Over the years, I’ve written a lot about Mike Adams and his medical misinformation website Natural News, both here at SBM and elsewhere. Regular readers know that Mike Adams has long been one of the most prolific promoters of medical pseudoscience, misinformation, and conspiracy theories dating back nearly two decades. Over the last couple of weeks, Adams, who only occasionally makes the news, has found himself in the spotlight as a result of a story published earlier this month at Ars Technica by Ax Sharma entitled “Hacker X”—the American who built a pro-Trump fake news empire—unmasks himself. Basically, it’s the story of “Hacker X,” whose real name is Robert Willis, coming forward to describe how he had become the mastermind of one of the biggest fake news systems in the world but had decided to “come clean” and describe how he had used his skills to promote all manner of conspiracy theories and build a pro-Trump network of websites and social media.

Ironically, when the first story about Willis was published, some readers sent it to me and told me that it was almost certainly about Mike Adams, I at first doubted that it was and publicly said so. My reasons at the time were that I doubted that Adams would have really needed someone like Willis because by 2015 (when Willis was hired) he had already had built up an empire of medical and political disinformation, having had long experience himself as the founder of a company that sold email software designed to get around spam filters and building a network of server farms designed to artificially boost the Google rankings of his main website and affiliated websites. So, after Ars Technica published a follow-up story last week based on a blog post by Willis naming Mike Adams as his employer, I ended up being forced to admit my error:

Mea culpa. Nobody’s perfect.

So now that we know for sure that Willis did work for Mike Adams, I think that it’s worthwhile to write about his role in promoting medical misinformation and his contribution to how we got where we are today in terms of the fusion of right wing conspiracy theories and anti-public health misinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, Mike Adams’ role has loomed large in this evolution, and I think that Willis is trying to whitewash his history working for Mike Adams.

Mike Adams: A brief history of a health scamster turned political scamster

It’s been a while since I’ve written about Adams’ history. I’ve referred to Mike Adams as the ultimate example of how to monetize quackery through social media, but, as regular readers know, Adams is nothing if not a multitalented con man. Health misinformation was just the grift to which he turned after the turn of the century after having peddled Y2K scams that had become useless as the year 1999 turned into 2000 without much in the way of major disruptions of computer networks. My knowledge of his history, in fact, was why I doubted that Adams had been Willis’ mysterious employer; basically, Adams had a long history of mastering the dark arts of spamming and black hat SEO and had already achieved this before Willis came to work for him:

According to the service comScore, Natural News hosted over 2 million unique visitors in the month of December 2014. The website’s Google PageRank is a respectable six, the same number enjoyed by other, more mainstream preachers of the “natural” space. The CEO of Whole Foods John Mackey’s blog also receives a six, as do the landing pages for Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra.

Adams claims that he has, “personally authored over 2,000 articles, including investigative articles, satire and op-ed,” and that “his writings have been collectively read by over 100 million people over the past decade.” Every time Adams publishes a story with a headline such as, “Medical mafia calling for gunpoint quarantines of citizens who refuse vaccinations”, it’s pushed out to the newsfeeds of the nearly 1.5 million Facebook accounts who “like” Natural News. This number far surpasses that of The Atlantic, and falls just short of the Los Angeles Times.

Adams further amplified his media attention when he appeared on the Dr. Oz Show this past May, where he was fêted before a national audience as, “a whistleblower who has made an alarming discovery.” The Dr.’s 12- minute segment with the Health Ranger was concerned with Adams’ research into the levels of heavy metals contained in a variety of supposedly organic food products.

Indeed, one of the reasons (among many) that I’ve been long castigating Dr. Mehmet Oz as “America’s quack” has been his willingness to have quacks, scammers, and con artists like Mike Adams on his show. In this case, Adams appeared on The Dr. Oz Show to tout his “experiments” finding heavy metal contamination of various supplements, all of which happened to be sold by his competitors, with his supplements—of course!—being free of such contamination. In essence, Adams’ appearance on Dr. Oz’s show was an infomercial for supplements sold on Natural News and Adams’ other websites.

