Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Inside one network cashing in on vaccine disinformation

 

 

 

 


By MICHELLE R. SMITH

and

JOHNATAN REISS


This Wednesday, May 12, 2021 image shows a website featuring Ty and Charleen Bollinger advertising their video series, "The Truth About Vaccines 2020." The Bollingers are part of an ecosystem of for-profit companies, nonprofit groups, YouTube channels and other social media accounts that stoke fear and distrust of COVID-19 vaccines, resorting to what medical experts say is often misleading and false information. (AP Photo)

The couple in the website videos could be hawking any number of products.

“You’re going to love owning the platinum package,” Charlene Bollinger tells viewers, as a picture of a DVD set, booklets and other products flashes on screen. Her husband, Ty, promises a “director’s cut edition,” and over 100 hours of additional footage.

Click the orange button, his wife says, “to join in the fight for health freedom” — or more specifically, to pay $199 to $499 for the Bollingers’ video series, “The Truth About Vaccines 2020.”

The Bollingers are part of an ecosystem of for-profit companies, nonprofit groups, YouTube channels and other social media accounts that stoke fear and distrust of COVID-19 vaccines, resorting to what medical experts say is often misleading and false information.

An investigation by The Associated Press has found that the couple work closely with others prominent in the anti-vaccine movement — including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his Children’s Health Defense — to drive sales through affiliate marketing relationships.

According to the Bollingers, there is big money involved. They have said that they have sold tens of millions of dollars of products through various ventures and paid out $12 million to affiliates. Tens of thousands of people ponied up cash for an earlier version of their vaccine video series, they said.

“This is a disinformation industry,” said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, who specializes in vaccine policy. Reiss said that unlike other multi-level marketing businesses, in which products are sold through low-level sub-sellers, the anti-vaccination industry is sustained by grassroots activists.

“They have many, many passionate believers that serve as sales people of the misinformation on the ground,” she said. “For the top, it’s a product. For the people below, they passionately believe it. They’re very sincere. And it comes across.”

The Bollingers and others were already in the business of selling vaccine disinformation before the coronavirus began its inexorable march across the globe. But the pandemic presented the couple and others a huge opportunity to expand their reach.

The Bollingers aligned themselves with right-wing supporters of former President Donald Trump — establishing a Super PAC to push what they call “medical freedom,” participating in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and promoting lies like the assertion that the election was stolen from Trump.

On the afternoon of Jan. 6, the Bollingers held a rally a few blocks from the Capitol. As emergency vehicles screamed past, responding to the invasion and the ransacking of the building, Charlene Bollinger celebrated from the stage. She called it an “amazing day” and led a prayer for the people she called “patriots.” Meanwhile, Ty Bollinger stood at the doors of the Capitol, waiting to get in.

The couple’s social media accounts have been identified as among the top vaccine misinformation super spreaders by organizations such as NewsGuard, which analyzes the credibility of websites, and The Center for Countering Digital Hate, which monitors online disinformation. They have more than 1 million followers on Facebook, and Charlene Bollinger said in a video conversation with Kennedy posted last year on their Super PAC’s website that their email list has “a couple million” people on it.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate said that from December 2019 to May 2021, five of the Bollingers’ biggest social media accounts gained 117,273 followers.

Public health experts say the spread of such disinformation undermines the effort to immunize enough of the population to stop the pandemic. A recent AP-NORC poll shows about 1 in 5 Americans are hesitant to get vaccinated. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said last month that misinformation and disinformation circulating online about COVID-19 present a “clear and present danger” to people who need to be protected and who could get vaccinated.

The Bollingers declined interview requests and did not respond to a list of questions emailed to them by the AP about their business and political activities and backgrounds. Ty Bollinger later complained on an Internet show that “journo-terrorists” and “mainstream media whores” were about to release a “hit piece” on him and his wife.

Ty Bollinger began their business several years ago with books and DVDs such as “Cancer: Step Outside the Box” and “The Truth About Cancer,” which medical experts say included unproven information about alternatives to chemotherapy and cancer prevention. The company even sells a series that purports to show “the truth” about pet cancer.

Ty Bollinger describes himself as a “medical researcher” on bios posted on his website and in at least one book. He holds degrees in accounting and taxation from Baylor, but the AP could find no indication that he has any scientific or medical training, and he declined to answer questions about his credentials.

