Over the nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been writing a lot about social media, particularly Facebook (excuse me, “Meta”), Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram (and now Tik Tok), as amplifiers of antivaccine misinformation. Part of the reason is that the pandemic finally—finally!—appears to have awakened public health authorities and government officials to how dangerous antivaccine misinformation and disinformation can be, after years and years of attempts by bloggers, as well as a relatively small number of academics, journalists, and health care professionals, to combat it without much support. As I said last week, everything old is new again, and, belated cries of, “Who could ever have seen this coming?” aside (the answer is: everyone who’s been paying attention), it’s important to assess the situation now, however we might have gotten here.
Say what you will about the halting and often scattershot efforts of social media companies to deal with the tsunami of misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines that their platforms helped to spread, both through their algorithms that amplify and promote strong emotions (as in conflict and controversy) and their not-so-benign neglect of the problem of slowing the spread of dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories on their platforms borne of the naïve tech bro belief that the answer to bad speech is more good speech, social media companies have at least finally tried to do something about the problem of misinformation on their platforms. I guess it took a deadly global pandemic whose resolution is being hampered by the disinformation spread on their platforms to finally shake them out of their complacency somewhat and actually deplatform some of the most egregious sources of misinformation. Of course, quackery abhors a vacuum, and grifters gonna grift (and keep grifting), which is likely why so many of them have now ended up on other platforms with—shall we say?—even less “stringent” rules regarding misinformation.
You might wonder what provoked me to write about this. The answer is simple and dates back to one week ago, when I encountered this post by über-quack Joe Mercola, a quack tycoon whose empire of online misinformation has, since the late 1990s, allowed him to amass a net worth north of $100 million, leading me to refer to him as a “quack tycoon.” That’s when he announced that his “Censored Library” would be available on Substack, for (of course) a fee:
I’m beyond excited to finally announce you now have a second option. My team and I have found a way to bring back my previously deleted articles in a liability protected format under the Censored Library. It is hosted by Substack, which is a major free speech platform that many censored journalists are using. My newsletter will remain free, as it has always been, and after 48 hours, each article will be transferred to and archived in the Censored Library on Substack.
The reason I chose a paid membership platform on Substack is because it will protect all of my content from censorship under a private membership agreement. All of the content is completely searchable, and does not use Google. For just $5 a month, or the discounted annual rate of $50 per year, you will have access to all of my articles, all the time, even after they’ve been deleted from Mercola.com.
We have already started the process of transferring our entire archive over to the Substack library, but there are nearly 25 years of content so it will be a lengthy process.
This is, of course, one of the most brilliant pieces of grift that I’ve ever seen from a quack. Remember, the reason that these articles are only available for 48 hours on Mercola’s own website is because last summer Mercola himself chose to make them “ephemeral”, after a New York Times article in July about him and his empire of health disinformation. Why? Not long after publication of that NYT report, which prominently featured Mercola’s inclusion in the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s (CCDH’s) list of the “Disinformation Dozen”, Mercola wrote an article titled “Why I Am Deleting All Content After 48 Hours“, explaining:
These will be removed to appease the individuals in power who have an arsenal of overwhelming tools at their disposal, and are actively engaged in using them. COVID-19 has activated and authorized emergency powers that have weakened our constitutional rights. Sadly, cyberwarfare and authoritarian forces are beyond our abilities to withstand, and this is now our only way forward.
Over 15,000 articles full of vital information that has helped tens of millions across the world take control of their health, will be removed. There was a time when people could debate and respect each other freely. That time is now gone. I believe laws are best applied like medicine – locally and specifically.
Local food, local democracy – our local community strength is the best way to achieve peace moving forward, and to stop authoritarian technocracy. I also believe we are at our strongest when we can care and maintain respect for each other. This is how we can make our most important decisions in life.
Again I will still be writing my daily articles that I started 25 years ago BUT they will only be available for 48 hours before they are removed. In this way I hope to continue my mission to help you take control of your health – but it’s up to you to download, share and repost this content. I will not be enforcing my copyright on this information so that you may freely share it.