Be that as it may, I was curious as I wrote this: When was the first time I ever took notice of Mike Adams? It appears to have been in 2006, when he was ranting about the “forced poisoning” of a child with cancer who was refusing chemotherapy. Here on SBM, the first time I wrote about him was in 2008, when he had hosted an article claiming that Patrick Swayze died of his pancreatic cancer because chemotherapy killed him, an apparent attack based on Swayze’s having castigated cancer quacks during an interview with Barbara Walters done before his death.

Since then, I and others have written a number of articles about Adams, including most recently his entirely expected pivot to spreading COVID-19 misinformation, such as claims that COVID-19 vaccines are leading to a “holocaust“, causing cancer, and promoting a “depopulation agenda“.

This was all before COVID-19 and mostly before Adams hired Willis. So let’s look at the new stories.

Robert Willis and “Koala Media”

Reading the Ars Technica article, I must say that I immediately got the impression of self-aggrandizement from Willis’s account:

This is the story of the mastermind behind one of the largest “fake news” operations in the US.

For two years, he ran websites and Facebook groups that spread bogus stories, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. Under him was a dedicated team of writers and editors paid to produce deceptive content—from outright hoaxes to political propaganda—with the supreme goal of tipping the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

Through extensive efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing sites from the ground up. He devised a strategy that got prominent personalities—including Trump—to retweet misleading claims to their followers. And he fooled unwary American citizens, including the hacker’s own father, into regarding fake news sources more highly than the mainstream media.

Pundits and governments just might have given Russia too much credit, he says, when a whole system of manipulating people’s perception and psychology was engineered and operated from within the US.

“Russia played such a minor role that they weren’t even a blip on the radar,” the hacker told me recently. “This was normal for politicians, though… if you say a lie enough times, everyone will believe it.”

First of all, there was plenty of evidence that Russia played a large role in spreading disinformation during the 2016 election cycle. But let’s for the moment assume that some of these reports went beyond what the actual evidence shows. One thing that I can say about Mike Adams and Natural News is that that Adams had already built considerable infrastructure in terms of interlocking websites, social media accounts, and big business selling supplements, quackery, and survivalist prepper equipment by 2015. Willis makes it sound as though he were the mastermind who walked in and created a disinformation machine from virtually nothing. That being said, the story does support Willis’ having “added value” to the grift, so to speak, by adding a pro-Trump political angle to the previous grift, which had been mostly based on attacking mainstream medicine and promoting “natural health” scams.

The story Willis relates is of a secretive company that had invited him for an interview, described in the article as him being “just another hacker looking for an IT job” who had “already received one job offer—but still had an interview scheduled at one final company”. The article then describes Willis’ skillset:

Even before his ethical hacking days at Sakura Samurai, Willis had gained an extensive technical skill set in networking, web applications, hacking, security, search engine optimization (SEO), graphic design, entrepreneurship, and management. He knew how to take advantage of search engine algorithms, once, he said, getting a random phrase to the No. 1 spot on one engine within 24 hours. “Many will say this is/was impossible, but I have the receipts,” he said, “and so do other credible people.”

At the interview site, a man came down to get him, and they rode the elevator to a floor with a nearly empty office. Inside waited a woman beside three chairs. They all sat. His hosts finally revealed the name of their company: Koala Media. The moment felt like an orchestrated Big Reveal.

It was at this point that I should have realized that this was Natural News, but, truth be told, I was not familiar enough to have recognized this sign immediately. Now here’s the part that I find very, very hard to believe, which is why I think this whole story is largely a whitewash, the later additions claiming otherwise notwithstanding:

Should he get the job, his primary role would be to rapidly expand a single, popular website already owned by Koala Media. For this, they needed someone with Willis’ diverse skill set.

Then the interview took a political turn. “They told me that they were against big companies and big government because they are basically the same thing,” Willis said. They said they had readers on the right and the left. They said they were about “freedom.” That sounded OK to Willis, who describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative—”very punk rock, borderline anarchist.”

