In a sea of misinformation, there are 12 people whose odious spreading of toxic “fake news” about Covid-19 is so bad, they have earned the nickname of the Disinformation Dozen.
The most prolific of this dishonourable crowd is Dr Joseph Mercola, a 67-year-old osteopathic physician, who the New York Times writes has “long been a subject of criticism and government regulatory actions for his promotion of unproven or unapproved treatments”.
Now he has the dubious dishonour of being the chief spreader of coronavirus misinformation online.
“An internet-savvy entrepreneur who employs dozens, Dr Mercola has published over 600 articles on Facebook that cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines since the pandemic began, reaching a far larger audience than other vaccine skeptics,” The New York Times’s analysis found.
One such article in February was like a misinformation wildfire. It called vaccines “a medical fraud” and warned they would “alter your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch.”
But even though the facts were dodgy, the post itself went viral, was translated into Polish and English and seen by at least 400,000 people on Facebook, the paper reported.
Mercola is the leader of these dozen morons who are responsible for spreading 65% of all anti-vaccine disinformation on social media, according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate.
“Mercola is the pioneer of the anti-vaccine movement,” Kolina Koltai, who studies online conspiracy theories at the University of Washington, told the New York Times. “He’s a master of capitalising on periods of uncertainty, as the pandemic, to grow his movement.”
One of the others on the list is Erin Elizabeth, who has her own website and happens to be Mercola’s girlfriend. Camelot will have wept that Robert F Kennedy Jr, son of JFK’s younger brother, is now a notorious anti-vaxxer.
Why do they do it? The answer, sadly, is always the same: for the money. Mercola filed a 2017 affidavit that he was worth “in excess of $100 million”.
Before he was eventually banned by most social networks, notorious conspiracy theory nutjob Alex Jones made a small fortune selling a range of supplements, which could apparently protect you from some of the evils in the world. Nobody said his followers – or those of the disinformation dozen – are very bright.
Watching the inexplicable vaccine hesitancy in South Africa, with vaccination centres standing idle, it’s terrifying that these dangerous digital dissidents are literally playing with other people’s lives.
Imagine you can get a vaccine that will turn a potentially deadly virus into a cold or flu, but you refuse it. It’s your life, stupid – to paraphrase Bill Clinton.
You can’t help but feel that such rabid anti-vaxxers are in an everybody-loses sprint for a Darwin Award – a “salute the improvement of the human genome by honouring those who accidentally remove themselves from it in a spectacular manner”.
It was – and may still be – a criminal offence to sprout disinformation, depending on what level of the lockdown regulations we’re on; if anyone can still make sense of them.
Social media giants can shut down Covid disinformation – if they want to. At the beginning of the lockdown, despite years of denials, they did just that. But that social spirit has faded, and they have allowed more such propagandist, fact-free disinformation to spread.
Why do they do it? Just like the anti-vaxxers, it’s all about the money.
This article first appeared in Financial Mail.