INTERNET

Fake News Epidemic Started With Alternative Health News Sites

Sensationalist left-leaning fringe health news sites came before pro-Trump propaganda

INTERNET
Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Dec 20, 2016 at 11:52 AM ET

Donald Trump-lovers ill-equipped to discern between the fact-checked news and hoax sites they encounter online do not deserve all the blame for the rise of so-called “fake news.” We probably wouldn’t have fake news — at least the sort of fake news that relies on clickbait headlines, deceptive share images, and shoddy reporting (at best) — if it weren’t for the alternative medicine movement, which began as a mostly liberal cause.

The mainstream media is now feeding off “fake news,” with their own sensationalist headlines and pearl-clutching op-eds, such as: “As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth, “When all news is ‘fake,’ whom do we trust?,” “With fake news spiraling out of control, what can real people do?” Largely, mainstream media has been portraying this as a new problem that started with uneducated conservatives. But the danger of portraying “fake news” as a distinctly far-right phenomenon is that it creates a sense of intellectual superiority and is itself a form of bias. What the reader agrees with must be true and, to them, the opposing views are “fake.” Of course, most mainstream news outlets, objectively have higher standards for fact-checking than the likes of Breitbart and Infowars. But the bias bubbles where the “fake news” narrative were the same bubbles that caused left-leaning media outlets to get the election so wrong.

Fake news started flourishing during a much simpler time — way before Donald Trump named as his chief strategist the former executive of far-right misleading news site, Breitbart; before Trump’s national security advisor tweeted an article claiming Hillary Clinton was involved with a child sex-trafficking ring; before Macedonian teens realized they could make tens of thousands of dollars just by churning out viral misleading pro-Trump propaganda thanks to Google AdSense, a program that allows bloggers to earn money through ads that Google places on their site. Even before the president-elect first rode into the world of politics atop his birther conspiracy theory showboat.

It’s important to distinguish two different types of “fake news” that pundits and politicos are discussing ad nauseam at the moment. First, there is conspiracy-focused alternative news, which involves actual research and reporting but results in articles constructed on a biased set of fact to reach the reporter’s desired conclusion. When the independent reporters are convinced that there is a global elite creating a New World Order, then every national tragedy could be a staged operation orchestrated by the United States government in order to manipulate the U.S. populace.

According to Sharon Hill, a science writer and editor who reports on fake news, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories, the origins of “fake news” go back to the 1950s when UFO newsletters from organizations like the Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization reported on alien abductions and government coverups. Radio host Long John Nebel built his cult following in the late 1950s after he realized that he could keep his radio audience during the television boom by interviewing expert guests about bizarre, unexplained phenomena. Nebel became the grandfather of alternative radio, which begat the likes of Art Bell, the original host of the popular paranormal show Coast to Coat AM, as well as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Alex Jones. As those personalities were able to turn their personal brands into media empires, they inspired the likes of Breitbart, an unreliable alternative news site that only reports from a far-right perspective.

The second type of “fake news” has very little reporting and is purely profit-driven. These sites are often fueled by people with no appreciation for or experience in journalism who make up fake or highly misleading news, plagiarized from fringe sites. The content isn’t nearly as important as the headline and the share image. An explosive, shocking claim about a development that will destroy and demonize Hillary Clinton below a Photoshopped apocalyptic image can attract more pennies from Google’s per-click ad revenue program than restrained investigative reporting. (Of course, every news organization that has any will to survive uses grabby headlines and images, but most mainstream outlets try to keep these grounded in reality for fear of libel or tarnishing their reputation.)

This model was pioneered by fringe alternative health sites, which started bubbling up in the 2000s. Back then, before Google made it easy to make money through viral digital drivel, there was no need to harvest copious amounts of fake news on a content farm. But if you were also selling something, then there was incentive to play on people’s paranoia. For instance, the paranoia of the alternative health movement — which rebels against the pharmaceutical industry, CDC, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and vaccinations. Much like far-right conspiracy theorists, champions of alternative medicine also distrust what they see as an elite class. “Perhaps some people are bitter about the prestige, money, and influence of elite scientists and large corporations that manufacture products that can save your life or kill you,” Hill said. “Maybe they feel that it’s unfair that a small subset gets to profit off what should be for the human good. The public has no understanding of how science and drug trials work or why they are the way they are. This gap creates some major mistrust.”

This mistrust and the growing ease of sharing stories on social media created fertile ground for alternative health news to thrive. By the late 2000s, it was difficult to spend much time online without seeing a shared article or a banner ad with a misleading headline about a new study that proved some medicine or food could have lethal side effects, along with an unrelated image that disturbed you on a visceral level that you didn’t quite understand.

These articles were often loosely based on research papers — some peer-reviewed and some total quackery. But they were just a front for the true operation, selling dietary supplements and alternative medicines. Two of the most popular sites of this ilk are Mercola and Natural News. Joseph Mercola, a doctor and anti-vaccine advocate started Mercola to both promote his views and sell products. A 2006 BusinessWeek report investigated Mercola’s shady direct-marketing strategy. “While Mercola on his site seeks to identify with this image by distinguishing himself from ‘all the greed-motivated hype out there in health-care land’, he is a master promoter, using every trick of traditional and Internet direct marketing to grow his business,” David Gumpert writes. “He is selling health-care products and services, and is calling upon an unfortunate tradition made famous by the old-time snake oil salesmen of the 1800s.”