In 2017, in what Ty Bollinger has called a “natural progression,” the business expanded its work into vaccines. The couple styled themselves as “vaccine safety advocates,” while they simultaneously minimized the threat of diseases such as measles. They also published articles questioning whether life-saving vaccines work and claimed unvaccinated children are healthier. Decades of research has shown that the opposite is true.

When coronavirus hit, the business pivoted again, producing and marketing false or baseless information about COVID-19.

The Tennessee couple has been promoting “The Truth About Vaccines 2020” at least since April 2020, and updated it in the fall. Their false and unsubstantiated claims about the virus and its vaccines run the gamut, from assertions that COVID cases are overreported and adverse reactions to vaccines are underreported, to theories about 5G wireless signals being linked to the virus, all ideas that medical experts said are flat-out wrong.

Among the materials they have produced is a 78-page “Coronavirus Field Guide” offering unsubstantiated claims that COVID-19 is “man-made,” when there’s no data to support that. In addition to books and DVDs, some of which cost hundreds of dollars, they sell an “Insiders Legacy Membership” that costs $5 per month, or $47 per year, for a “premium monthly newsletter.”

The Bollingers’ more recent Facebook posts focus on subjects such as ketogenic diets and the nutritional benefits of mangoes, while their most strident anti-vaccination content is reserved for the messaging app Telegram or their own website.

On Telegram, they spread misinformation — including the claim that the COVID-19 vaccine “is a killer” — and link public health efforts to fight COVID-19 to the “Deep State.”

On their “Truth About Cancer” website, to which their vaccine website often links, they recently posted an article containing false claims. Among them: “it looks as though the new vaccines are 67% MORE LIKELY to kill you than the virus itself.” In studies of hundreds of thousands of people the vaccines were proven to be safe and effective at preventing severe disease and death, and those results have been confirmed as tens of millions of vaccines have been administered.

“We don’t trust these vaccines,” they said in the post. “We don’t trust the ‘authorities’ who are working so hard to administer hundreds of millions of doses over the next 2 months. And we’re 100% willing to gamble that the vaccine is much more dangerous than the virus.”

Below the post, commenter after commenter said they were swayed.

“Thank you so much for all the information you provide us! I will not get the vaccine!” one commenter wrote. Another said she had received the first dose and asked for counsel on how to refuse the second. A third shared that she was being treated for cancer and her doctor said she should not be afraid, but that she was “terrified to get the vaccine.”

While the Bollingers describe themselves as “advocates,” they are running a for-profit business. It’s not clear how much money they have made from their vaccine-related marketing efforts, or from their business more broadly, but there are some clues.

The Bollingers’ company, TTAC Publishing LLC, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit last year in which it stated that TTAC had secured over $25 million in customer transactions since 2014. The lawsuit, which calls the company an “industry leader specializing in the marketing of information relating to health care” and cancer, does not say how much of that was profit.

Dun & Bradstreet, which provides estimates for company revenues, has two listings for TTAC Publishing. The first, at its former address in Nevada, estimates sales and revenue at $2.9 million last year. For the one listed at TTAC’s current address in Tennessee, Dun & Bradstreet estimated $76,000 in sales in 2020. Experian reported in 2020 that the company had $179,000 in sales from its Nevada corporate address. In February, Experian reported TTAC’s revenue at $202,000.

On applications for government loans during the pandemic, TTAC Publishing said it had 16 employees in May 2020. That number stood at 27 when their second loan was approved in February 2021.

On their website, the Bollingers explained that they make some of their money via affiliate marketing. In “The Truth About Vaccines Affiliate Center” page, which was taken down this month after the AP asked about information posted on it, the couple laid out how they paid people to drive followers, which they refer to as leads, and sales on their site.

Affiliate marketing is a widely used practice in which people are recruited to spread the word about a product. Affiliates are granted unique IDs, which can be used in links to track who referred a customer to a website, and who deserves the commission if the customer buys something.

People who signed up as an affiliate for the “Truth About Vaccines 2020” video series would receive a unique affiliate ID, which could then be used in a link to share in social media posts or mailing lists.

“We recommend sending at least 3 emails to get the highest conversions and commissions,” said the page, which was a part of the Truth About Cancer website as recently as May 7. “The earlier you mail and share on social media, the more you’ll make.”