Then the interviewers told him, “If you work for us, you can help stop Hillary Clinton.”

“I hated the establishment, Republicans, and Democrats, and Hillary was the target because she was as establishment as it got and was the only candidate that was all but guaranteed to be running on the main ticket in the future 2016 cycle,” said Willis. “If I were to choose a lesser evil at the time, it would have, without a doubt, been the Republican Party, since I had moved to the new city due to the Democrats literally destroying my previous home state. It felt like good revenge.”

Willis says he had no indication that the company that was about to recruit him was extreme or would become so in the future. In his perception, the company was just “investigative” with regard to its journalism.

When Koala offered him the job, he took it.

Elsewhere in the story, Willis is described as being neither Democrat nor Republican, but mainly “antiestablishment,” consistent with the quote above, with his self-proclaimed title being the “original punk rock right-wing millennial”.

Remember, Natural News was already a huge website in 2015, with over 2 million unique visits a month and a massive presence on the web in the realm of “natural health.” So rapidly expanding the site would have been a massive undertaking because, contrary to the way the Ars Technica story frames it, Natural News was already quite big. Expanding the political content, of course, was a not-unreasonable strategy to try to “grow the site,” but, again, this was not building a presence “from the ground up.” Even so, Willis was astoundingly successful growing an already large web presence to many times larger, with some of his pro-Trump and anti-Clinton articles having reached 30 million views/week.

Be that as it may, Willis was either all-in and is trying to backtrack and justify his previous involvement, representing himself as a bit of a naïf who finally realized what he had gotten himself into and did the right thing. I don’t buy this line for a moment. Here’s part of the reason why:

But as Willis came on board, Koala’s stories got more controversial.

A former Koala Media writer who has worked with Willis told Ars, “In the beginning, the job was fine, writing regular AP-style news articles. Then, it went toward goofy stuff, like ‘lemon curing cancer.’ And eventually, it went to super-inaccurate stuff.” That is when the writer knew it was time to call it quits. But Willis stayed on, even as one of the site owners personally contributed content that made him uncomfortable.

Here’s the thing. Natural News publishing “goofy stuff like lemon curing cancer” was nothing new in 2015. Anyone who worked for Adams from 2015-2017 and now claims that it started out as “AP-style news articles” before expressing surprise at having been asked to write about quackery like “lemon curing cancer” is either lying or trying to retroactively justify their complicity in Adams’ scam and assuage their conscience.

That’s why I laughed out loud when I read this part of the report:

“That was the problem,” Willis told me. “We were trying to build a more legitimate network and were reaching more and more millions weekly, but then the owner—who contributed a story once a day, during the best time for reach—would write crazy stuff.

That would be Mike Adams.

Then:

“What saved me was a couple [of Koala Media] employees,” he added. “One came into my office and closed the door and looked at me and said, ‘You don’t actually believe this stuff, do you?’ and I let out a sigh of relief when I said, ‘God, no’—and laughed. It became an ongoing joke.”

So they all knew, including “Hacker X” that they were promoting quackery and antivaccine nonsense but continued to do it anyway, justifying it to themselves thusly:

From that moment onward, the hacker and office staff would joke about the stuff they were being assigned to write—like a conspiracy-laden writeup on “chemtrails” or a piece on “lemons curing cancer”—thinking that only a small “ultracrazy” percentage of readers actually believed what was being written.

That appears to be what Hacker X and crew are telling themselves now to assuage their consciences, because they knew very well the sort of nonsense that they were publishing then.

