Long ago, when there was no Internet outside of the military and some colleges, where the average person had no access and even if they did there was no world wide web, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I remember encountering quackery. Back then, unlike now, it came mainly in the form of books, magazines, newsletters, or quacks giving talks, and it is true that all of those things still exist. However, they have been relegated very much to secondary (or even tertiary) status by the existence of the Internet, the web, and, above all else, social media. Back when I started my hobby of writing about medicine and quackery, blogs and websites were the main media from which quackery flowed. Now, these, too, tend to be secondary, with Facebook, podcasts, and especially YouTube becoming the major places in social media where quackery is promoted.
In fact, video seems to rule these days, and no self-respecting quack would be without a YouTube channel, complete with videos that he could also post on his Facebook page. The more “complete” quacks even have documentaries around which they build their brand, an excellent example of which is the antivaccine propaganda film masquerading as a documentary entitled VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. Not only is there the movie, but there’s a popular antivaccine Facebook page and YouTube channel to which the film’s producers Del Bigtree and Polly Tommey, antivaccine activists both, regularly post videos, which range from them ranting about vaccines to them showing interviews with parents who mistakenly believe that their children were “vaccine-injured.” Occasionally, even Andrew Wakefield himself deigns to show up!
Oddly enough, I got the idea for this post from a place that I normally wouldn’t have expected, an article on Babe.net, “A YouTuber who claimed being vegan cured her cancer has died from cancer,” which reminded me of another article I saw on the very same source, “This vlogger says you can cure cancer with happy thoughts and juice — and she’s making money doing it.” Basically, the reason is that these posts, particularly the latter one, show how not only do YouTube and social media provide the means for quacks to spread misinformation in a far more effective and targeted manner than was ever possible before, but how lucrative they can be. That led me to—of course—think about the man who is perhaps the ultimate example of how to monetize quackery through social media, Mike Adams, given that his NaturalNews.com empire was the subject of an article last week by Jonathan Jarry of the McGill Office for Science and Society. These “alternate realities” harm medicine and vulnerable patients every bit as much as the “alternate realities.”
I like to divide these sorts of promoters of quackery into three categories: True believers, entrepreneurs, and scammers. There is, of course, considerable overlap, and it’s possible for one source to be all three at the same time, but usually one category predominates
Mari Lopez: A true believer killed by alternative medicine
Let’s start with one of the most common kinds of alternative reality social medial presences, that of patients with cancer who provide “testimonials” of how they “cured” their cancers. I’ve written about such testimonials more times than I can remember going back to the very beginnings of this blog. In most cases it’s pretty easy to see the mistake in attribution that led the patient to believe that whatever quackery he was using cured him (I’m talking to you, Chris Wark!), but sometimes you can’t really know for sure until after the person giving the testimonial dies of her cancer, as in the case of Kim Tinkham.
Let’s take a look at her story, because even as she promoted alternative medicine for cancer she became its victim:
A YouTuber who said that eating a raw vegan diet, drinking juice and praying to God cured her cancer has passed away.
Mari Lopez, one half of the vlogging duo Liz & Mari, succumbed to an aggressive terminal cancer that spread to her blood, liver and lungs.
She was known for posting viral videos about how she was able to cure her stage four diagnosis through faith in God and following a strict diet of raw vegetables.
Liz Johnson, it turns out, is Mari Lopez’s niece. Here are the videos that started it all, first part 1:
And then part 2:
It doesn’t take long into the first video to discover one of Mari Lopez’s other claims:
Mari referred to how she was able to cure her cancer in 90 days by drinking juice. She said her renewed faith and diet even pushed her to renounce her lesbian sexuality.
“I was healed by God and faith and used to live a gay lifestyle,” she explained in one video.