The AP took screenshots before it was taken down, and the page is still available in the Internet Archive.

In an October contest for the launch of new episodes of their vaccine videos, the couple said they were “giving away $40,000+ in prize money!” For one part of the contest, only those who generated at least 2,500 total leads would qualify, while for another, those who generated at least $10,000 in sales qualified. First prize for both was a $5,000 bonus.

According to the page, affiliates “earn 40% commissions on all digital products and 30% on all physical product sales.”

Several people and groups prominent in the anti-vaccine movement were listed on the page as affiliates. Perhaps best known among them was Kennedy’s nonprofit, Children’s Health Defense. Kennedy himself was listed as an “expert” on the page, and in addition, was listed in a version captured by the Internet Archive in spring 2020 as ranking among the Top 10 for the series’ “Overall Sales Leaderboard.”

Kennedy has been working with the Bollingers for several years, said Laura Bono, executive director of Children’s Health Defense. Being an affiliate, she said, meant only that the group “shared their materials” and that “It doesn’t mean there’s a business relationship.”

“We shared their information. Then people can choose to purchase, or not, their videos. So we just shared with our list. Like you would anything else,” Bono said.

Still, the AP examined social media posts made by Children’s Health Defense and found several instances when it posted links to the Bollingers’ site using a unique “affiliate ID” including at least five Facebook posts plugging “The Truth About Vaccines 2020” between April and October 2020.

Arunesh Mathur, a computer science expert at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, who studies affiliate marketing, confirmed the links included codes used in a popular affiliate system, Post Affiliate Pro. The Bollingers’ ‘Affiliate Center’ said they used the platform to track sales.

Bono said the Bollingers had donated $10,000 to Children’s Health Defense in December 2019. She denied that Kennedy and Children’s Health Defense ever received money from the Bollingers for leads, but also said they had received what she called a “negligible” amount in donations from the Bollingers after people followed their links to the site and chose to buy. She estimated the amount at about $1,000 and declined to clarify.

“No. 1, I don’t know it, and No. 2, I don’t think it’s any of your business,” Bono said. “I don’t think it’s against the law if a company gives money if it’s a charitable donation, right?”

She said Kennedy was likely listed as No. 4 on the “Overall Sales Leaderboard” because he shared the Bollinger’s link on his Instagram account, which had over 800,000 followers when it was banned in February for spreading misinformation about vaccine safety and COVID-19.

“His followers could choose to click on the link and go watch. Afterward, they could choose to purchase,” Bono wrote in an email. The Truth About Vaccines “did provide a small stipend to (Children’s Health Defense), not to Mr. Kennedy, for sharing the link. I am unsure of that total.”

Children’s Health Defense paid Kennedy, its chairman and chief legal counsel, $255,000 in 2019, according to the most recent publicly available IRS filings.

If Children’s Health Defense has received a “negligible” amount on its affiliation with the Bollingers, others have received substantial amounts. In a lawsuit brought last year, Jeff Hays, a former affiliate who promoted “The Truth About Cancer,” said he earned around $240,000 in commissions from 2015 to 2018.

In an archived version of the Truth About Vaccines Affiliate Center web page, captured by the Internet Archive in April 2018, the company states that 25,000 people purchased its first iteration of the “The Truth About Vaccines” video series. It said that since the company launched in 2014, it had paid affiliate partners “more than $12 million for sharing our events with their audiences through email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.,” and that “our affiliates have consistently earned an average of over $2 per click.”

Experts say such financial connections among anti-vaccination activists remain largely unknown to people who consume their content, many of whom are simply looking for information and end up falling down a rabbit hole of misinformation.

Many of the people who push vaccine disinformation emphasize that their audience should not trust pharmaceutical companies or “Big Pharma,” because they are making lots of money off of vaccines, said Erica DeWald, of the advocacy group Vaccinateyourfamily.org. But those purveyors of disinformation are also making money, said DeWald, who has tracked the Bollingers, Kennedy and others in the industry.

“I definitely think people are being misled. They think that folks are doing this out of the goodness of their heart,” she said. “I think there’s an assumption that people are making money, right? If you’re selling products, of course you make money. But I think they don’t realize how much money they’re making.”