Indeed, a quick perusal of NaturalNews.com would show that Adams had been publishing similar material for at least a decade before that. Just here and on my not-so-secret other blog I myself had by 2016 or so documented how Adams has been promoting pseudoscience, quackery, conspiracy theories, and character assassination for at least a decade. To give you an idea of what sort of man he is, one of his favorite “go-to” has long involved abusing the memory of celebrities who die of cancer after having been treated with conventional therapy, such when former White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush Tony Snow died of metastatic colon cancer, when Farrah Fawcett died of anal cancer, Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer (apparently as payback for an interview Swayze gave before his death telling people to avoid quacks), and Steve Jobs, among many others. Basically, he blames chemotherapy, surgery, and other conventional therapy for having “killed” them, and then, with an air of faux sorrow, laments how they could have lived if only they had embraced “natural healing”. Variations on this theme include, for instance, lamenting how Christina Applegate had been “maimed” unnecessarily when she underwent bilateral mastectomy for her breast cancer and to blame Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer on glyphosate and chemotherapy. In January 2016, he did the same thing after David Bowie died of liver cancer and Alan Rickman died of pancreatic cancer. I could go on and on and on, having written about Adams’ vile nonsense going back to 2006, but you get the idea. None of the examples I just cited includes a lot of the other quackery he’s promoted over the years, particularly antivaccine quackery.

None of this was the least bit subtle or hidden. It was right there, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, on the front page of NaturalNews.com, with the “craziest” articles often attributed to Mike Adams himself, and Willis participated in creating not just the political disinformation but health and political conspiracy disinformation:

Toward the end of 2015, more and more pro-Trump stories started emerging on Koala. But after Trump won the Republican primary in 2016, the focus shifted heavily toward anti-Clinton stories. During this time, Koala’s already-loose editorial standards relaxed even further. Stories became increasingly bizarre or opinionated. Citations that did exist were often placed in a misleading manner, misconstruing the linked stories or pointing to existing stories in the Koala webring, making it hard for readers to fact-check the material. The “search bar” on these news sites even took users to a search engine created by Koala; it showed stories from “independent media,” i.e., sites from the webring. Pieces that ran during this crucial period claimed, among other things, that Clinton had plans to “criminalize” gun owners, to kill the free press, to forcefully “drug” conservatives, to vaccinate people against their wills, to euthanize some adults, and to ban the US flag.

Remember, this was four years before the COVID-19 pandemic that this message was being actively promoted. It also corresponds with the period right after SB 277 had been passed in California in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak. As you might recall, that particular law banned nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, which prior to that had been very easy to obtain and often abused. In the battle over the bill before it passed into law, antivaxxers had built on a history of increasingly co-opting conservative/libertarian/anti-regulation arguments to craft a message about “government overreach” that appealed to small government conservatives. As a result, by the second Republican primary debate of the 2016 election cycle, it wasn’t just Donald Trump (who by then had a long history of antivaccine utterances) who was speaking out against vaccine mandates as government overreach. It was, seemingly, half the candidates at the debate, including at least a couple (for example, Ben Carson) who had previously been quite supportive of them. By 2017, I was lamenting how school vaccine mandates had become hopelessly politicized and decrying efforts by Republican politicians to “make measles great again”—in my own state through the efforts of my state Senator and Representative, yet!—by weakening school vaccine mandates. What I didn’t know at the time is how Willis had contributed to that politicization, which has led to what Jonathan Howard described just last Friday, with public health interventions such as mask and vaccine mandates being likened to fascism.

And NaturalNews had been laying the groundwork before Willis ever walked into that office building for an interview with a carefully planned approach:

After carefully studying the Facebook pages maintained by Koala staff, which were reaching about 3 million people weekly, Willis began using information-warfare tactics, some inspired by young Macedonians. Willis studied the connection between Koala headlines and the emotions they triggered among readers. The next time Koala Media’s owners came into the office, Willis showed them a carefully outlined posting schedule.

“I surprised them by holding up a large poster board with what became the schedule and deep explanations from a psychological standpoint on what articles to put at what times,” he said. “Early morning was positive articles—people will interact with positive things when they first wake up, they had the big story of the day at 11 am already, which they previously noticed was the most powerful slot of the day, afternoon prior to 2 pm was articles to really push hard, late night (11 pm to the early morning) was fringe content.”