So, according to Mari and Liz, not only did her vegan diet, prayer, and juicer cure her of cancer, but it “cured” her of homosexuality as well. In this lengthy video, we learn a lot more about her “journey”:
First, we learn in her interview with her niece Liz Johnson that thirteen years before, Mari Lopez had stage II breast cancer at age 37, which means either that it was large and without positive lymph nodes or that the tumor had spread to three or fewer lymph nodes under the arm. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy and radiation. Basically, her treatment sounded appropriate for her disease, and I suspected that her cancer was estrogen receptor-positive because estrogen receptor negative cancers, if they recur, usually don’t recur so late; estrogen-responsive tumors do, sometimes even 20 years later. In any event, she stopped taking the pill early. Later thirteen years after her original treatment, Lopez’s cancer recurred in her lungs and liver and “everywhere,” as she put it in the video.
Now, in retrospect, I can explain why she did so well for so long, given that the first videos are from the summer of 2016. Lopez’s tumor was relatively indolent (as many estrogen receptor-positive tumors are, even after they metastasize), and she describes being offered an anti-estrogen treatment after her metastatic diagnosis, which she took for 30 days and then stopped because she “didn’t feel it” in her spirit. She could easily have done fairly well for a couple of years without any effective treatment before she started feeling sick last summer as her tumor progressed.
Particularly telling is her answer to this question: “Can you prove your healing with medical records? Are you completely cancer free?” You’ll note that she says she’s cancer-free, but studiously avoids the question about whether she could prove it with medical records, saying that it’s “over and done with” and that she “feels it in her spirit” that she’s “healed.” She even goes on to say, “I really don’t care if nobody believes me,” continuing, “Will I go to a doctor? Yeah, if I have to, if I feel the need, if God leads me to going in that direction, I have no problem going and getting checked.”
To this, Liz Johnson replies, “A lot of the evidence is in just seeing how you are now.”
It turns out that the diet that Mari Lopez was promoting was typical “alkaline diet” quackery, only not from Robert O. Young, but from a quack I hadn’t heard of before, Dr. Sebi (real name Alfredo Bowman, which should tell you something right there that this herbalist adopted a pseudonym to sell his products), who represents his diet as an “African approach” to curing cancer that he dubbed Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food. It sounds similar to Robert O. Young’s “pH Miracle Living” program, but that’s because all these diets are very similar: Vegan, lots of vegetable juices, lots of supplements ± coffee enemas. There is no good evidence that such diets impact the course of cancer. Lopez’s use of them was the same as not treating her cancer, only she spent a lot of money and effort.
In the Babe.net story, we also see something very disturbing but all too common in alternative cancer cure testimonials where the patient ends up dying:
Speaking to babe from Houston, Texas, Liz explained her aunt was pushed by her sister (Liz’s mom) to start radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which she thinks disrupted her diet of juicing.
Liz refers to this as “inconsistencies,” which she thinks pushed Mari to her death. Liz’s mom favored conventional medicine while Mari wanted to follow alternative treatment.
“She was following a raw vegan style [diet],” Liz explained. “My family is not familiar with that style of living… What happened was, as Mari was living with my mom, my mom started to tell her that she needed to eat meat now. She said it was OK to use things that she didn’t want to use. My aunt was very against the microwave because of cancer-causing issues with that, and my mom would cook her things using the microwave.”
I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard variants of this sort of blaming of the victim or someone urging the victim to undergo conventional therapy. The beginning of the end of the narrative often begins when the believer can no longer deny that she is getting sicker, that her cancer is progressing, and decides, either because of family pressure or on her own, to undergo conventional therapy near the end. Inevitably, the believers will claim that the chemotherapy or the radiation or whatever conventional therapy the cancer victim decided to undertake is what kept the quackery from working. Basically, they blame the victim for not being faithful enough. In this case, Johnson is despicably blaming Lopez’s mother for pushing the evil microwaved food on her and blaming Lopez’s sister (Johnson’s mother) to undergo chemotherapy. Yes, she blames her mother and grandmother for her beloved aunt’s death! I wonder how that goes over at family gatherings.
