Far From Natural Reblogged from source with ThanKs Via: @ https://features.weather.com/far-from-natural/ Published May 3, 2018 – How a misinformation empire draws strength from Google and Facebook.
A social media link with the headline “Grapefruit Juice Protects Against Weight Gain and Diabetes” would not appear as a gateway into a realm of conspiracy theories, denialism and panacea-toting opportunists. But this bad faith (or clickbait), which has bombarded social media users, is a tool that allows sites like Natural News to make the leap from grapefruits-have-nutritional-value to “the government controls the weather.”
The link would take you to NaturalNews.com where, if you were able to breathe in the haze of “Hemroid (sic) Harry” and water filter ads, you’d find yourself in an alternate reality where HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, lemons seem as effective as chemo, and CO2 emissions have a positive impact on the environment. This reality belongs to Mike “Health Ranger” Adams, a self-described “consumer health advocate” who reaches millions with his 60+ self-referencing and self-reinforcing sites.
Adams, who pens many of the stories that appear on his sites, employs a staff “of over 20 writers,” publishing up to 15 articles a day. The exact number of domains he owns (or “parks” for a duration of time) is unclear, but the number is above 60. The more sites that can link to Natural News, the better for its SEO rating, which is at an impressive 84 percent. It’s a scrappy business model. Not only do Adams’ smaller sites improve SEO ratings for their parent site (NaturalNews.com), all of the ones we have examined feature clear and distinct links to the Health Ranger Store and Natural News Store.
Readers will find many of the same headlines on Natural News as they do on sister site, NewsTarget, as well as Adams’ Libtards.news, RaceWar.News, Shootings.News, Pesticides.News, Pollution.News, Science.News, Food.News, Climate.News, Medicine.News, Health.News and Cancer.News — sites that all, naturally, link to Adams’ online stores.
Environmental topics dominate Adams’ mini-empire, though “environmental” can be misleading. Natural News calls climate change a hoax, a scam and a Ponzi scheme. Adams bafflingly writes that rising carbon emissions are actually “helping ‘green’ the planet.”
And if you’re using Adams’ search engine, called Good Gopher, you won’t come across anything that challenges his stance on climate change (or his stance on anything else, for that matter). The first page results of a “climate change” search in Good Gopher yielded only fringe blog posts denying climate change and (conveniently) links to Adams’ own articles and sites.
Nor will you find anything critical of Adam’s stances on TruthWiki, the online encyclopedia Adams created to “tell the truth about controversial and alternative topics: free energy, consciousness, parallel universes, the Federal Reserve, fluoride, aspartame, vaccines, etc…”
The story of Natural News’ success could not be told without a nod to the massive growth of social media giants, search engines and the hydra-like resistance viral disinformation has shown against common sense. Moreover, digging into Adams’ archives suggests that his brand of disinformation might not even be backed by personal conviction. The Weather Channel Digital attempted to reach Adams and Natural News numerous times by phone, email and contact form but received no comment.
TERMS & CONDITIONS
Online misinformation — and its eviler twin, disinformation — have been shown to affect everything from politics to human behavior and worldview. Disturbingly, the two have degraded and manipulated an honest search for climate and health information.
Dr. Skyler Johnson researches cancer outcomes. His 2017 paper, Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its Impact on Survival, delineates the risk of death in cancer patients who forego conventional treatments (surgery, chemotherapy) for so-called “natural” ones.
His findings are grim: Alternative therapies double the risk of death.
“Patients,” Johnson told The Weather Channel Digital in a phone interview, “when they get a cancer diagnosis, the first thing they do is go online and try to search for what the prognosis is like, and what the treatments are like. And unfortunately, a lot of what comes up online is really misinformation and purposeful disinformation.”
Johnson is well aware of Natural News, not only as a consequence of seeing patients turn to alternative medicine, but for a more personal reason.
“When I was a second year medical student, my wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I went online,” Johnson admitted, “and there was really, like, just so much out there that was just wrong… even with the limited medical training that I had at that point, still made it difficult to know what was true and what was not.”
“These websites,” he added, “they do a really good job of staying within this grey area where they’re not technically breaking laws that are put forth to protect cancer patients from harm, but they come very close.”
Indeed, Natural News claims that its content is “commentary or opinion and is protected under Free Speech.” The fourth stipulation in its terms disaffirms all responsibility over the site’s advice, stating, “No information on this site is intended as, or shall be construed as, legal, financial, medical or expert advice of any kind.”