Super-spreaders of vaccine disinformation such as the Bollingers and Kennedy have exploited their relationships with other groups to access new markets, said Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

“Once you start to look at it through the industry lens, it suddenly starts to make sense as to why they’re doing all this stuff,” he said.

For example, Ahmed said, Kennedy has worked to appeal to African Americans, while the Bollingers have targeted the MAGA movement and far right.

“It’s a great market of people that also mistrust the government,” Ahmed said of the MAGA movement. “Once someone follows one conspiracy theory, they’re likely to follow another.”

With COVID, a disparate group of radical, fringe conspiracy theorists have come together around the idea that government can’t be trusted, is trying to kill you and is using the vaccine to do it, Ahmed said.

The Bollingers last year founded a political action committee called United Medical Freedom Super PAC, which raised more than $60,000 in donations, according to reports Ty Bollinger filed with the Federal Election Commission. A chiropractor who has been featured as an “expert” in their videos donated multiple times, twice in the amount of $1,776 -- a phrase that later became a rallying cry for insurrectionists as they stormed the Capitol. Super PACs can raise unlimited money from individuals and corporations to spend on independent political activities

In a video posted on the Super PAC website 10 months ago, Charlene Bollinger explained to Kennedy that anti-vaccine influencers have to band together, “Because we know the other side, they’re working together. They’re very efficient. They’ve got their agendas,” she said.

“And we’re going to be supporting specifically you, Children’s Health Defense. We believe in what you’re doing Bobby,” she said. “And so, we’re going to continue to highlight you. Highlight Children’s Health Defense and help you in any way that we can. So that’s how we win.”

Bono declined to say whether Kennedy agrees with the Bollingers’ support of the insurrection or whether he regrets aligning himself with the couple, but said that Kennedy has “chosen peaceful and thoughtful methods of providing information” to lawmakers and others. Children’s Health Defense, she said, “doesn’t condone any lawbreaking or violence of any kind.”

Bono told the AP that she didn’t think Children’s Health Defense had ever received a donation from the United Medical Freedom Super PAC, saying “I’ve never heard of it.”

One person it has supported is Roger Stone. United Medical Freedom paid the conservative political consultant, lobbyist and adviser to then-President Donald Trump more than $11,000 on Dec. 18. Stone told the AP that the money was for an appearance he made at a rally in Nashville in October.

Stone also was billed as the keynote speaker for the event the Bollingers held near the U.S. Capitol the afternoon of the Jan. 6, promoted as the “MAGA Freedom Rally D.C.,” which blended anti-vaccine “health freedom” activism with “Stop the Steal” rhetoric. Stone said he was supposed to speak at 3:40 p.m. but decided not to go because of the violence at the Capitol that day.

“I had no interest in going up to the capitol under those circumstances,” Stone said, adding that he was never supposed to be paid for speaking at the Jan. 6 event.

Video of the event was livestreamed but has since been made private. However, video posted online in various places shows it lasting for hours. Charlene Bollinger was emcee, calling for Congress to “Stop the Steal” as the rally kicked off following Trump’s speech that day.

Several people prominent in the anti-vaccine movement spoke, including Mikki Willis, who made the conspiracy movie “Plandemic.” He told the crowd he had just left the chaos at the Capitol.

“Our proud patriots just pushed through a line of riot police peacefully, as peacefully as that could happen, and are now at the stairs, at the doors of the Capitol,” Willis said from the stage. “And it was a beautiful thing to see.”

Charlene Bollinger cheered the Capitol breach.

“The Capitol has been stormed by patriots, we’re here for this reason, we are winning.” She added: “We are at war.”

Later that day, Ty Bollinger told the online “Robert Scott Bell Show” that he had been “maced” that day and had been among the people who crowded at the doors of the Capitol in an attempt to get inside, though he said he did not enter.

He called then-Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor,” called the people who got inside the building “patriots” and said “today, people’s true colors are being made known.”

The Bollingers show the convergence of “right-wing world with anti-vaccine and other sorts of anti-COVID, COVID conspiracy theory, anti-public health, health freedom all in one,” said Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy and sociology at University of California, Riverside, who studies vaccine disinformation campaigns.

“At the end of the day, you have these activists trying to win over followers,” he said. “For them, it’s money-making.”

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Associated Press investigative researcher Randy Herschaft and AP medical writer Mike Stobbe contributed to this report.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

 

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