In his post about this case, Steve Novella makes the point that this aunt-niece team conflated faith healing, in which Lopez believed that God healed her, with the alternative cancer treatment Lopez chose, saying:
Both, in fact, are manifestations of faith. Alternative medicine is often a mixture of pseudoscience and faith healing, blended seamlessly together.
The faith claims have a significant problem with logic and consistency. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal faith, but I do think it is counterproductive to depend for anything important on a mythical being you just hope exists. What I always find intriguing is those who claim that God cured them of a disease, but not really. In this case Liz believes that God cured Mari of her cancer, but Mari wavered, so the cancer came back and killed her. Really?
This is another absolutely typical part of the faith healing narrative, borrowed heavily by the alternative medicine narrative. Failures are always blamed on the patient. It is a convenient rationalization – they lacked sufficient faith in the case of the former, and they did not adhere fanatically enough to the regimen, for the latter.
Precisely. Worse, the faith that drove Mari Lopez and Liz Johnson to such absolute certainty makes their videos that much more convincing to non-physicians, many of whom wouldn’t even notice how Lopez tap danced around the question of whether she’s ever been demonstrated by imaging studies to be cancer-free. They might not even care about how ultimately the duo started to monetize their faith by offering premium Vimeo clips. So confident does Liz Johnson remain in the faith healing and “alkaline diet” that she vows to leave all the YouTube videos up and make the premium Vimeo videos free. She even did this against her aunt’s wishes, as near the end of her life her aunt asked her to take the videos down:
Liz explained that towards the end of her life, Mari had asked her to take down the videos proclaiming the healing powers of the vegan diet. Liz said she would keep the videos up, genuinely believing they could give cancer patients help. She even called the experience a “test of faith.”
“She didn’t want anybody listening to her, which I understood because I knew that she was depressed,” Liz explained. “She was upset because her cancer had come back. I can understand how maybe she didn’t want to give people false hope. I had to pray a lot about it, because I could feel her pain. But in my own relationship with God, I knew it could still help people, it could still make a difference in people’s lives, it could still give hope.”
As Mark Crislip would say, I got nothing. So I’m going to move on to an entrepreneur, Brittany Auerbach.
Brittany Auerbach, a.k.a. MontrealHealthyGirl: Quack entrepreneur
One thing I’ll say about Harry Shukman’s Babe.net articles, he doesn’t pull any punches. In this one where he discusses Brittany Auerbach’s vlog, he leaves nothing to the imagination:
Few diseases are scarier than cancer, as anyone who’s had it will tell you – nerve-racking days in waiting rooms, sleepless nights weighing up the odds of your death. It’s only human that at your most vulnerable, you’ll go online to research any advice on how to handle your diagnosis.
Which is why you’d have to be a real piece of shit like Brittany Auerbach to try and profit off of cancer patients looking for a shred of hope. Auerbach is a prominent health vlogger with over a hundred thousand followers on her YouTube channel, MontrealHealthyGirl. Posting videos looking like your typical internet personality, she rakes in millions of views from desperate people by peddling pure, utter bullshit.
Hi! My name is Brittany and I am a certified Naturopath and passionate Health Coach who gets the honor of assisting people all over the world in reclaiming their health naturally!
A 3-year battle with Interstitial Cystitis, IBS, severe acne, thyroid disease and cardiac arrhythmia… and the eventual healing of my body has led me to begin this blog! My health struggles inspired me to pursue a career in the alternative health field as well as to create several e-books such as Fully healed, fully guilt-free, The smoothie Challenge, The candida cleanser and Fully Nourished in the hopes of sharing accessible, convenient and affordable healthy alternatives and natural disease-fighting information with the world!
I note that she sells a three-month program of “personalized treatment” for whatever ails you that she will not begin until payment in full of $395 is received via PayPal. Her book describing her three-day Candida juice cleanse costs $55 (as do all of her books) and a package of her e-books (of which there are only four books, by the way) costs $197, a whopping discount of $23 off the price of purchasing them all separately!