In addition to making all his content “ephemeral”, Mercola has also apparently changed the robots.txt file for his website to exclude all his articles from being archived by the Wayback Machine over at the Internet Archive, as evidenced by the message I get every time I enter a link to an old Mercola article into the Wayback Machine. At the time I couldn’t help but gasp at the audacity of it all. (Also, it never ceases to amuse me how an incredibly rich man who had built an online empire to sell his supplements and other quackery can without a hint of self-awareness portray himself as a poor, downtrodden, “persecuted” individual in this way, and his marks will eat it up.) At first, I thought that this was nothing more than a temporary ploy to “create scarcity” and drive up the buzz and short-term sharing of his content. I didn’t appreciate the long-term game, which was to transition all of his old material to a paid archive, something that Substack has facilitated.
What also caught my attention was Mercola’s reference to Substack as a “major free speech platform that many censored journalists are using,” a phrase that sent up so many red flags. That’s what made me decide to take a look at Substack.
Substack: Where the quacks go now?
Substack is a company that also reminds me how “everything old is new again,” because in essence Substack is a blogging platform. (How 2004, which is when I started my personal blog, lo, those many years ago!) Billing itself as “the home for great writing” and the “simplest way to start a subscription publication, and the best place to grow it“, to me Substack is, in essence, the new Blogger or free WordPress, with an option to monetize one’s posts through a subscription model, with Substack getting a 10% cut of the proceeds. To show you even more how everything old is new again, the company also provides the materials to notify users of new content by, yes, email. There are even feuds between Substack authors, just like what I remember from back in the day at ScienceBlogs. Truly, I’m getting very “mid-2000s” vibes from the whole thing.
Substack was founded in 2017. Pointing out how social media and online advertising had decimated traditional print media sources for writers, the founders of Substack proclaimed:
We are developing an all-in-one service to let writers get paid by reaching audiences that value them. Our tools will include easy-to-use editing software that can handle the simultaneous publication of stories and newsletters; a payments solution that makes subscriptions intuitive and manageable for both publisher and reader; sharing features that allow stories to find large audiences outside the paywalls; and design templates so that publishers can create beautiful reading experiences. We make money only when our publishers make money, taking a small cut of subscription revenue or charging recurring fees based on earnings thresholds.
As I said, this is nothing more than Blogger with a subscription model that calls blog posts “newsletters”. In fact, aesthetically, I find Substack to be less compelling than Blogger was in that at least with Blogspot blogs you could radically change the templates and come up with a really good looking blog if you had the skills and wanted to make the effort. There’s a depressing sameness about all the Substack newsletters that I’ve encountered, as if no one bothers (or is able to) alter the basic dull template. That being said, to me there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of Substack’s business model (although, admittedly, not everyone agrees, to the point where I will be looking into this issue more in order to make sure I didn’t come to a premature judgment), which is to provide a platform that is easy for bloggers to use and, if they so desire, try to monetize their work through a subscription model, from which Substack apparently takes what seems to be a reasonable cut. Generally, most newsletters that I’ve perused are a mix of free and “paid” content that requires a subscription.
Truth be told, I have from time to time considered moving my personal blog over to Substack, not because I want to monetize it, but because I’m tired of spending over $1,000 a year to maintain it and of having to deal with the problem every time there’s a technical glitch. (I am most assuredly not skilled enough for this.)
Also in fairness, I will say that there are some great blogs—excuse me, newsletters—on Substack. For example, historian Timothy Snyder’s Thinking About… is wonderful (also scary, given his expertise on the history of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and his observations on US politics now), while John Skylar’s COVID Transmissions is a go-to source for information about COVID-19 that I’ve cited before and Emily Oster’s excellent blog on evidence-based parenting are also on Substack. I could go on and on. My point is not that Substack doesn’t have some excellent content. Rather, it’s that Substack appears to the go-to platform of choice deplatformed quacks and antivaxxers, like Joe Mercola. Indeed, his Dr. Mercola’s Censored Library is just the most recent example.
Who’s on Substack now?