Again, for Willis to discount the quackery and bizarre fake stories published by Mike Adams’ empire just does not pass the smell test, as described here by Rebecca Watson noting that publishing articles on chemtrails was far from the worst thing that showed up on Natural News:

That’s hardly the worst thing Adams has done, though. That award probably goes to the time back in 2014 when he published a “kill list” of scientists and journalists who he compared to Nazi collaborators because they supported the manufacture and sale of genetically modified organisms. It started with a bonkers blog post on Natural News in which he called for a new “Nuremberg trial” to prosecute people in the “new Nazi science” of biotechnology, writing “it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.”

That screed was almost immediately followed up with the establishment of an entire website called Monsantocollaborators.org, which featured the subheading “agricultural holocaust” and a giant swastika above a list of “collaborators.”

The site claims that “Every 30 minutes, a farmer commits suicide due to GMO crop failures. The responsibility for these deaths falls upon those individuals and organizations shown on this site.

Until this global Agricultural Holocaust is stopped, these deaths will continue.”

This is how Mike Adams views Monsanto and those who refute anti-GMO pseudoscience. Yes, that is the front of Auschwitz, the most infamous German camp.

I wrote about this whole incident in great detail as well right here on this very blog…in 2014. It’s not as though Mike Adams hasn’t been consistent, either. Just a few months ago, he was forced to walk back a call to execute public health officials and social media science communicators promoting vaccination against COVID-19. In 2017, Adams was calling for the doxxing of journalists in order to bring harassment on them.

Natural News execute

Sometimes even Mike Adams goes too far and is forced to backtrack.

Then, Watson also points out:

But Willis describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative—”very punk rock, borderline anarchist.” Which, if you have two working eyeballs in the year of our lord 2021 you can see is an entire field of red flags. And according to his Wikipedia page, prior to joining the Natural News team he headed the 4th Congressional campaign for the Connecticut Tea Party in 2009 and according to a press release he was “a member of the Fairfield Republican Town Committee and volunteered for many Republican campaigns across Fairfield County” before running as a Republican for the Connecticut state congress in 2014.

Indeed. Watson has a point about the lack of believability of several of Hacker X’s excuses for his involvement with Natural News.

I further note that one other part of the Ars Technica story caught my eye and let my skeptical antennae to start twitching:

Sources also told Ars that Koala Media owners realized the massive potential for financial gain in pushing out the pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rhetoric after analyzing Trump’s voter base and their emotional reactions to the fake news articles all adding to traffic. Had Clinton’s voter base earned them more money, the pro-Clinton narrative might have been their focus, claim the sources.

Was Willis the same way? Did he do it for the money?

The overall narrative I’m getting is that Willis probably did it because he believed in the politics behind the fake news and disinformation, and I really have a hard time believing the anonymous sources cited who claim that Natural News would have gone all-in for Hillary Clinton if they had perceived that doing so would have earned “Koala Media” more money. I suppose it’s possible. Grifters gonna grift, after all, and go after the most lucrative grift (usually at least). I just don’t find this explanation very likely, based on what I know.

A change of heart?

In fairness, let’s accept that maybe, just maybe, in 2017, Hacker X had a real “change of heart,” which is why he finally left Natural News:

By 2017, after being with the fake news farm for nearly two years, Willis couldn’t take it anymore. “I had a soul-searching moment and money in the bank and decided what I liked doing most was hacking, and I wanted to get back to it. So I decided to get a job in the security industry as a hacker,” he said.

He knew he should talk about the system he had helped to build. “I helped contribute to the monster of fake news,” he said. “I knew I had a responsibility to be a whistleblower on what exactly went down—even though the network I helped build looks like a shell of its former self, especially after they’ve been banned from basically every platform, along with other ‘alternative’ news outlets.”

But back then, Willis wasn’t yet ready to be named. He confessed to a trusted friend, podcast producer Matt Stephenson, what he had done.