“Not-a-Doctor” Auerbach also lays on the quackery heavily in her YouTube videos, “Heal Your Cancer Overnight: You absolutely can reverse this!”
In it, she claims that if you are still alive, it’s not too late no matter how far along your cancer is and that you can definitely extend your life or even reverse your cancer with her methods. Here, she advertises her “Best Stage 4 cancer reversal protocol: Do this immediately to heal terminal cancer quickly!”
And here she tells you how to heal all viruses, including HIV, herpes, Epstein-Barr, and Ebola, “naturally”:
Early in the video, we learn that she’s an antivaxer too, as she says that if you’re dealing with viral issues you should stay far away from vaccinations, noting the amount of “heavy metals” in vaccines, the “toxins,” and the additional “viral load” put “directly in the bloodstream” (yes, she uses that old antivaccine trope) is serious and will make your health worse.
As for cancer, she appears to be pushing a variant of the same old “alkaline diet” cancer quackery:
Overnight you can stop new cancer cells from growing. It’s important that people realize how quickly this really happens. Once you start flooding your body with alkaline minerals, enough water, the right nutrition, loads of rest, peaceful, loving thoughts. Surround yourself with people that love you. Do activities that you enjoy. Feel hopeful and excited. Live the life that you’ve wanted to live your whole life and haven’t. Let go of those negative emotions. Do what you can. All of those tools can be adopted right now, and guess what, they will change your internal chemistry overnight.
That’s right. You can reverse cancer just by thinking happy thoughts. Truly, she is repeating the central dogma of alternative medicine, in which wishing and thinking make it so, all the while rattling off easily refuted alternative medicine canards about chemotherapy and cancer-causing foods. She is also full of the arrogance of ignorance; she is the Dunning-Kruger effect personified:
I don’t tell you these things for fun. I don’t tell you these things because I’m guessing. I tell you these things because I know. I’m super educated about the workings of the body. And I really understand chemistry, and everything that I do, every single healing modality that I use, is based on rebalancing body chemistry to trigger inner healing, faster cell birth, and changing the state of your body so that disease cannot continue…I’m a chemist. I can physically balance your chemistry.
It turns out that Auerbach was, at the time the story was being put together, at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, which has been a frequent topic here because its owner Brian Clement preyed on First Nations girls with cancer in Canada with his phony cancer cures and because HHI represents an utter failure of regulating health care.
Clearly, Brittany Auerbach is a true believer, but she is further along on the believer to scammer scale. She believes she’s healed herself of a variety of chronic diseases, but she’s also become a naturopath and now makes her living selling the same quackery she believes in. However, to see the next stage in evolution, we need to consider the case of Mike Adams.
Mike Adams: In a category all his own
I assume that nearly all regular readers here know who Mike Adams (a.k.a. The Health Ranger) is, namely the man responsible for one of the largest, if not the largest, repositories of quackery on the entire web, NaturalNews.com Unfortunately, he’s managed to poison my Google reputation rather handily with at least three dozen posts over the last couple of years claiming that I worked with cancer chemotherapy fraudster Dr. Farid Fata (I did not and never met the guy, who was never on the faculty of my cancer center), that he reported me to the FBI and Michigan Attorney General (if he has, two years later I have yet to hear from either of them), and even tried to insinuate that I was a pedophile, while leaving plausible deniability.
Adams has a long and ignominious history online, having started out (as best as I can tell) selling Y2K scams. From the beginning, Adams was talented. He saw the possibilities in web marketing to drive traffic to his sites and use that to monetize them very early on. In this, we can see him honing his early techniques. Indeed, he took it far beyond just that, mastering the dark arts of using “black hat” search engine optimization, running link farms, and using those skills to drive traffic back to his site. It turns out that the skill set that made Adams so talented at crafting mass e-mail marketing campaigns that actually persuaded the marks to give up their money is the same skill set that he later honed to become an expert at SEO. He also has a history of selling software to be used for spamming, back when email spam was a huge concern, and used to boast about his software’s ability to evade antispam software. And, of course, before Google cracked down on the practice for purposes of increasing a website’s Google ranking, Adams used to run a huge server farm, with hundreds of different domain names (Internet sites) providing thousands of web links back to Natural News. He’s very big in the world of online alternative medicine and, in the era of Donald Trump, has aligned himself with Trump and the alt right. He’s even been punished more recently for trying to game Google to his advantage, with NaturalNews.com being briefly delisted from Google, which led predictably to his usual overblown hysterics.
