A veneer of legitimacy: How fringe Anti-Vaxxers have co-opted local news outlets with misinformation
Last November, the WEAR-TV news station in northern Florida aired a segment on Dr. Benjamin Marble, a local doctor who created a free telehealth website offering consultations for COVID-19. Marble, the reporter said, had made it so “patients don’t have to pay a cent” for coronavirus treatment and believed his site could replace Obamacare.
To the average viewer, the segment on the ABC affiliate, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, was a local news report touting a local service. What the report didn’t mention, however, is that Marble is a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, a rightwing political group that gained notoriety in summer 2020 after some of its members appeared in a viral video touting unproven COVID-19 treatments as miracle cures.
AFD’s founder, Dr Simone Gold, has headlined Anti-Vaccine rallies and is facing charges for storming the Capitol during the 6 January riot. Also visible in a photo included in the WEAR-TV clip was Dr. Stella Immanuel, an AFD member who has claimed masks do not help curb the spread of COVID-19 and repeatedly said some real world illnesses were caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches. Marble’s telehealth page links to Anti-Vaccine information and websites promoting unproven Covid-19 treatments such as the anti-parasite drug ivermectin.
Since the start of the pandemic, local newspapers, broadcast television and radio stations across the United States have been among the most popular sources for information about Covid-19. Many Anti-Vaccine activists as well as doctors and groups promoting unproven COVID-19 treatments have turned to those same channels to spread their message.
Prominent spreaders of medical disinformation, including Dr. Joseph Mercola, who misinformation researchers have identified as one of the most prolific online promoters of Anti-Vaccine falsehoods – and members of the Children’s Health Defense organization, Anti-Vaccine activist Robert F Kennedy Jr’s group, have appeared on local radio shows or published editorials in local newspapers promoting conspiracy theories about vaccine safety.
Although local outlets lack the audience size of national broadcasters or newspapers, researchers say they can provide a veneer of legitimacy to fringe groups, amplifying their message. Americans have a greater degree of trust in COVID-19 information from local outlets compared with news media in general, a 2020 Pew research study found. And even a brief segment or article on local news can have a second life on social media platforms, where Anti-Vax groups and advocates of dubious Covid-19 treatments widely promote their content.
“You have somebody grab something off an obscure website that looks like a newspaper, post it on Facebook and pretty soon the Facebook algorithm takes over,” said Penny Abernathy, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School and author of several books on the news industry.
Anti-Vaxxers burrow into local media
The U.S. has a varied and vast local news landscape that includes broadcast stations, print and digital newspapers, each with their own vulnerabilities to spreading Anti-Vaccine narratives. Some local news outlets have spread COVID-19 misinformation out of what appears to be a lack of resources or expertise in covering health and science issues, researchers say. In the past 15 years, more than half of the journalists working in local media lost their jobs and more than one-fourth of American newspapers shut down.
During the pandemic alone, more than 90 local newsrooms were forced to close down. That has meant many local outlets are operating with skeleton staff. The loss of newsrooms’ subject matter experts is especially notable in coverage of areas such as health and science, which require a high degree of scientific literacy and specific expertise to accurately explain complicated studies and research.
“You hear stories all the time of major state outlets that once had 400 in a newsroom and now are down to 50,” Abernathy said. “There used to be three people responsible for covering health and now there’s just one person who’s responsible for covering, if you’re lucky, not only health but a range of other things.”
The format of local news, with its staunch adherence to the appearance of neutrality, can also create openings for misinformation. In some instances, Anti-Vaccine activists have been given equal time as opposing voices during televised coverage of vaccinations – as was the case in a local NBC News San Diego report last November that gave airtime to an avowed Anti-Vax organization for a segment on “Mixed Reactions About COVID-19 Vaccine.” The result was a false equivalence between the two sides, presenting Anti-Vaccine activists as a contrarian viewpoint, rather than debunking their medical misinformation. NBC News San Diego did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s an old tradition in journalism to get both sides of the story and unfortunately that tradition has carried a little too far into the science coverage domain,” said Rick Weiss, the director of SciLine, an organization that connects reporters with scientists and is based out of the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science. “But when there’s just overwhelming evidence that something is true and other things are not true, that’s not the time to give equal coverage.”
Politically motivated media moves in
Other local news media have made a concerted effort to promote Anti-Vaccine narratives or help spread information about unproven treatments. Conservative radio hosts and rightwing websites targeting local news consumers have repeatedly promoted Anti-Vaccine views to their audiences. Many of these radio shows air on multiple stations and are available online through platforms such as the iHeartRadio network.
Radio host Joshua Lane has hosted fawning interviews with multiple Anti-Vaccine activists in recent months, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other members of his organization. Lane’s show airs on five AM and FM stations across several states, including ABC News Radio affiliate station KMET in Los Angeles. Lane has called Kennedy Jr’s Anti-Vaccine organization an “excellent organization doing some very good work.”
Meanwhile, a series of local news sites such as Washington state’s Clark County Today, the Atlanta Business Journal and California’s the Desert Review have published content from prominent Anti-Vaccine groups or advocates for unproven COVID-19 treatments. Although they have innocuous names that mimic traditional local news outlets, their content often promotes Anti-Vaccine views or furthers COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Researchers have come to call these types of organizations “pink slime” outlets and they have become a growing part of the media landscape in recent years.
“The problem that occurs with this is that they don’t have the same journalistic standards – many of them have a decided political agenda to them,” Abernathy said.
In one post from early October, Clark County Today, which was founded by David Madore, a wealthy Republican donor who has bankrolled local candidates in Washington state, republished an article from the Anti-Vaccine Children’s Health Defense in full. Another article on the site covers local support for a physician’s assistant whom the state medical commission suspended in October for advocating for ivermectin, but does not mention allegations that he attempted to bully local hospital staff into prescribing the drug and spread medical misinformation that resulted in the suspension.
In a lengthy response, Clark County Today’s editor, Ken Vance, said that the site’s coverage of the pandemic was informed by the “one-sided” approach from “mainstream news media, social media and even Big Tech”. He added the site does not try to shape readers’ personal decisions around vaccinations, and has published “endless information about vaccinations, treatment and other Covid-related issues, allowing elected officials, government leaders and medical health providers to inform the community.” But, he added, “those sources continually refuse to even address issues such as adverse effects to vaccinations, alternative treatments for Covid and even preventative measures that can be taken to boost one’s immune system.”
But health experts argue that promoting unproven treatments or framing the efficacy of vaccination as a debate is a way for Anti-Vaccine advocates to further their cause. Anti-Vaxxers also rely on out of context anecdotes and demonstrably false arguments in their attempts to contest well-documented research and medical science.
The Desert Review, whose publisher has shared pro-Trump conspiracy theories on Facebook, has published a series of pro-ivermectin articles from an author who writes under a pseudonym and makes allegations of a pharmaceutical conspiracy against the drug. They are frequently shared in social media groups promoting the drug, and listed as the most popular articles on the site. In October, the site posted a celebratory message on Facebook touting that one of its ivermectin articles had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Unedited portions originally published on The Guardian as How anti-vaxxers and ivermectin advocates have co-opted US local news