Odd, then, that it took him a couple of years to do it. On the other hand, I can sort of understand why it took a long time. It’s hard to engage in self-examination sufficient to come to admit that you’ve done something very bad. I can also understand this motivation, as described in an earlier Hacker X blog post, published before the Ars Technica story:

COVID has shown me the deadly side of fake news and anti-vaccination people. After multiple conversations with my father, who refuses to wear a mask or get vaccinated, I was getting very concerned. I asked him what sites he would read the conspiracy-based things on, and he mentioned the website that ran the network I had built the machine on.

I told him that I worked for the company previously and literally chose the stories and wrote the headlines and not to trust it. He wouldn’t listen to me. He has been too manipulated.

I decided to come forward with my identity after this. I was never involved in QAnon or these COVID conspiracies, and I fully support those who are in active campaigns against them, but they are from the seeds of what I created. I believed in anarchy, was paid to build a manipulation machine, and I ran it like a video game while not thinking about the humans that were actually believing in the articles.

If that was Willis’ “come to Jesus” moment, I can accept that. A lot of people don’t realize the harm that they’re doing until it affects them or their loved ones personally, and, sadly, there are a lot of people out there with stories about their parents very similar to this one. Indeed, it is a cruel irony that Willis’ father would be one of these parents and that his father wouldn’t even believe his own son when he tried to explain that he had been the man who had built the network that had led him down the rabbit hole of COVID-19 antimask antivaccine conspiracy theories and misinformation. On the other hand, this happened nearly four years after Willis had left Natural News and not done a lot to expose the network that he had taken from being powerful and popular to becoming a veritable juggernaut of political and health disinformation.

There’s another problem, too. Even after his heartfelt revelation about how much his father believed the disinformation created by the machine that Willis himself had created, Willis continues to make excuses on his blog that are rather cringeworthy:

When I looked up his site later, I noticed things on GMOs, which I had heard about and didn’t seem fringe as far as I knew. The company’s articles were being pushed through Yahoo News not too far before. I saw lots of natural health articles. My takeaway was that he was an internet natural health guru looking to use his current viewership to explore other topics outside of natural health — which included stopping Hillary Clinton. There were already random things like ‘chemtrails’ but like I said, I thought it was entertainment. His explanation of natural medicine didn’t include that ‘lemons cured cancer’ at that time that I knew of.

“That I knew of”? That statement rates one of these right here:

Godzilla facepalm

When Godzilla gives you the facepalm, you know the failure is monstrous.

All I can do is to reinforce Watson’s observations by retorting that Willis really must not have been looking very hard if he thought there weren’t stories promoting quackery as bizarre as the “lemons cure cancer” variety. I’ve been documenting the quackery promoted by Mike Adams going back to 2006. Again, it’s never been subtle, and it’s never been anything less than utterly bonkers. That’s been Adams’ entire brand for two decades! Moreover, the message that the government is evil and forcing chemotherapy, vaccines, and the like on people while banning “natural treatments” has been part of Adams’ brand all along. Again, none of this was the least bit secret to anyone who bothered to take a few minutes to peruse his website, even back in 2015.

Here’s where a bit of justification that I can actually sort of believe comes in, and that’s Willis’ compartmentalization. First, he repeatedly states that he didn’t actually believe that Trump could win and was shocked when he did win. That, of course, was the common belief at the time among almost everyone other than die-hard Trump supporters (to the point where Saturday Night Live did a devastating sketch about it the Saturday after the 2016 election) and so is believable (at least to me), even coming from someone who spent two years expanding a quackery empire into a pro-Trump fake news empire. It’s his second bit of justification that, to me at least, undermines his claim that he wasn’t aware of the really bizarre quackery being promoted by Mike Adams at the time he agreed to work for Natural News:

Fake news wasn’t a known thing at that point in time to me. I saw some articles as ‘entertainment’ and didn’t believe people took them seriously, as I have stated; Individuals that were a part of the organization were vetted backing me up on this. The editorial process included citations required to back up what other sites were saying. There was even a writer going through, what, to my knowledge, were credible scientific papers to write from. I don’t know anything about health science papers, but that’s what I was told. I thought they were not trying to put out fake stories, and that people knew the difference between this and their entertainment articles. The only fake news I knew of at the time was like the national enquirer, weekly world news. Most of the writers were only writing their own articles and only checking the site for their own work’s share count to see how they were doing. The crazy was hidden in plain sight for many writers and employees.