Even now, though, when such crude methods of increasing one’s Google juice have largely been neutralized by search engine software coders, Adams still has his ways. I was reminded of this last week by an article by Jonathan Jarry published on the McGill Office for Science and Society entitled “Mike Adams Is Building an Alternate Reality Online.” What Adams is doing now is basically an extension of what he’s been doing all along, all to make money:
Much has been written recently about online “echo chambers”: the idea that we are catered to on the Internet with sites and recommendations that reinforce our preexisting beliefs. If you watch a lot of science videos on YouTube, follow many scientists on Twitter, and regularly search for scientific questions on Google, your online experience will shift away from neutrality, as search results, post sorting, and recommendations will be tailored to your pro-science stance. This is an echo chamber because, in due time, you only hear your beliefs repeated back at you and stop seeing what’s happening on the other side.
Echo chambers for the pseudoscience crowd exist as well, though Mike Adams’ online bubble is so vast and self-sufficient, it warrants the term “ecosystem”.
The ecosystem consists of:
A bit of online sleuthing revealed that Mike Adams owns over 50 websites. The topics they cover go beyond alternative medicine and help shape an entire worldview: fear of medicine and science (gmo.news, medicine.news, vaccines.news), anti-Left and pro-freedom hype (campusinsanity.com, libtards.news, freedom.news), and doomsday prep advice (survival.news, collapse.news).
But Adams’ ecosystem goes beyond just a bunch of websites that all extensively link to one another. In fact, he explicitly designs tools to try to keep you in his ecosystem:
To help bring you back within the confines of this online ecosystem, Mike Adams offers you a toolbar for web browsers so that, regardless of which website you visit, NaturalNews.com is never more than a click away. If you were thinking of searching Wikipedia for a particular food or nutrient, stop. Mike Adams owns NaturalPedia, which offers biased health information such as his page on naturopathy. On it, you will “learn” that it can treat irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers. At the bottom of the page, you will see ads for iodine, magnesium, and colloidal silver because, like the denouement you predict halfway through watching a bad movie, you will have inferred by now that Adams has a store.
Jarry forgot TruthWiki, which is also owned by Adams. (Actually, no he didn’t. He just did here; it’s mentioned later in the article.) He also has a search engine:
Mike Adams has a search engine. If you’re looking for a replacement to Google that “filters out corporate propaganda and government disinformation”, Adams suggests you use Good Gopher. Searching for “Washington Post”, for example, I was not shown the actual website of the Washington Post; instead, I was sent to TruthWiki, RealInvestigations.News, Disinfo.news, and a whole alternate reality in which the newspaper churns out fake news and is beholden to Monsanto. Some of the “independent news websites” that Good Gopher sticks to and that aren’t owned by Mike Adams include far-right website Breitbart.com and Alex Jones’ conspiracy epicentre Infowars.com.
Of course, Mike Adams used to have a show on Infowars.com. Why he and Alex Jones parted ways is unclear, although I’ve always suspected that it might have had something to do with Jones’ decision to become a competitor selling his own line of supplements.