It’s uncertain that that’s enough to keep Natural News in the clear. According to Richard Cleland, Assistant Director in the Division of Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission, such disclaimers do not protect a site from FTC enforcement if the site is making unsubstantiated claims about supplements that it also sells. “Promotional claims have to be substantiated,” Cleland told The Weather Channel Digital. “And if they’re health claims, they normally would have to be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.”
“While I can’t comment on Mr. Adams’ website,” Cleland said, “there is a myth that if you somehow separate the claim that you’re making about an ingredient by one click from where you can purchase the product, that that somehow protects the seller, but that is also untrue.”
Lindsay Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, told The Weather Channel Digital in an email, “Health fraud scams refer to products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure diseases or other health conditions, but are not proven safe and effective for those uses. Health fraud scams waste money and can lead to delays in getting proper diagnosis and treatment. They can also cause serious or even fatal injuries.”
In an article published April 12, 2017, Natural News contributor Lynn Griffith wrote, “Research has shown that nature[’]s phytonutrients can (emphasis mine) outperform chemotherapy without causing harm to the body.” Griffith’s source for this claim is a Naturalhealth365 article, which states, “Science is increasingly coming to the conclusion that natural phytonutrients found in plant-based foods can outperform chemotherapy…” The source article’s sources? The opinion of a natural medicine doctor and Doctor Oz guest, Michael Murray, and two studies, one pointing to the potential for citrus’ role in treating cancer in animals, another outlining lemons’ efficacy in reducing body fat.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) defined the term “dietary supplement,” and regulated its manufacture and sale. DSHEA stipulated that claims about supplements, such as those in articles, “may be used in connection with the sale as long as it is truthful and not misleading; does not promote a particular manufacturer or brand of dietary supplement; presents a balanced view or is displayed or presented with other such items on the same subject matter so as to present a balanced view of the available scientific information…”
While the FDA couldn’t comment specifically on Natural News, Meyer told The Weather Channel Digital that “A company selling a product that claims to prevent, diagnose, treat, mitigate or cure cancer (or any other disease) despite not having been proven safe and effective for that intended use is subject to FDA enforcement.”
Is Adams selling lemons? No. But he is selling a number of supplements about which he and his writers have made, at best, unsubstantiated disease-curing claims. (For example, turmeric, a plant to which Adams devoted an entire website.)
Whether or not Natural News is following the law, its followers could be put at great risk. A study reviewing polling data from 1966 to 2014 found that public trust in U.S. physicians declined by nearly 40 percent in the last half decade. As patients turn to websites and blogs, accountability for misdiagnoses are blurred by disclaimers, terms and conditions.
In a 2017 report, Pew Research Center predicted that “humans’ primal quest for success and power — their ‘survival’ instinct — will continue to degrade the online information environment in the next decade.”
The outlook is grim but understandable, especially given that consumers are increasingly getting their news — and critical health information — from social media.
DIS OR MIS?
Adams has routinely come under fire for promoting baseless and (some will bristle) dangerous conspiracies, but it’s those very conspiracies that seem to fuel the popularity of his sites. Notably, in 2014, Adams published an article seemingly calling for the murder of GMO supporters, equating Hitler’s propaganda machine with pro-GMO journalists. Adams wrote that Germany’s celebration of Nazi officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler “sends a message to the world … that it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.” He later reined in his statement, emphasizing, “Do not misinterpret this article as any sort of call for violence, as I wholly disavow any such actions.”
Most recently, Adams devoted an entire webpage called HoggWatch to smearing a Parkland shooting survivor, attempting to tie the victim of gun violence to a number of winding and totally unsubstantiated agribusiness conspiracies.
Not all of his actions have gone unnoticed. In 2017, Google briefly delisted Natural News in response to the site’s “sneaky mobile redirects.” In March 2018, YouTube deleted Natural News’ account for “violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines.” In April, Adams wrote that “YouTube, an authoritarian techno-cult run by deranged lunatic Leftists who despise free speech” had restored his account.
YouTube emailed The Weather Channel Digital, “With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call. When it’s brought to our attention that a video or channel has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it. We also give uploaders the ability to appeal these decisions and we will re-review the videos.”