And:

I did not believe many of the crazy things being put out were being believed by people and did not think of it as an issue at the time. I think people are misunderstanding what I am saying: I am talking about known hoaxes, not every piece of news that involved Trump. It wasn’t until I started to see that people were believing in everything that I wanted to wake up the public because things got crazier over time. I tried to put out a call to everyone, “hey, look at what went down, look at what was built, this is going to be a problem”.

Got it? The really bizarre stuff was “entertainment,” and everyone knows that it was not true, just like Weekly World News. (Remember WWN and “Bat Boy“? And all the alien baby stories?) The comparison might seem somewhat apt initially, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the Bat Boy stories were totally fake, as were the alien stories. There was always an intentional and obvious “wink and a nod” embedded in WWN stories that immediately let the reader know they were a big put-on (that, coupled with the pre-Photoshop era photo manipulations).

Here are a few examples, if you don’t remember or believe me:

Bat Boy

This is obviously entertainment, unlike NaturalNews.com.

Bat Boy

Sure, I believe this…

Three Breasted Intern

Sure, this could have happened.

Y2K according to WWN

Now we’re getting into Mike Adams territory!

Clinton Alien Baby

The Hillary Clinton alien baby story was a classic Weekly World News bit.

Bat Boy vs Saddam

This might be my favorite Bat Boy story in WWN.

OK, I might have gone overboard with the WWN blasts from the past, but I guess I was always a bit of a connoisseur of bizarre fake stories in that particular tabloid. In any event, I’ll just reiterate: There’s no way that the average reader would consider any of these stories to be true, with the possible exception of the Y2K story given the hysteria of the time. They were intentionally outlandish and included obvious indications that they were fiction. The same was never true of Natural News, as Adams always made it quite clear that he meant this stuff, using the material published to sell his products.

Disinformation kills

After reading the stories about Hacker X, his activities at Natural News from 2015-2017, and his current excuses, I’m struck by one thing, and it’s an observation I’ve made about a number of my fellow physicians, plus other highly intelligent individuals. That observation is just how much people, especially highly educated professionals, downplay the effects of misinformation, often expressing a combination of two sentiments. First, they can’t believe that anyone would take misinformation of the sort peddled by Mike Adams and his fellow quacks seriously enough to act on it. The second is that it is so easy to refute such misinformation that it’s like LeBron James “dunking on a 7′ hoop” and therefore not worth our time, other topics being so very, very much more “important“. We now see this very idea being used as an excuse by Robert Willis, who basically says that he had assumed that almost everyone could identify the medical misinformation being peddled by Mike Adams as ridiculous (even as he also claims that it wasn’t ridiculous enough at the time to worry him) and therefore viewed it as “entertainment” akin to Weekly World News.

The problem is that misinformation, pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and conspiracy theories tend to be mutually reinforcing and are, either intentionally or unintentionally, designed to sound plausible. It is not at all surprising, then, that the same people who believed the conspiracy theories that Mike Adams had been peddling for over a decade by 2015 were primed to believe the new political fake news and conspiracy theories that he started to promote, with Willis’ unfortunately very able assistance. We are now paying the consequences of our lack of attention to how the medical and political misinformation feed each other in a continuous feedback loop that leads to distrust in government and medicine, leading to distrust in public health authorities. Because health and political disinformation are so intertwined we can’t separate them anymore. The result is what we see now: Widespread resistance to vaccines and other public health interventions in the middle of a pandemic plus belief in unproven “miracle” cures for COVID-19 like ivermectin. The question is: Now that Willis has admitted his large role in creating a huge source of the misinformation that has gotten us to this point, what will he do to try to reverse the damage he has caused?

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Posted by David Gorski

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