Adams even has his own social network. Jarry is puzzled by one aspect of Adams’ online empire, namely his PubMed search engine, and it does sound puzzling initially. Jarry quite rightly suspected some sort of biased search algorithm, but a friend of his couldn’t find any clear evidence of bias. Personally, my guess is that Adams is probably just monitoring what topics people are interested in and where the IP addresses come from, something he wouldn’t get otherwise. There might be other reasons as well. For instance, if you look at his search engine, there are icons representing various topics, such as “Harmful Toxins,” “Heavy Metals,” “Healing Therapies,” “Harmful Therapies,” “Nutritional Supplements,” “Superfoods,” and more. If you click on any of them, a list comes up, complete with links to PubMed searches on them, and to the right a list of related articles from one of Adams’ websites conveniently appears. I suspect that’s the reason right there, to try to keep people in his ecosystem.
Jarry even provides a nice infographic listing many of Mike Adams sites in his online empire of disinformation:
Near the end, Jarry also notes:
Raising awareness of this “alternate reality” online is important since the world of alternative medicine can seem, to the casual observer, quite benign. Behind the curtain of empathy and so-called holistic care, however, often lies a darker notion: that modern medicine cannot be trusted. Few alternative medicine proponents reach the near-operatic heights of Mike Adams, but his empire of misinformation has major ramifications. In the age of the digital echo chamber, his voice can be heard even if you don’t go searching for it.
And it’s true. Adams’ empire is so ubiquitous now that it’s hard to avoid it even if you are trying to avoid it. Inevitably someone you know will share a link from it with you on Facebook. You’ll see links posted on Twitter and other social networks. You’ll see articles from Natural News shared by e-mail. They’re everywhere.
Believer, entrepreneur, or scammer
As I said at the beginning, I believe that in the world of online alternative medicine promotion, there is a spectrum that goes from the believer to the scammer. None of the three categories are mutually exclusive and it is possible—common, even—for one person to have elements of one or more. For example, clearly Brittany Auerbach is a true believer, but she’s risen to the level of entrepreneur because of how much she shills for her own products. Her online persona is designed mainly to sell her product. In contrast, Mari Lopez and Liz Johnson were clearly true believers, but their primary purpose was not to sell product. They did sell some subscriptions to their premium Vimeo videos, but little else. Their main motivation was to spread their message of faith and quackery.
Adams is a trickier case. He’s clearly gone beyond the level of entrepreneur, having been selling things online, including many dubious things, at least since the late 1990s. I’ve always tended to lean towards his being more purely a scammer, but it’s hard to say. There could be an element of true belief there. However, his behavior, his tendency to attack his enemies, the sheer magnitude and complexity of his business model, and his attempts to rope people into his ecosystem and keep them there, the better to sell them alt right paranoia, supplements, disaster prepper gear, and conspiracy theories, makes me lean towards characterizing him as a scammer. This opinion is bolstered by his risible attempts to slap a scientific veneer on his fear mongering and quackery.
Another case worth considering is that of Belle Gibson, who was also in the news again recently. She was a darling of the wellness movement, a lifestyle philosophy promoted by largely white, largely female social media mavens, a prime example of which is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. Lots of New Age mysticism is usually involved, along with trendy diets and exercise plus a heaping helping of quackery. Gibson had a lucrative business going in this industry based on her claim to have cured herself of cancer without doctors. Ultimately, investigative journalists started looking into her claims, including claims of donating money from her products to various charities (which she did not), and her whole story started falling apart. Basically, Gibson was revealed to have been lying about having had cancer.
Therein is the dark side of the wellness industry that makes it ripe for scammers like Gibson and Adams:
…I think what’s happened in the last two years is that Belle Gibson has become the face of the dark side of the wellness movement. The wellness movement has been around for decades.
It was born out of the New Age revolution, and it was always meant as an adjunct to conventional medicine. It wasn’t meant as a replacement of conventional medicine.
What’s happened in more recent years with insurance companies and chiropractic clinics and big business co-opting the word, is that that meaning is being lost.
Then on Instagram people have almost medicalised the term so they’re using wellness as a way of treating different ailments. Then to go further than that, which is what Belle Gibson did, they then promote this distrust in conventional medicine as well.
Combine people like Mike Adams (and even Brittany Auerbach) and the power of social media, and this dark side will continue to do harm.