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One Of The Most Influential Voices In Vaccine Misinformation Is A Doctor

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As we heard there, most of those being hospitalized are unvaccinated. And one of the reasons some people are hesitant to get the jab is because of the misinformation that has been circulating online about the vaccines. One of the most influential people in the anti-vax movement is an osteopath physician called Joseph Mercola in Florida, who was profiled in The New York Times last month. Rachel Moran is a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracies. And she joins us to tell us more about Joseph Mercola. Welcome to the program.

RACHEL MORAN: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So give us a brief description of who Joseph Mercola is. I mean, he's been involved in the anti-vax movement for quite a while.

MORAN: Yes. So he's an advocate for alternative wellness. And his activism around sort of anti-vaccination actually predates this pandemic. He wrote a book called "The Great Bird Flu Hoax" in which he argued that government preparedness for pandemics was scaremongering orchestrated by the government and drug companies in order to gain power and make money. And so he kind of positions himself as a sort of natural health advocate who says that we can deal with the side effects of COVID-19 and other health challenges through natural supplements and vitamin D and diet rather than vaccination and medicine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which he sells.

MORAN: Yeah, he sells vitamin supplements online. He also has a book about COVID, which is a best-seller over the past week on Amazon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, how has he gained such a strong following in this space?

MORAN: He's a really savvy social media user. He's used Facebook and Twitter to build a following in the millions. He also translates his articles into different languages, which helps broaden his reach. And he often posts his articles as questions rather than statements that are explicitly anti-vax. And that just asking questions strategy is well-used amongst misinformation spreaders as it allows them to sow doubt without really falling foul of any of the community guidelines that these social media platforms have put in place around COVID-19.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, we should say Mercola has strongly denied promoting misinformation. How have social media companies responded to Mercola's posts?

MORAN: Both Facebook and Twitter have flagged his posts and taken some of them down for going against their community guidelines on COVID-19. And there's lots of ways that the platforms have been trying to respond to Mercola and others that are spreading misinformation by deprioritizing their content as it appears in your feeds. But you're almost facing a whack-a-mole situation where, as soon as they take down or flag a post by Dr. Mercola, it'll be reposted by one of his followers or supporters and spread just as broadly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Center for Countering Digital Hate released a report on the disinformation dozen, as they dubbed them - a group of 12 people who are spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine. Mercola is on that list, but he's not the only physician who is in this anti-vax campaign. Does it make it more difficult to combat?

MORAN: It's incredibly difficult to counter it because when we're encountering vaccine hesitancy, our advice is usually to tell people to discuss any concerns they have around the vaccine with their doctor. But if you can go online and find someone like Dr. Mercola with a medical degree who aligns with your political viewpoints concerning mask mandates or vaccine mandates and is offering up seemingly legitimate medical advice, then that's where your trust is going. And unfortunately, we're seeing a very small but vocal minority of medical professionals who are anti-COVID-vaccination. And these people often use their professional titles and their medical expertise as evidence as to why people should believe them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Federation of State Medical Boards recently put out a statement that any doctors who, quote, "generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license." Would that in any way affect Mercola's credibility with his followers, in your view?

MORAN: I'm not entirely sure. There's also, you know, a lot of credibility that comes with being a martyr. So Mercola's come out this past week and said that, you know, he feels like he's being censored by the government or under attack. And we often see, with people who are deplatformed or taken off of social media, that they then wear that as a badge of honor - as a sign that what they're doing is correct and that there are bad forces out there that are trying to stop them from spreading the truth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should remind people who may be listening to this - where can they get accurate information about the vaccine?

MORAN: Well, always look to official authoritative sources, such as the CDC or the World Health Organization. We also ask people to corroborate what they see. If they see it just published in one post online or one single social media post, it's probably not going to be that credible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Rachel Moran. She researches online conspiracies at the University of Washington. Thank you very much.

MORAN: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR reached out to Dr. Joseph Mercola for comment. His representative replied on Dr. Mercola's behalf that Mercola encourages people to, quote, "protect freedom of speech" and to have, quote, "open debate on vital conversations such as these."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.