I’ve written about Joseph Mercola, DO on a number of occasions over the years, dating back to before I ever joined this blog, first as a contributor and then as an editor. Out of curiosity, as I was writing this post I tried to identify the first time I ever wrote about Mercola. It turns out that it was quite long ago in 2005, at a point when my very first blog was just over six months old. At the time, Mercola was—surprise! surprise!—comparing school vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Interestingly, the link to the original article that I discussed then now forwards to an article from 2009 that includes no mention of the Holocaust, and when I tried to find the original article at Archive.org, it turns out that the original link has been excluded from the almighty Wayback Machine. (It’s almost as though he was embarrassed by his use of the analogy, although it was useful to be reminded that the misuse and abuse of Holocaust was commonplace among antivaxxers even 19 years ago, years before my post.)
[Orac note: Yes, Orac is “on vacation,” recharging his Tarial cells. So if you’ve seen this post before (in a somewhat different form), well, that’s the way things roll. Orac will return later this week or early next week, depending on how fast his power cell recharges.]
Sadly, Mercola hasn’t been ignored, as The New York Times reported a week ago in an article by Sheera Frenkel titled “The Most Influential Spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation Online“. It seems that every couple of years the mainstream media notices what an influential quack Mercola is; so I thought I’d take a look at the article with the benefit of a long history of having observed Mercola’s activities and how he’s proof positive that quackery sells.
A superspreader of medical misinformation
I bring this bit of history up for a simple reason, to remind our readers that my SBM colleagues and I have been writing about this particular quack for a long time. We’re very familiar with him. Indeed, I can’t help but note that, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mercola has unfortunately been a frequent topic of this blog because he has been one of the most prolific sources (if not the most prolific source) of COVID-19 misinformation, antimask conspiracy theories, and antivaccine fear mongering. Indeed, early in the pandemic, I noted his role in spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories and how, by even May 2020 he had made a name as one of the “superspreaders” of COVID-19 misinformation, while others noted his false claims about COVID-19. Indeed, last fall Mercola spread the false claim that the influenza vaccine increases one’s risk of falling ill with COVID-19, all in order to spread fear of the flu vaccine. In retrospect, this amuses me, because it wasn’t long before Mercola embraced the “casedemic” conspiracy theory that claimed that PCR tests for SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) is overly sensitive, making most positive tests false positive tests—and, also, according to him COVID-19 is not deadly, except to the elderly. It rather made me wonder why he would be concerned if the flu vaccine really did increase the risk of COVID-19 if COVID-19 is just a “harmless” disease. (I guess that consistency is not a requirement for the claims of quacks and antivaxxers.)
Since even before COVID-19 vaccines were granted emergency use authorizations (EUAs) by the FDA in December, Mercola has turned his sights on them and, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., become one of the most prolific and widely read sources of misinformation and fear mongering about the vaccines. For example, as the mRNA-based vaccines were being considered for EUA, Mercola promoted the false idea that these vaccines can “permanently alter your DNA“, even going so far as to publish an article titled “Will New COVID Vaccine Make You Transhuman?” (which, by the way, was published in September 2020). Quickly following after that were a raft of articles on Mercola’s site falsely claiming that COVID-19 vaccines cause miscarriages and make women infertile, were not really “vaccines” but “medical devices” or “experimental gene therapy” that was “hacking the software of life“, or even cause mass death resulting in “depopulation“. Unsurprisingly, as he was demonizing COVID-19 vaccines, Mercola also promoted unproven treatments for COVID-19 like ivermectin, while peddling conspiracy theories claiming that the “suppression” of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment was the “biggest crime committed during the vaccine heist“. All of this doesn’t even consider all the other health misinformation that Mercola has promoted over the years, including cancer misinformation and quackery (including a promotional article about Tullio Simoncini, a quack who claims that all cancer is a fungus), “detox” nonsense, and tanning beds that supposedly reduce the risk of skin cancer, among naturopathy, homeopathy, and his online store of unproven supplements.
The truly depressing part is that over the last two decades Mercola has become fabulously wealthy publishing health misinformation. Indeed, I once referred to him as a “quack tycoon“, because his “natural health” empire had, as of 2017, garnered him a personal net worth in excess of $100 million. When I called Mercola a “quack tycoon”, I had last written about his online health empire in 2012 (under the title Quackery pays) in response to a previous news story about his links to the antivaccine movement. At that time, I drily noted that Mercola was “rich, as in filthy rich, as in ‘rolling in the dough rich, as in ‘raking it in hand-over-fist rich,’ adding that after all, “he had a spare $1 million lying around to give away to the NVIC and various other quackery-promoting groups.”
So what has the NYT found Mercola to be up to recently that we haven’t covered on SBM? In particular, I was interested in his grift: How much money has he made from promoting misinformation about the pandemic?
The quack tycoon profits from COVID-19 misinformation
The NYT article starts out with an example of something that we discussed about Mercola:
The article that appeared online on Feb. 9 began with a seemingly innocuous question about the legal definition of vaccines. Then over its next 3,400 words, it declared coronavirus vaccines were “a medical fraud” and said the injections did not prevent infections, provide immunity or stop transmission of the disease.