His YouTube channel may have been restored, but Adams still plans to launch an alternative to YouTube on July 4, a video hosting service called Real.Video where conservatives can “speak freely, without being censored by the anti-liberty authoritarian tyrants who run Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.”
What Adams has decried as censorship, despite practicing something similar on Good Gopher and TruthWiki, seems only to have galvanized his movement, which sees itself as a victim in an attempt to “steal your country out from under you and turn America into a left-wing totalitarian regime.” To wit, Adams’ Facebook pages are growing, with nearly 3 million followers on Natural News alone.
Johnson said of this trend, “There’s kind of a Catch-22 to that, and it’s that anytime that you involve any type of regulation, then what that does is it ultimately emboldens conspiracy ideas, and that’s problematic in and of itself.”
You might know Adams for his appearances on and ties to conspiracy talk show, Infowars, run by Sandy Hook denialist Alex Jones (Adams filled in for Jones on April 8, and started a new InfoWars segment called CounterThink on April 22). Both personalities have attracted Truther-minded audiences drawn to survivalism, guns, free speech and fear of established science and medicine. Both of their online stores caution, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration”; the fine print warns that their products are “not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.”
They push similar products and conspiracies, but Natural News has roughly three times Infowars’ social media audience.
Although Adams is often critical of Facebook for perceived censorship, he has trotted out some pretty outrageous views on the social media platform without, apparently, much in the way of consequences.
Keep in mind, there is no HoggWatch Facebook page. Adams likely knows that it would be taken down in an instant. Yet Adams still promotes HoggWatch on his Natural News and NewsTarget Facebook pages.
Facebook did not respond to any specific questions from The Weather Channel Digital, but a Natural News video we flagged, advertising HoggWatch.com, was found to be in violation of Facebook’s Community Standards, and was taken down.
On April 24, Facebook posted 25 pages of its new Community Standards, which, among other things, bar three key tenets of Adams’ brand: spam, misrepresentation and false news. As of this article’s publication, Adams’ pages are alive and well.
THE FAR-RIGHT SITE LIBERALS LOVE TO SHARE
Natural News — and Adams’ expanding nebula of self-promoting sites — produces shareable content on buzzworthy health topics such as vaccines, pharmaceuticals and GMOs. Topics that reach across even a deepening partisan divide — stoners and new parent groups, patriots and capitalists, environmentalists and preppers.
While political identity greatly influences Americans’ view on anthropogenic climate change, Pew Research Center reports that liberals and conservatives are almost equally split on issues like GMOs and vaccines.
However, Pew finds that left-leaning Americans have become increasingly concerned about environmental issues over the past decade, while right-leaning Americans have moved in the opposite direction. Adams could be taking advantage of this widening gap in green politics, allowing him to spread his message to seemingly antithetical groups like GMO Free USA.
The online anti-GMO community of nearly 1 million followers has shared numerous Natural News links, despite the sites’ glaring political differences.
“Scott Pruitt should rename the agency to the Environmental Pollution Agency,” GMO Free USA wrote in a post on April 17, 2018.
“What is this corporate chemical pusher trying to hide?” the page wrote in one of their memes. And in a December 2017 post, the page lauded statements made by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren against President Trump.
Compare that to Natural News’ editorial view of the current administration’s EPA. “Liberals go insane over the very idea that the EPA’s climate change policies should be subject to reasonable DEBATE,” reads a headline. Another reads, “New EPA head appointed by Trump may finally begin dismantling the EPA’s overbearing, totalitarian ‘authority.’”
Leading up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016, Adams steadied his left-leaning anti-GMO, anti-vaccine readers with, “Did you know that Donald Trump opposes vaccine mandates and rapid-fire vaccine assaults against children? Did you know that Trump serves organic food at many of his resort properties? Did you know that Trump openly opposes the TPP and believes in protecting America’s jobs against the globalist corporations?”
In 2017, he wrote, “Trump just SAVED America from the disastrous Paris Climate Treaty fraud.”
In defiance of divisions, Natural News articles reach a wide and politically diverse audience. What could possibly bridge those differences? In a word, Monsanto.
A ‘TRUE BELIEVER?’
Monsanto, the world’s largest seed and GMO corporation, is central to much of Adams’ worldview. In a recent article with 18,000 hits, Adams even tried to tie Parkland school shooting victims to the agribusiness giant. The topic seems to be the one consistent thread in Adams’ recent (read: 21st century) career.
