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Sayer Ji is a 48-year-old proponent of what he calls natural medicine.
“My parents did not know about natural medicine, so really only when I was 17 I learned some basic principles of nutrition and self-care,” he told attendees at a recent virtual conference. “I was relieved of the need for pharmaceutical drugs.”
Gigi was also there promoting his website, full of natural remedies and anti-vaccination misinformation. He sells subscriptions for anywhere from $ 75 to $ 850 a year.
He is one of the many anti-vaccine advocates with a business on his side. They promote false claims about the risks posed by vaccines while selling other treatments, supplements or services. Their potential market is roughly 20% of Americans who say they do not want to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to recent surveys.
Health experts worry that the misinformation that is spreading is doing real harm. Without adequate vaccination, communities may see a resurgence of the virus, especially in the coming fall and winter months.
Ji has spent years pushing scientifically prevalent views about vaccines and other conventional medical treatments, but the coronavirus pandemic gave him and others in the anti-vaccine community a new set of talking points. “This is the new medical apartheid, this is the new biological divide they want to spread around the world,” he warned of vaccination campaigns during a lengthy Facebook video posted earlier this year.
“COVID was the opportunity,” says Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Combating Digital Hate, a nonprofit group that pursues anti-vaccine disinformation. “COVID generated a lot of anxiety and conspiracies and misinformation thrives where there is anxiety.”
As people search the internet for information on viruses and vaccines, Ji and others have increased their rhetoric as they continue to promote their books, workshops, and other products. Research by the Center for the Fight against Digital Hate shows it could work, as 147 major anti-vaccination accounts have managed to increase their pursuits by at least 25% since the pandemic began.
And Ahmed believes that for those who have something to sell, anti-vaccine misinformation serves a second important purpose.
“One of the things antivaccines need to do to sell their service tools … is to persuade people not to trust the authorities they have trusted in the past,” says Ahmed.
Using their unlocked theories to keep people away from the usual medicine, these entrepreneurs are creating clients: “Once they have managed to tie someone up, they can then sell them for a lifetime.”
This sale can be big business. He is believed to be one of the leading advocates of anti-vaccine, Joseph Mercola to bring in millions every year through his companies, which sell a range of branded natural supplements, beauty products and even pet supplies. In a written statement to NPR, Mercola’s company said it “rejects your unilateral allegation of inciting misinformation”.
Separately, in an interview with NPR, Sayer Ji denied that his website was a major source of revenue.
“I mean I’m a published author, so I encourage people who listen to buy my book if they’re interested. Yes about that. So here it is, I’ve just promoted something, I’m a shill for the anti-wax industry, “he said.
“After all, my opinion is that I work to live, and I always find it very difficult.”
He says his main motive is to provide information to anyone who is interested in reading it.
Promoting products is not always a cynical move, says Kolina Koltai, a researcher studying the anti-vaccine movement at the University of Washington. She believes many are sincere in their beliefs about vaccines.
“If you really want to do the mission of your life, you have to earn some income,” she says. “We live in this capitalist society.”
Despite the motivation, she believes money is a key part of a feedback loop that continues to push vaccine misinformation on social media. The protracted public health crisis has created a marketing opportunity that “simply gives you more and more followers and more and more money”.
Ahmed adds that while personalities made by the anti-vaccine community themselves resemble others that have spread in the age of social media influencers, the potential harm they can cause is real. “Someone promoting lipstick will not lead to us not being able to contain a pandemic that has already taken half a million lives. [in America],” he says.
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 softened their rhetoric on major platforms like Facebook. Coltai says losing these accounts could pose a threat to their livelihood.
“When they start from their social media platforms, I think they take a big hit on their business models,” she says.
On May 4, Mercola announced that it would remove all information on COVID-19 from its website. In a lengthy post, he cited threats against him as reasons, rather than business or legal considerations. As of May 10, many posts about COVID-19 were still appearing on the site.
For his part, Ji says the biggest blow to his internet traffic actually came before the pandemic, in 2019, when Google changed its search algorithms to hide anti-vaccination sites like his.
And he says he does not worry too much about the financial implications of starting social media sites.
“Are social media depreciating? Give me a break,” he says. “We have hundreds of thousands and millions of followers there, in part because we do a really good job of providing the information people want.”
His company Facebook account continues to promote vaccine misinformation to half a million followers. And recently he has added a big red stamp that says “censored”.