NOEL KING, HOST:
A lot of people don't want to get vaccinated because they believe false claims about the risks that vaccines pose. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel takes a look at who is making money off of that fear.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Sayer Ji is a 48-year-old promoter of what he calls natural medicine.
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SAYER JI: My parents didn't know about natural medicine, so it wasn't until I was 17 that I learned some basic principles around nutrition and self-care and I was liberated from, you know, needing pharmaceutical medicine.
BRUMFIEL: That's Ji speaking at a conference earlier this year, where he was also promoting his website, filled with articles about natural cure-alls and anti-vaccine propaganda. On social media platforms like Facebook, Ji posts every day false information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
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JI: This is the new medical apartheid. This is the new biosegregation. This is what they want to roll out throughout the world.
BRUMFIEL: Ji was promoting scientifically disproven views about vaccines and other medical treatments before the pandemic, but the coronavirus gave him and others in the anti-vaccine community a new set of talking points.
IMRAN AHMED: COVID was the opportunity.
BRUMFIEL: Imran Ahmed is chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit group that is tracking anti-vaccine misinformation.
AHMED: COVID generated a lot of anxiety. And conspiracies and misinformation thrive where there is anxiety.
BRUMFIEL: As people have searched online for information on the virus and vaccines, Sayer Ji and others have upped their rhetoric while continuing to promote their products. Research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate shows it worked. One hundred forty-seven anti-vaccine accounts have managed to grow their following by at least 25% since before the pandemic.
And Ahmed believes for those with something to sell, anti-vaccine theories serve a second important purpose.
AHMED: One of the things that anti-vaxxers have to do to sell their own remedies, their own special information that they sell to people is to persuade people not to trust authorities they've trusted in the past.
BRUMFIEL: By using misinformation to turn people away from mainstream medicine, these entrepreneurs create customers.
AHMED: Once they've managed to hook someone, well, they can then sell to them for a lifetime.
BRUMFIEL: The biggest players make millions each year selling their books, treatments and even their own brands of supplements. Sayer Ji has a smaller following. He sells subscriptions to his natural health website for anywhere from $75 to $850 a year. In an interview with NPR, Ji categorically denied that his website was a major source of income.
JI: I mean, I'm a published author, so I encourage people listening to buy my book if they're interested. How about that? So there it is. I've just promoted something. Now I'm a shill for the natural or anti-vax industry. Ultimately, my point, though, is that I work for a living, and I always have - very hard.
BRUMFIEL: He said his primary motive is to provide information. Kolina Koltai studies the anti-vaccine movement at the University of Washington. She believes that many anti-vaccine activists are sincere, but the money still matters.
KOLINA KOLTAI: So if you really want to make that your life's mission, you need to make income somehow. You know, we live in this, like, capitalist society.
BRUMFIEL: She believes money is a major part of the feedback loop that continues to drive vaccine misinformation on social media.
KOLTAI: With an extended public health crisis that we're in, it provides so much opportunity for people to not only promote their own products or services, their name, their brand, but also just gives you more and more followers, more and more money.
BRUMFIEL: But the crisis is also bringing more scrutiny to anti-vaccine promoters. Sayer Ji's Instagram account was suspended in April after he repeatedly posted misleading and false information. Other anti-vaccine advocates have toned down their rhetoric on large platforms like Facebook. Koltai says losing these accounts could pose a big threat to their livelihoods.
KOLTAI: When they get kicked off of social media platforms, I do think it takes a major hit to their business models.
BRUMFIEL: For his part, Ji says the biggest hit to his web traffic actually came before the pandemic in 2019, when Google changed its search algorithms to hide anti-vaccine websites like his. And Ji says he doesn't worry much about the financial implications of getting kicked off of social media sites, either.
JI: Social media deplatforming - give me a break. OK, we have hundreds of thousands and millions of followers out there, in part because we do a really good job of just providing information that people want.
BRUMFIEL: His company's Facebook account continues to promote vaccine misinformation to half a million followers. And lately, he's added a big red stamp that reads, censored.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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