As I wrote this post, I decided to do a little experiment and search Substack’s main page for
blogs newsletters about COVID-19, vaccines, and other health issues. Let’s start with COVID-19. Does anyone want to guess which Substack newsletter came up #1 in the search result for the term “COVID-19” yesterday? Come on, take a guess! No? You’d be correct that it was a COVID-19-denying antimask newsletter. In fact, it was Justin Hart’s Rational Ground, which, in a truly Orwellian twist, bills itself as the “answer to the flood of chaotic COVID-19 misinformation”, even as it spews COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories. You might remember that I myself mentioned him last June as he promoted “casedemic” conspiracy theories (refuted over a year ago here) about COVID-19:
Listen to Justin Hart, Patriots!
He was right about erection fraud, and he is right about this! pic.twitter.com/FvlNrm45Bj
— TheBaldening (@TheBaldening) June 7, 2021
I also mentioned how Tracy Beth Høeg and the other co-authors of a dumpster diving VAERS preprint about myocarditis after COVID-19 vaccination had included one of Rational Ground’s main members, Josh Stevenson, as one of their coauthors, pointing out its many articles railing about “lockdowns” and masks and how it paints an entirely dire picture of any sort of public health intervention to slow the spread of COVID-19, particularly mask mandates, for which they have an entire page full of articles opposing masks, falsely claiming that masks don’t have any effect on the spread of COVID-19, and a whole lot of other misinformation about COVID-19, ranging from semi-responsible to pure denialist. Unsurprisingly, Rational Ground enthusiastically endorsed the Great Barrington Declaration, the eugenics-adjacent proposal published in October 2020 that advocated, in essence, a “let ‘er rip” strategy towards COVID-19 in the “healthy” general population while advocating “focused protection” for the vulnerable. (Never mind that it’s impossible to protect the vulnerable if a respiratory virus is spreading freely through the population.)
Before I move on to other searches, let’s look at the top 10 results of searches of Substack for “COVID-19“:
- Rational Ground by Justin Hart. A COVID-19 misinformation newsletter. (Subscription: $7/month.)
- The COVID Digest by Amber Schmidtke. This is actually a good newsletter with generally reliable, science-based discussions. (Subscription: $7/month.)
- Kanekoa’s Newsletter. Let’s just say that the avatar for this newsletter includes red glowing crypto eyes. Yes, it’s a misinformation site. Don’t believe me? Whoever this guy is, he really, really likes Dr. Robert Malone, the “inventor of mRNA vaccines” conspiracy crank. (Subscription: $5/month.)
- Rapport Hebdomadaire COVID-19. This is a French newsletter by Diana Alessandro, a vaccinologist at a company called Infovac that seems, given my limited remaining ability to read and write French, fairly reasonable. (Free.)
- Prometheus Shrugged. The name suggests what this newsletter is, and, yes, it’s COVID-19 misinformation, in particular the most out-there “lab leak” conspiracy theories. (Subscription: $5/month.)
- COVID-19 Policy Update by John Bailey. This looks like a fairly straightforward news aggregator newsletter that more or less serves as a link/quote list from recent news stories and op-eds about COVID-19. (Free.)
- COVID Transmissions by John Skylar. One of the good eggs, very much worth following. (Free.)
- RESCUE with Michael Capuzzo. Can you say “ivermectin”? Sure, I knew you could. (Subscription: $7/month.)
- COVID-19 Northland. This looks like another fairly straight news aggregating site, this time from New Zealand. (Subscription: $5/month.)
- Harry Saag’s COVID-19 updates. Dr. Harry Saag is CEO and Co-Founder of Roster Health and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at NYU Langone Health. Most of his blog appears to be about sociological aspects of the pandemic, but he isn’t exactly what I’d call prolific, publishing only a few times a year. (Free.)
So basically, four out of the top ten results for COVID-19 are what can most kindly be described as newsletters spreading COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Going beyond the top ten, there’s the FLCCC Alliance Community Substack. Regular readers will know that FLCCC (Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance) is a group of “COVID-19 contrarian” doctors (i.e., COVID quacks) dedicated to promoting “early treatment” in the form of ivermectin, a repurposed drug that does not work against COVID-19, the best evidence for which is highly dubious or even fraudulent, all supplemented with conspiracy theories about how a “cure” is being “suppressed”. There’s also Dr. Paul Alexander’s Substack, which is chock full of antivaccine conspiracy mongering, including references to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and other favorite antivax talking points. You might recall that Alexander was for a time advisor to Health and Human Services assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo under the Trump administration who made the news a year ago because of news reports publishing emails of his from the July 2020 saying that we “want them infected” (referring to “infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions”) to “use them to develop herd” immunity. Yes, he was promoting a “natural herd immunity” approach to the pandemic. (How’d that work out?)
The results are even worse if you search for “vaccines.” Here are the top ten results:
- Who is Robert Malone. This is the newsletter of Dr. Robert Malone, who has misleadingly proclaimed himself “inventor of mRNA vaccines” even as he’s gone full antivaccine conspiracy crank. Let’s just say that this is not an auspicious newsletter to show up as number one. (Subscription $5/month.)
- Steve Kirsch’s Newsletter. Steve Kirsch is a tech entrepreneur who started out reasonable, promoting repurposed drugs for COVID-19, but somehow fell deep into the conspiracy well, to the point where he embraced hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and became fully antivaccine. Most recently, he’s been promoting the false claim, based on dumpster diving in VAERS, that COVID-19 vaccines have killed far more people than they save, hundreds of thousands of people in the year since the vaccines were first distributed. (Subscription $5/month.)
- Alexander COVID News epidemiologist evidence based medicine. This is Paul Alexander’s Substack (see above) and the Substack with the most incomprehensible name that I’ve yet seen. (Subscription $5/month.)
- Kids, Covid, and Covid Vaccines. This is a Substack by someone using the ‘nym Darby Shaw (a character from a John Grisham novel, no less!), who bills herself as a “Child Safety Advocate” who is using a “pen name because our government and media are now 100 percent corrupt”. The content of the Substack is exactly what you would expect from that introduction. (Free.)
- VaxCalc Insider. This sounded like a blast from the past! Or at least it reminds me of a blast from the past, namely the totally deceptive “Vaccine Ingredient Calculator” maintained by Barbara Loe Fisher’s antivaccine group National Vaccine Information Center. It doesn’t appear to be maintained by NVIC, but its rhetoric about being a “modern day Star Wars Rebel Alliance fighting the greatest threat to freedom today: tyrannical vaccine stormtroopers who will stop at nothing until they vaccinate everybody from cradle to grave” and viewing “vaccine-hesitancy as a sign of intelligent, courageous decision-making in the face of tremendous pressure to ‘just do what you’re told'” told me everything I needed to know even before I started perusing the newsletters. (Subscription $7/month.)
- Voice for Science and Solidarity by Geert Vanden Bossche. We’ve written about Geert Vanden Bossche before. Let’s just say that he updates a conspiracy theory by Andrew Wakefield to proclaim falsely that vaccinating against COVID-19 will result in mass death and destruction and is currently begging the World Health Organization not to vaccinate against Omicron. He’s even promoting a different COVID-19 vaccine, just as Wakefield was promoting his own measles vaccine when he started claiming that the MMR vaccine causes autism. (Free.)
- Vinu’s Newsletter. This one is a real blast from the past from my personal blog. Somehow an obscure antivax commenter named Vinu Arumugham whom I long ago banned now has one of the top ten “vaccine” Substacks. That ought to tell you all you need to know about Substack and vaccines. These days he’s claiming that “dirty regular vaccines turned a harmless virus into a killer“. (He’s referring to Tdap and influenza vaccines.) (Free.)
- Injecting Freedom. I don’t know who Aaron Siri is—he’s apparently a lawyer who has sued over vaccine mandates and represented “vaccine-injured” children. His newsletter is a cornucopia of legal conspiracy theories over COVID-19 vaccines, as you might expect from its title. (Free.)
- This Week in COVID. Dr. Siyab Panhwar is cardiologist, and, at #9 in the search results, his newsletter appears to be the first Substack that isn’t outright antivaccine conspiracy mongering—quite the opposite, in fact. Still, that it took until #9 to get to an evidence-based take on vaccines tells you all you need to know about Substack. (Free.)
- Rapport Hebdomadaire COVID-19. This one was #4 in the search for COVID-19 newsletters and discussed above. It’s OK. (Free.)
So in the case of this search, eight out of the top ten results are, to put it kindly, not science-based. In fact, they’re some of the most conspiracy-mongering of blogs that I have encountered, full of COVID-19 antivaccine misinformation and disinformation. As before, going beyond the top ten, there are more antivaccine blogs, such as Insurance company employees, another blog by Steve Kirsch, who is truly prolific and here claims to be cataloguing data to demonstrate that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous, and Lies are Unbekoming, another antivaccine substack, complete with a “Do Not Comply” avatar.
Getting away from just searches, Substack has also become the home to some other notorious COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and misinformation spreaders. These include Alex Berenson’s Unreported Truths. You might recall that Berenson was suspended from Twitter in August for promoting COVID-19 misinformation. However, he just pivoted over to Substack, where he now is on track to earn roughly $700,000 a year from subscriptions. Perusing the site with other terms, I found more COVID-19 misinformation sites, such as Unmasked, which, as its name implies, claims that masks don’t work and rants against vaccine passports while claiming that the public health apparatus is “spreading disinformation”. There’s also Matthew Crawford’s Rounding the Earth. Although we haven’t written about him here on SBM (although one of us really should!), Crawford is a statistician who uses misleading statistics to falsely claim that ivermectin is highly effective against COVID-19 and that the vaccines don’t work/are dangerous.
Why are quacks flocking to Substack?
With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, and the rest trying, as imperfect as their efforts are, to rein in misinformation by deplatforming its spreaders, Substack has become the go-to destination for many of them. One reason is obvious: It’s a chance to monetize misinformation, with Substack profiting as well from its cut. More importantly, aside from banning nudity and erotica, plagiarism, doxxing, impersonation, hate speech, infringement on intellectual property, and “illegal activities” such as spam and phishing, Substack’s content guidelines are very vague on what Substack will and will not permit. True, Substack says it won’t host “harmful” material but does not define what it means by “harmful” that other than saying it includes “material that advocates, threatens, or shows you causing harm to yourself, other people, or animals”.
Over the last few months, people have been noticing how cranks, quacks, and spreaders of political disinformation have been flocking to Substack, with Chris Stokel-Walker of WIRED referring to Substack as a “playground for the deplatformed“, while Kiera Butler, writing for Mother Jones, observes that Substack is “profiting off antimask and antivaccine newsletters“:
There’s one less frequently discussed way in which Substack actually might be endangering democracy: It’s become a conduit for public disinformation during a historic pandemic. Indeed, my search of Substack returned dozens of newsletters that suggested that vaccines and masks were ineffective and dangerous, and that “the media” had exaggerated the harms of COVID-19. Many of the newsletters that I found insisted that the government was suppressing evidence in favor of treatments that scientists have shown to be ineffective, like hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin. Other Substack newsletters made similar claims about unproven supplements and other fringe remedies.
Just enter the term “COVID” into Substack’s search bar to find a wide variety of newsletters to peruse. Some are by leading epidemiologists and other medical experts offering insights into public health questions in the national conversation. But among those evidence-based offerings are a whole raft of newsletters that make false claims about masks, vaccines, and data.
Nearly three months after Butler’s story, I find that her characterization is still the accurate. She also reminds me that Joe Mercola was on Substack before. He just repurposed his Substack newsletter to be the “Censored Library.” She also notes Substack’s wishy-washy response to criticism:
In response to a request for comment from Mother Jones, a company spokesperson said that though the company has not offered any advances to users who promote misinformation, the company errs “on the side of free press and free expression, even for those we don’t endorse or agree with” and that “being skeptical, controversial, or even wrong are not against our terms of service.”
That sounds remarkably similar to what company spokespeople for Facebook and Twitter used to say, back in the day. I also note that the company has a history of offering advances to some rather dodgy writers, as well as observe that not offering advances to cranks is hardly a good defense of Substack’s profiting off of misinformation. Substack still gets its 10% cut, even if it doesn’t actively entice cranks to its platform with six figure advances. Indeed, arguably Substack is profiting more directly off of misinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories than Facebook or Twitter ever did, given that it takes a cut of the subscription proceeds from writers promoting such false narratives. In that, Substack, whatever its virtues otherwise, is arguably worse than Facebook and Twitter. No wonder quacks love it.