Instead, the article claimed, the shots “alter your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch.”
Its assertions were easily disprovable. No matter. Over the next few hours, the article was translated from English into Spanish and Polish. It appeared on dozens of blogs and was picked up by anti-vaccination activists, who repeated the false claims online. The article also made its way to Facebook, where it reached 400,000 people, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool.
The entire effort traced back to one person: Joseph Mercola.
Interestingly, as I researched this post, I found that some of the articles, like Mercola’s ancient article likening vaccine mandates to a “silent Holocaust”, have been removed from his website, the URLs redirected to less offensive articles. For example, one article I discussed titled ‘How COVID-19 “vaccines” may destroy the lives of millions’ now redirects to an article titled ‘Why I’m Removing All Articles Related to Vitamins D, C, Zinc and COVID-19‘. (As was the case for the “vaccine Holocaust article,” Mercola excluded the original article here from archiving by the Wayback Machine at Archive.org. It’s almost as though he wants to memory hole his history. Scratch that. There’s no “almost” about it.) In the newer article, Mercola claims that “threats have now become very personal and have intensified to the point I can no longer preserve much of the information and research I’ve provided to you thus far”, spinning a conspiracy theory in which Bill Gates and big pharma have supposedly weaponized “terrorist experts to attack” him, painting himself as a brave hero who held up as long as he could but finally had to remove the offending information from his website. Of course, I can’t help but point out that since early May Mercola has easily replaced the old COVID-19 misinformation with a whole lot of new (and regurgitated) COVID-19 misinformation. Apparently the grand conspiracy didn’t “silence” him for long.
And, again, it’s all about the grift:
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, an analysis by The New York Times found. His claims have been widely echoed on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
The activity has earned Dr. Mercola, a natural health proponent with an Everyman demeanor, the dubious distinction of the top spot in the “Disinformation Dozen,” a list of 12 people responsible for sharing 65 percent of all anti-vaccine messaging on social media, said the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. Others on the list include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime anti-vaccine activist, and Erin Elizabeth, the founder of the website Health Nut News, who is also Dr. Mercola’s girlfriend.
“Mercola is the pioneer of the anti-vaccine movement,” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. “He’s a master of capitalizing on periods of uncertainty, like the pandemic, to grow his movement.”
Erin Elizabeth, of course, is the woman who’s promoted for several years a conspiracy theory in which “they” (whoever “they” are, be it pharma, government, or whatever) are murdering natural health practitioners, starting with autism quack Jeffrey Bradstreet in 2015, whose suicide was recast as a murder by a pharma hit squad, continuing with cancer quack Nicholas Gonzalez, whose death by heart attack was portrayed as something more sinister, and moving on to a whole lot of other alternative medicine practitioners and an antivax pediatrician. The last time I checked for my talk at NECSS in 2019, the apparent death toll from these murders was over 80. She’s no slouch at spreading antivaccine misinformation, quackery, and conspiracy theories herself. Between the two of them, the quack power couple of Joe Mercola and Erin Elizabeth make up one-sixth of the “disinformation dozen” listed earlier this year for their spreading of COVID-19 misinformation.
Meanwhile, Mercola carefully crafted a more “moderate” position on vaccines in which his antivaccine rhetoric is not as hard core as that of many other antivaccine activists:
But while Ms. Elizabeth and others are overtly anti-vaccine, Dr. Mercola has appeared more approachable because he takes less radical positions than his peers, Ms. Koltai said. “He takes away from the idea that an anti-vaccination activist is a fringe person,” she said.
Those of you who’ve been following SBM for a while will note, however, that this more “moderate” persona was thrown out the door when COVID-19 hit, with Mercola amplifying apocalyptic claims by people like Geert Vanden Bossche and others claiming that COVID-19 vaccines are a tool for “depopulation” and social control.
But how did Mercola get to his current status?
The rise of a quack tycoon
Perhaps the most comprehensive account of the rise of Joe Mercola comes from two sources: Bryan Smith in 2012 writing “Dr. Mercola: Visionary or Quack?” for Chicago Magazine (back before Mercola moved from the suburbs of Chicago to the more quack-friendly environs of Florida) and a 2019 Washington Post article by Neena Satija and Lena Sun titled “A major funder of the anti-vaccine movement has made millions selling natural health products“. How did Mercola get his start? Smith reported:
In 1997, as a way to share what he had found that would be “useful and helpful,” he started Mercola.com. It proved a hit. But because it didn’t charge for content or accept ads, it was also a money drain. In the first three years, Mercola estimates that he spent half a million dollars on the site. To keep it afloat, he says, “I had three options: to get paid subscribers; to sell information, which I didn’t want to do; or to sell products, which is what I wound up doing. . . . The purpose for selling items is to have a revenue stream so we can pay our staff to provide information to educate the public and make a difference and fund [our] initiatives.”
The success of the site gave a significant boost to his practice, Mercola says: “I had people flying in from all over the world. It always puzzled me: when people came in, I wouldn’t tell them anything different than I had written on the site. They could have just as easily looked it up for free. But they had to hear it from me.” (Mercola stopped practicing medicine six years ago to focus on the website.)
