviewed” scientific journal that, aside from one article with his byline, consists of summaries of Natural News stories. He has more than 112,000 Twitter followers, 34,000 Pinterest followers, and 131,000 YouTube subscribers. He tells advertisers that NaturalNews.com has 6 million unique visitors a month, but according to the analytics firm comScore, the average is closer to 1.6 million.
Facebook, though, has been undeniably effective at getting the word out. Adams is involved with a handful of pages, including GMO Dangers (over 296,000 likes), but the most popular by far is Natural News, which went from about 22,000 Facebook fans in early 2010 to more than 2.1 million likes in March 2017. The account — which is peppered with charming photos of organic blackberries and cute farm animals alongside questions about Barack Obama’s “fake” birth certificate and “doubts” about the September 11 attacks — has enjoyed many blockbusters. “Global warming data FAKED by government to fit climate change fictions,” a story from 2014, garnered more than 114,000 likes, shares, and comments. There were 200,000 for the “five biggest lies about Ebola being pushed by government and mass media.” “Why flu shots are the greatest fraud in medical history”: 140,000. “EVERYTHING IS RIGGED,” a 36-item list that started with “the entire mainstream media” and ended with “the origin of the universe (the official narrative is a laughable fairy tale)”: 63,000. When Chipotle was struggling with E. coli contamination in 2015, Adams insisted that the biotech industry was orchestrating “bioterrorism attacks” on the fast-food chain in retaliation for using non-genetically modified ingredients. His theory was liked, commented on, and shared 127,000 times, including by comedian D.L. Hughley.
And sometimes, Natural News travels further on Facebook than mainstream media outlets. As Ebola spread across West Africa in the summer and fall of 2014, health and law-enforcement agencies warned of companies selling unproven solutions and therapies. A USA Today story about the scams racked up only roughly 220 likes, comments, and shares, while The Guardian’s had just over 950. Natural News, meanwhile, wrote that health authorities were ignoring the so-called cure nanosilver because it “is an obvious threat to pharmaceutical interests,” and causing “thousands of needless deaths.” It got over 32,000.
“Maximally divisive, maximally paranoid, violent” — that’s how Steven Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale School of Medicine, describes Adams. “He tells readers, ‘Don’t trust anybody, trust me and my pseudoscience, it’s all a big giant conspiracy.’”
In 2014, Adams ventured into particularly dangerous territory when he called for a website that named reporters and scientists who were “Monsanto collaborators,” and declared that the public was obligated “to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.” MonsantoCollaborators.org soon went live with a swastika logo; it shut down after the FBI was notified. (Adams denied being involved with the website.)
You could call Natural News the InfoWars of health. In fact, Adams frequently used to guest-host and appear on that show, where he ranted about everything from the pharmaceutical industry’s “secret global eugenics agenda” to how swine flu was a “hoax.”
But Adams sees himself less in InfoWars operator Alex Jones than in the president of the United States. “[I]ndividuals like Donald Trump and the Health Ranger (that’s me) have a reputation for kicking ass, speaking out and fighting for truth, even in the face of organized, systemic suppression of that truth,” he wrote in 2015 about the then-candidate. “That’s why I deeply understand why Donald Trump is so popular: He’s the warrior who’s willing to take on the establishment that everybody knows is crooked and corrupt.”
Natural News is far from the only source of anti-science “news.” Vani Hari, known as “The Food Babe,” has gotten more than a million shares, comments, and likes on a story — “Monsanto Is Scrambling To Bury This Breaking Story – Don’t Let This Go Unshared!” — that reported high levels of a supposedly cancer-causing herbicide in food items. (After BuzzFeed News asked Hari to respond to Snopes’ debunk, she published a rebuttal titled “Do You Trust Snopes? You Won’t After Reading This,” in which she argued that the site’s assessment was “manipulated” by the biotech industry.)
Healthy Holistic Living got 70,000 likes, comments, and shares on a (since deleted) list of studies “proving GM foods are destroying our health,” even though hundreds of studies have found no such evidence. And YourNewsWire racked up 645,000 likes, comments, and shares on a report that 30,000 scientists had signed a petition that declared man-made climate change a hoax. (Snopes deemed this “misleading.” Asked to comment, YourNewsWire’s editor-in-chief wrote: “Snopes, who like to embezzle money on prostitutes and hire pot smokers to try and trash anything right of socialism, are no more able to fact-check than Buzzfeed are able to produce a listicle outlining the 10 ways they don’t suck ass.”)
