Anti-Vaxxers: There's Gold In Them Thar Substacks!
For those with a modicum of credibility, taking an anti-vaccination stance can be an incredibly lucrative money-making opportunity. Anti-vaxxers have made celebrities out of those who can make that stance seem like it is intelligent and reasonable — and the more extreme their viewpoints, the more popular and sought after they become.
Just this week, Alex Berenson, AKA "The Pandemic's Wrongest Man," appeared on Tucker Carlson's show to demand that the MRNA vaccines be taken off of the market, because of how very dangerous they are. Which they're not.
Alex Berenson tells Fox viewers: "The mRNA COVID vaccines need to be withdrawn from the market. No one should get them. No one should get boosted. No one should get double boosted. They are a dangerous and ineffective product at this point."pic.twitter.com/fq6fPSdafO— nikki mccann ram\u00edrez (@nikki mccann ram\u00edrez) 1643161720
Of course, we expect Fox to traffic in misinformation — it's what they do. But it's not just limited to conservative media anymore. An investigation from the Center for Countering Digital Hate has found that several anti-vaxxers are making piles of money a year on Substack. Prominent anti-vaccine activists like Berenson and Joseph Mercola are making at least $2.5 million each on the site alone.
Via The Guardian:
Research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a campaign group, showed that Mercola’s newsletters made a minimum of $1m a year from charging subscribers an annual fee of $50, with Berenson making at least $1.2m from charging people $60. Three other vaccine sceptic newsletters, from tech entrepreneur Steven Kirsch, virologist Robert Malone and anonymous writer Eugyppius, generate about $300,000 between them. [...]
Newsletters cited by CCDH research include: a piece authored by Mercola headlined “More Children Have Died From Covid Shot Than From Covid”; a Berenson substack questioning whether mRNA vaccines have contributed to, rather than stopped, the spread of Covid; a Kirsch newsletter stating that “vaccines kill more far more people than they might save from Covid”; a newsletter from Malone warning that mRNA vaccines could lead to permanent damage of children’s organs; and a Eugyppius Substack claiming that “vaccines don’t suppress case rates at all.”
A Substack spokesperson referred the Guardian to an essay published on Wednesday by the platform’s co-founders, Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi, in which they said silencing vaccine sceptics would not work. “As we face growing pressure to censor content published on Substack that to some seems dubious or objectionable, our answer remains the same: we make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation,” they said.
It would be bad enough if Substack were merely helping these people make piles of money, but the fact is, they are making money from it themselves as well. They take 10 percent off the top of whatever creators earn, and so despite their policy of not promoting harmful content, they are literally profiting off of harmful content that could kill people.
Substack isn't the only company happy to profit from vaccine misinformation. When rock legend Neil Young told Spotify this week that he would pull all of his music off the platform unless they did something about Joe Rogan and the vaccine misinformation he had been spreading, Spotify responded by removing all of Neil Young's music. Of course they did. Joe Rogan makes more money for them than anyone. And part of that is because of people who listen to him in order to have their bad ideas about COVID validated.
It's hardly surprising. If you have a point of view or belief that isn't particularly popular, and people are making you insecure about it, and there is someone out there not only agreeing with you but also putting your thoughts and feelings into words and making those who have been making you feel crappy look foolish, you're going to spend a lot of time listening to that person and people like them and sometimes you're going to give them money in order to get a hit of that. It feels good. It's cathartic. It's the same reason why we went through a period of time where the majority of prominent atheists were absolute jackasses. Because the people they were appealing to were people who were hurting and angry about being treated poorly by people who didn't like what they believed.
People want to feel less alone, they want to feel validated, they want to feel like they've got ammo for the next time someone comes after them, and that is what people like Joseph Mercola, Alex Berenson, and Joe Rogan are giving them.
The bigger worry is not just that these people are finding audiences or even that they are putting the lives of those who listen to or read them and those around them in danger, but that they are creating whole misinformation ecosystems in which these companies are financially dependent on those pushing lies about COVID and vaccines and other conspiracy theories — in which it is more financially viable for more and more companies to promote these people and those like them than those who are telling the truth. We already have Fox News and other rightwing media organizations doing this, we don't need more mainstream companies falling victim to it as well.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse