Some in the mainstream media are just waking up to a phenomenon we have been warning about for years – misinformation, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and lax regulations have negative impacts on society that go far beyond whatever the original topic at hand. We sometimes refer to this as “quack magnetism” – the tendency of people and institutions who buy into one conspiracy or pseudoscience to promote many, or even all, of them.
CNN, for example, has noticed that popular wellness influencers are engaging in climate change denial. This may seem puzzling at first, but for regular contributors and readers here the response is, of course they are. Mercola, for example, wrote about the Maui fires with the caption “What the media won’t tell you.” He speculates (he’s just asking questions, right) that the fires are part of a government conspiracy to grab land to create a smart city. Truth_crunchy_mama, meanwhile, told her followers, “stop blaming things on nature that were actually caused by the government.”
There are a couple of ways, I think, to best understand this phenomenon. One layer is the trap of conspiracy thinking. A conspiracy is the “get out of jail free” card for pseudoscience and sloppy thinking. For anyone pushing a belief that has the challenge of not being true, how to they reconcile their claims with logic and evidence? Just claim there is a conspiracy. The conspiracy explains the lack of evidence for the claim and the existence of evidence which seems to contradict the claim. It also explains why experts, the people who are in the best position to understand the claims, disagree with them.
For healthcare, one might reasonably ask, if this simple treatment is so effective, why are doctors not using it, why are insurance companies not paying for it, why is the government not approving it? The conspiracy theory rides to the rescue – because all those authorities are part of a conspiracy to suppress cheap and effective treatments. The slightest bit of thought or actual knowledge about how health care works collapses such claims (why would the government, or insurance companies, not want to save trillions of dollars in health care costs?). But it doesn’t matter. Conspiracies are self-contained insulated belief system that render themselves immune to logic and evidence.
Conspiracies also play nicely into another layer to the wellness menace, the overall wellness narrative. The concept of a “narrative” is central to critical thinking and media savvy. Humans understand the world largely through storytelling. We develop a narrative about how the world is and how it works. This is helpful, even necessary, in pulling together lots of information into a coherent theory. But explanatory narratives tend to take on a life of their own. Even the most sincere person can go from the facts determining the narrative to the letting the narrative shape, filter, and curate the facts. Before long you are in a bubble of belief cut off from reality.
What is the wellness narrative? One key component is self empowerment, which in and of itself may be benign but it is often connected to extreme individualism and distrust of all authorities and experts. Influencers encourage their followers to “do their own research” rather than trust authorities.
There is often also an ideological layers to the narrative, of the appeal to nature. Just in the name “truth crunchy mama” you have the perfect marketing of the wellness narrative. She speaks “truth to power” meaning don’t trust authority. She is crunchy because natural is always better. And she is a mama, meaning that her own authority derives not from degrees or scholarship but from real world experience.
This brings us to another layer of the wellness phenomenon, and that is social media. Wellness existed before the internet, but social media has been a powerful accelerant. Social media allows influencers (wellness or otherwise) to engage in a simple algorithm – do whatever generates the most clicks. The biggest influencers, almost by definition, are the ones engaging most shamelessly in this algorithm.
What generates clicks and engagement? Outrage. Extremism. Counter-cultural statements. Conspiracy theories. Fantastical claims. And telling people what they want to hear, including that all their problems (health and otherwise) have simple fixes that the powers-that-be are trying to keep from them. The narrative evolves in this direction, following the clicks.
In addition social media allows for a powerful type of intimacy, which is actively encouraged by successful influencers. Followers are then not just consuming information, they are part of a community. The wellness narrative becomes part of their identity, their religion. Now their journey toward the dark side of misinformation and conspiracy theories is complete.
So of course they are engaging in some level of climate change denial – it fits the wellness narrative. Don’t trust the government. They are lying to you for their own nefarious purposes. So-called “experts” are just pawns in their game, or are part of the evil cabal. Do your own research (which means listen uncritically to self-proclaimed influencer gurus). Such outlets become a firehose of misinformation.
Oh, and give me money. That is the final layer of the entire wellness enterprise, but of course the most important layer. At the end of the day the entire wellness infrastructure is about parting the public from their money. Clicks and engagement are about selling products that fit with the narrative.
Perhaps the most cynical and obvious example of this is Alex Jones. While not strictly a wellness guru, he is more primarily a conspiracy theorist, he nicely demonstrates how these two flavors of misinformation meet in the middle. He promotes all kinds of conspiracy nonsense, with red-faced rage, all to sell dubious products, mostly prepper stuff and wellness products. Again, at the end of the day, he is just a snake oil salesman selling supplements. But he has shamelessly found a narrative that links him to a customer base that is loyal and gullible.
All this money, estimated to be in the trillions of dollars worldwide, fuels a cultural, business, and political movement that is highly destructive. That is the ultimate menace of “wellness”. Snake oil peddlers, con artists, and gurus operate best in a space that is free from government regulations, free from experts or institutions that provide quality control or scholarship, free from ethics or legal ramifications, or any attempt at consumer protection. They operate best in chaos, where “truth” is subjective, and the only thing you think you can trust is the influencer themselves, whose image is optimized for feel-good pseudo-intimacy.