During the Zika crisis, Anonymous got more than 23,000 likes, comments, and shares on a false claim that a “Monsanto-linked pesticide” was causing the birth defects associated with the virus. The Huffington Post’s debunk got a fraction of that engagement across Facebook (8,400), as did one by the environmental news outlet Grist (7,200).
Erin Elizabeth is a self-described journalist and the creator of Health Nut News, which, at three years old, has over 447,000 followers on Facebook and regularly racks up likes on stories such as “Infant Twins Die Simultaneously After Vaccines, Medical Board Rules ‘Just a Coincidence’” and “Renowned Holistic Doctor Found Stabbed to Death in Her Palo Alto Home.” She thinks “fake news” is a problem, and considers stories about false celebrity deaths, for example, to be “hoaxes.” But it’s not always clear that the mainstream media is more accurate than alternative media, she told BuzzFeed News. What complicates matters is that there seem to be scientists on two sides of virtually every issue. “You’ll have one side that says pesticides are safe and the other side of scientists, that are experts in that field, who say they are or they aren’t,” she said. “When I see that, it’s difficult.”
Still, Elizabeth isn’t afraid to voice her opinion. With GMOs, she said, “if there’s people who are saying it’s safe, I think it’s more important to be on the cutting edge and show why it’s not safe and why I believe it should be labeled.”
She and Adams have found fans in people not unlike them: anti-establishment, self-styled crusaders who value “health freedom” above all and deeply distrust the mainstream.
Among them is Amanda Provenzano, a Natural News reader, army veteran, and stay-at-home mother in Portland, Oregon, who says her daughter was diagnosed with autism and sensory processing disorder after getting vaccinated. The 33-year-old now believes that all vaccines are unsafe and have “never been studied long term on humans,” so she no longer vaccinates her two children. “We have become a more sicker nation because of it,” she said. The Republican voted for Trump because “he has an understanding that vaccines are not safe and wants to change that,” she said. “Why wouldn’t anyone want better for their kids? If safe ‘vaccines’ were created, then wonderful.”
A 25-year-old bookkeeper in Reykjavík, Iceland, said over email that he’s “completely lost all trust in mainstream media.” In Iceland’s general election last year, he voted for the Pirate Party, which aims to redistribute wealth, crack down on corruption, and use online polls to form policies. It came in second.
Natural News and similar pages on Facebook, the man admitted, are “not a very credible source. But they are good for pointing out certain issues which you then have to google better.” For this reader, who requested to withhold his name, those issues include cancer-curing cannabis, a vitamin rumored to have cancer-curing properties, the banking system, GMOs, vaccines, and the theory that the earth is flat. Natural News and sites like it, he wrote, are “[o]pening my eyes to the reality that everything about our culture is corrupted and I can’t trust nothing but what I see and experience.”
The truth is, Adams, Elizabeth, and their readers have plenty of reasons to be suspicious of scientific authority. Tobacco industry scientists denied that nicotine was carcinogenic and addictive, and federal researchers let black men go decades untreated for syphilis. The herbicide Agent Orange, which the US military sprayed millions of gallons of during the Vietnam War, has since been linked to cancer and Parkinson’s. Doctors and scientists sometimes make mistakes, have conflicts of interest, and make discoveries that contradict older ones or can’t be replicated, despite appearing in prestigious journals.
What’s more, not all incorrect information is harmful. Guava leaves may not “stop your hair loss and make it grow like crazy,” as Daily Health Gen claims (more than 1 million likes, comments, and shares), but they’re probably not going to hurt you. Nor do mainstream journalists always get science right, as evidenced by splashy yet questionable headlines like “Research suggests being lazy is a sign of high intelligence” (The Independent, more than 437,000).
But social networks can reinforce and amplify the non-nuanced, non-reported, scariest-sounding fears that people already or want to believe. People googling health information “might be distrustful of a website they just found on the internet,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College who has studied why people reject vaccines. “But if a friend shares a story with you and says, ‘This is really important,’ you might be more likely to believe it.”
While 40% of Americans say they have a “great deal of confidence” in science in general, that trust seems to break down on specific issues. Surveys find that 88% believe vaccines’ benefits outweigh their risks. But about half dispute that human activity drives climate change, and 40% believe that genetically modified food is worse for your health than non-modified food.
Being Democrat or Republican doesn’t necessarily explain those differences, the same surveys show. Nor does education. The more science-literate people are, in fact, the more polarized they are in their climate change opinions.