Yes, Mercola is approaching a quarter of a century of promoting quackery. In any event, as I said at the time, I’m sure the website probably was costing Mercola a fair amount of money back then, given that bandwidth was not as cheap in the 1990s. On the other hand, once you start selling products to support your bandwidth and website production expenses, the next logical step is for the website to turn into a marketing tool, such that its primary purpose shifts from informational to selling product. That’s exactly what appears to have happened with Mercola, and it made him incredibly wealthy—sure, not Jeff Bezos/Bill Gates-level billionaire wealthy, but then $100 million isn’t exactly chickenfeed, either.
I also noted how Mercola apparently deludes himself that the purpose of selling products was to support the website. That might have been true initially, but it’s very clear from his history that selling products soon became the main purpose of the website. After all, he wouldn’t have gotten to a net worth north of $100 million if had been selling only enough products to support the cost of bandwidth, maintaining a website and an online store, and paying writers for content that he didn’t write himself. He had to have been selling a lot of product at a generous markup, and even then most successful businesses aren’t nearly that profitable. Indeed, Satija and Sun reported in the Washington Post, by the time Mercola stopped seeing patients for good in 2009 his various online businesses were generating $3 million a month. By then, Mercola was already well on his way to being the quack tycoon he is today.
As Frenkel reports in The NYT:
As his popularity grew, Dr. Mercola began a cycle. It starts with making unproven and sometimes far-fetched health claims, such as that spring mattresses amplify harmful radiation, and then selling products online — from vitamin supplements to organic yogurt — that he promotes as alternative treatments.
To buttress the operation, he set up companies like Mercola.com Health Resources and Mercola Consulting Services. These entities have offices in Florida and the Philippines with teams of employees. Using this infrastructure, Dr. Mercola has seized on news moments to rapidly publish blog posts, newsletters and videos in nearly a dozen languages to a network of websites and social media.
It is all very deliberate and, unfortunately, savvy marketing:
Dr. Mercola has a keen understanding of what makes something go viral online, said two former employees, who declined to be identified because they had signed nondisclosure agreements. He routinely does A/B testing, they said, in which many versions of the same content are published to see what spreads fastest online.
I’ve long suspected as much, given the carefully chosen clickbait headlines and blurbs, coupled with certain repeated phrases, in Mercola’s articles. His website reeks of peak SEO, as do his articles. Of course, two years ago, when Google adjusted its search algorithms to deprioritize content considered unreliable, Mercola’s website traffic took a major hit, plunging (according to him) 99% in June 2019. Predictably, this lead to more of Mercola portraying himself as a victim of “censorship” with the usual conspiracy mongering.
Like most quacks who come under fire for their quackery and whom the FDA has targeted more than once over the years, Mercola is very good at playing the persecuted victim. As Frenkel reports in The NYT:
In an email, Dr. Mercola said it was “quite peculiar to me that I am named as the #1 superspreader of misinformation.” Some of his Facebook posts were only liked by hundreds of people, he said, so he didn’t understand “how the relatively small number of shares could possibly cause such calamity to Biden’s multibillion dollar vaccination campaign.”
The efforts against him are political, Dr. Mercola added, and he accused the White House of “illegal censorship by colluding with social media companies.”
This is, by the way, the new line I’ve seen coming from antivaccine activists, namely that, because Facebook and other social media companies consult, among other experts, experts at the CDC, NIH, and FDA, they are supposedly now acting as an arm of the government, thus meaning that the “censorship” by social media companies is actually that of the government, meaning that the First Amendment should protect them. It’s a dubious argument at best.
You can see the narrative, of course. It’s the same narrative favored of quacks the world over. Any attempt to prevent them from spreading misinformation or to counter the misinformation that they do spread is portrayed as “censorship” or even “cancel culture”.
Meanwhile, the main article on Mercola’s website yesterday was titled “How the Plague of Corruption Is Killing Mankind“. In it, he claims that the “blood supply and vaccines have been tainted with disease-causing retroviruses for more than three decades, and the U.S. government has been hiding it the entire time” and that “‘long-haul COVID’ is the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein activating endogenous HERVW and recombining with XMRVs, — introduced via vaccinations,” among other conspiracy theories, including Andrew Kaufmann’s claim (previously discussed) that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, “has never been identified” and that SARS-CoV-2 is actually a cloned monkey virus spread by “injection” of vaccines. (That’s a new one on me. I guess he must be abandoning the “lab leak” idea of how SARS-CoV-2 got started. Again, quack claims and pseudoscience don’t have to be consistent, I guess.)
The bottom line
Joe Mercola is arguably the most successful quack tycoon of all time. He is more effective in spreading health and vaccine misinformation than almost anyone else, likely because of his ruthless attention to marketing and SEO. In the past, that meant trying to seem more “reasonable” and “moderate” about vaccines. Unfortunately, in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, “moderate” doesn’t sell as well, and, savvy entrepreneur that he is, Mercola has changed with the times and gone for more histrionic and radical misinformation. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of social media companies to prevent it, his strategy seems to be working.
If it ever stops working, I’d be willing to bet that he’ll “memory hole” the offending posts yet again.