But Monsanto wasn’t always Adams’ primary concern. In the late ‘90s, it was Y2K.
Adams’ site, Y2K Newswire (in web archive here), disseminated “conspiracy theories about Y2K cover-ups,” according to UPI.com. According to a bio Adams posted on one of his websites, as reported by ZDNet, “In six months, with the help of only one employee, he created a subscriber base of over 50,000 people and sold over $400,000 worth of information products while offering an open-ended, 100% moneyback (sic) guarantee.”
Alas, in the early days of the new millennium, the world was intact. Y2K Newswire subscribers received their final email, stating, “Y2K Newswire has completed its mission of informing people about what was going on behind the scenes with Y2K.” This email also outlined Adams’ next project, which was “covering topics like alternative medicine, fitness, nutrition, mental awareness, science and renewable energy technologies.” Whois has archived records of Natural News since Dec. 12, 2000, less than a year after Adams’ departure from his Y2K fear-mongering enterprise.
The tactics are consistent, but the “threats” change over time.
Natural News promotes countless theories on climate change, one (and a dominant one) that this author had never even heard of before: that carbon dioxide emissions are actually cooling the atmosphere, “greening” the planet, and “unleashing… faster food production, reforestation and new vegetation across the planet.” In 2013, the Health Ranger boldly wrote, “Attacking carbon dioxide is hate speech against Mother Nature.”
Or, according to a staff writer, Hillary Clinton is causing climate change.
Or, according to another, “Climate Change Is MASS HYPNOSIS of Obedient Sheeple.”
But again, it wasn’t always so. In 2007, Adams called those who doubted climate change, “a bunch of kooky deniers.” In the 2000s, most of his statements on climate change were actually in line with the scientific consensus. Below a 2007 comic (he also makes music videos), Adams scathingly wrote, “When the global food supply is devastated by climate change, we will know exactly who to blame: the evil corporations that run this country and the sellout lawmakers who let them get away with it.”
Examining Adams’ ability to wear so many different hats could shed light on a motive, or lack thereof. Take Adams’ tone in a 2017 interview with Chris Wark (aka Chris Beat Cancer), a fellow alt-med enthusiast:
“I spend time in nature every day and I try to focus on all of the sounds of nature because, when you live out in rural Texas as I do, you can actually not hear the sounds anymore because you get so used to them. All the different birds, locusts, katydids, and frogs — all these different sounds — it’s a chorus that I get to experience every day.”
In front of Wark’s audience, Adams is a peaceful, nature-loving salt-of-the-Earth kind of guy.
When sitting at Alex Jones’ newsdesk, we hear a strikingly different tone:
(Note: This April 8, 2018, litany is preceded by a recording of the Star Wars Imperial March)
“I, along with Alex, am one of the people who is being targeted for censorship and, essentially (emphasis mine) online extermination by the radical tech left-wing overlords that have decided to exterminate all voices that they don’t like…”
A person giving false hope to cancer patients around the world and misinforming millions might not seem to merit a close reading. But complete reversals on issues like climate change and head-turning 180s in tone can be illuminating when trying to understand and combat this brand of disinformation. An ideologue with an agenda doesn’t fit. Shill, a word Adams loves, might come closer. Closer still: huckster, one who has cure-alls for, well, seemingly everything.
By his own claims in the Wark interview, Adams raked in $100,000 in less than a week of sales after Hurricane Harvey (Adams mentioned those sales in the context of a fundraiser, where he says half of that money was donated to groups supporting victims of the storm). Harvey, by the way, was one of several recent hurricanes manufactured by weather technologists, according to a conspiracy theory Adams wrote about in Natural News. Adams doubts every storm is produced as a weather weapon but steering them to inflict damage isn’t so far-fetched, he wrote.
Whether or not Adams believes in what he’s selling, he can at least rest on his laurels, like the “Excellent (sic) in Health Journalism Award” he received in 2014 at an event sponsored by a number of natural and alternative food and supplement companies.
Joseph McCarthy is an editor at weather.com’s science property Rockets Are Cool. In addition to writing about and producing videos on STEM-related topics, he writes fiction. His work has appeared in Soon Quarterly, Dangereye Inc. and The Seventh Wave. Find him on Twitter here: @notjoemccarthy