Instead, studies suggest that people tend to hold beliefs that align with their cultural values. If you think your organic, gluten-free diet signals that you’re eco-friendly, you’re showing a desire to project an ideologically consistent personal brand, says Timothy Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. Other research suggests that people are likelier to reject science when they’re open to conspiracy theories of all stripes.
If you’re a die-hard free-market Republican, “climate science presents a real problem for you, because the only way you can deal with climate change is by changing what we’re doing now,” such as by taxing businesses, said Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol. “If you’re totally invested emotionally in the concept of a free market, then Jesus, that is very scary. And that’s why people then cannot accept that scientific fact and they’ll do anything to reject it.”
For more evidence that anti-science beliefs aren’t partisan, take a look at who spreads Natural News links. Of the Facebook pages that shared more than 60 popular, randomly selected Nature News posts over the last few years, some identified with the left (“Occupy Portland,” “Bernie Sanders for President 2016”). Others leaned right (“America’s Proud Deplorables,” “God Bless Trump USA”). Some didn’t fall squarely in either camp (“Anonymous,” “Independents for Bernie Sanders”). And still others weren’t about politics but health (“Healthy Food Home,” “CancerTruth”).
“It’s very interesting how you have this mix of ideologies associated with a website like Natural News,” Caulfield said. “A lot of people think of ‘organic, natural, anti-GMO’ as being very much a left, progressive viewpoint. But it’s complicated.”
Even in the deep corners of Facebook, there are some concerns that the war on science has had unintended consequences. Throughout 2016, the anti-GMO Organic Consumers Association attacked Hillary Clinton’s “troubling” and “deep” financial ties to Monsanto, both on its official Facebook page and its page for its social media campaign Millions Against Monsanto. More than 2 million people like them in total.
But after the election, the association posted a plea to “mobilize and regenerate.” “Just when the world needs all hands on deck to fight the war against runaway global warming,” international director Ronnie Cummins wrote, “Trump and his men (and women) are going AWOL.”
Many commenters, however, saw no crisis. “You are an ‘organic’ organization right?” wrote the author of the most-liked comment. “Yet you support a criminal who supports polluting the earth and our whole food supply??!!” (Cummins did not return a request for comment.)
Fighting misinformation isn’t easy, but is perhaps not impossible. Anti-vaccine parents usually aren’t swayed by cold, hard facts that vaccines save lives and don’t cause autism, Nyhan’s research suggests. But parents do consider physicians an important source of information about vaccines. “A doctor who can speak to parents in the context of an ongoing relationship, that has to be the starting point,” he said.
Caulfield urges scientists to avoid sitting on the sidelines. “It’s so important for individuals that are respected voices to get on social media, to have scientists be part of the conversation,” he said.
And tech companies can help by exposing people to information that challenges, not just confirms, their beliefs, Lewandowsky says. “In the same way Amazon can figure out what exactly it is that we like,” he said, “we can use the same information they already have to suggest something to us that we might not like that much.”
After drawing and initially dismissing heavy criticism for misinformation on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg now says he wants to present a spectrum of viewpoints and down-rank sensationalized news. Past News Feed tweaks have already led Adams to accuse the social network of censorship.
Still, Adams’ megaphone is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. After Google delisted 140,000 Natural News pages in late February, he launched a White House petition in protest and urged readers to boycott the company. Some 69,000 people (and counting) have signed it. (A Google spokesperson said at the time that the search engine may take action in general against sites that violate guidelines.) Last week, the site was restored.
Good timing, since right now Adams has more to cheer than ever. On January 11, he told readers about an exciting development: Trump had named Kennedy to lead a commission to study vaccine safety (a claim that the president’s team later walked back).
The media would attack Kennedy’s character, Adams acknowledged, and vaccine makers and the CDC would insist that vaccines are harmless. “Yet in the end, the era of toxic vaccines will eventually crumble,” he wrote. “Perhaps not this year, or next year or even during the Trump administration at all. But sooner or later, the weight of the evidence linking vaccines to autism and other neurological defects in children will be so overwhelming that even the vaccine pushing ‘medical child molesters’ won’t be able to stop the avalanche of public outrage.”
It was a solid hit: 17,000 comments, likes, and shares in all. ●
Outside Your Bubble is a BuzzFeed News effort to bring you a diversity of thought and opinion from around the internet. If you don’t see your viewpoint represented, contact the curator at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for more on Outside Your Bubble.
Stephanie M. Lee is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Stephanie M. Lee at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.