Natural News was founded by Mike Adams, who goes by the nickname the Health Ranger. On his site, Adams states he started the site in 2003 after selling his software company. He often makes media appearances on programs like The Dr. Oz Show and The Alex Jones Show. To his followers, he’s a holistic hero who lives a life of near perfection. According to his bio: “Adams has no criminal record and has never been arrested. He avoids alcohol, smoking, coffee and all recreational drugs. He has never used recreational drugs in his entire life…Adams is well trained in hand-to-hand combat, firearms and self defense.”

Like Mercola, Natural News articles covers pseudoscientific health topics — often using headlines about how medicine, doctors, common foods and beverages, and even houses could kill you. But the main source of income seems to be the store, which sells alternative medical treatments. Content-style ad platforms like Adblade, Content.ad, Outbrain, RevContent, and Taboola made it easy for these sites to fill many of your favorite real news sites with fear-mongering ads — you know, the too-weird-to-be-true links served at the bottom of news articles. “Ad platforms allowed for this expansion,” Hill said. “Dietary supplement, enhancements, and herbals were key to populating those ad servers. Another push came from actual doctors like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz — authority figures who people trusted — and they made money off sales of it. Natural News is the clearest example of looking like a reputable source but spouting misinformation about vaccines and various health claims. And, Mike Adams curiously pitches insane conspiracy theories as well.”

Under his list of achievements, Adams claims that he is responsible for turning right-wing conspiracy theorists (which he refers to as leaders of the “liberty movement”) on to alternative medicine because of his frequent appearances on Alex Jones’ Infowars. In 2013, Infowars’ online store added a “health and wellness” section which sold survivalist supplements in addition to the usual array of DVDs, books, and T-shirts. Now supplements are the main focus of Infowars’ store and the products are so popular that users review them on YouTube. Nearly every commercial on Infowars promotes supplements like Brain Force, DNA Force, and Super Male Vitality.

Over the course of the 2016 presidential election cycle, those two forms of fake news (sensationalist fear-mongering clickbait and conspiratorial alternative media) meshed together to form the current fake news landscape, largely because Google AdSense made it easy for any content farm to make money, even when the scam articles don’t drive the reader to a store where they might buy non-FDA approved pills.

In late November, the mainstream media was focusing on two controversial “fake news” lists — one from Melissa Zimdars, a media professor from Merrimack College in Massachusetts, and one from PropOrNot, an anonymous research collective that aims to expose Russian propaganda. The Washington Post was chastised for reporting on the PropOrNot’s list of sites, which the organization said were a part of a Russian campaign to spread misleading articles and undermine democracy.

Natural News is on both those lists. Since Washington Post published the article, Health Ranger Mike Adams has written four posts and produced a short film about the mainstream media’s effort to undermine alternative news with the “fake news” narrative. “The leftist media has made a conscious decision to utterly abandon any pretense of journalism and instead knowingly collude with shady groups that fabricate libelous information for a political purpose,” Adams told Vocativ, in a statement. “The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and other deceptive media outlets have, by deliberately printing false allegations rooted in paranoid conspiracy, chosen a path of credibility suicide…Informed readers are already seeking alternative sources engaged in genuine journalism, and that stampede toward authentic news will only accelerate as the lying corporate media repeatedly demonstrates its real intent to function as a malicious propaganda apparatus.”

Natural Blaze was another alternative medicine site on the PropOrNot list. Editor Heather Callaghan said she was at a loss as to how her site ended up on the list and believes that people need her brand of alternative medical reporting now more than ever. “The mainstream media misrepresents [health topics like vaccines, GMOs, and the pharmaceutical industry] because they are essentially corporations tied up with major banks and other major corporations, which sponsor the media,” Callaghan told Vocativ. “They promote faulty and corporate-sponsored science and brow beat anyone who questions their claims into submission and silence. We are motivated to fill a void — to raise consciousness and provide empowering information for people who have had enough of the mainstream current.”

Last February, a team of researchers led by Meghan Moran, an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Behavior, and Society at John Hopkins University, published an analysis of 480 alternative health sites (which they describe as anti-vaccine in their research), 210 of which were news sites or blogs, including Mercola and Natural News. The report determined that these sites have a very murky relationship with facts and often rely on questionable “expert opinions.” Nearly a third rely on anecdotal evidence and 67 percent use pseudoscientific evidence. About 80 percent of the sites state that they don’t trust the government and many sites suggest that doctors and scientists are involved in a vast conspiracy.

While the alternative medicine movement began as a leftist cause, somewhere along the way, sometime right after the turn of the millennium, it fused together with the far-right fringe. Conspiracy theory-touting news organizations took cues from the homeopathic health sites and holistic news further embraced the anti-establishment messages of paleoconservatives. Paranoia isn’t political — especially when it’s profitable.