Screenshot via Natural News/ThinkProgress

Meet The Internet Entrepreneur Profiting Off The Anti-Vaxxer Movement

Consider the “Vaccine Zombie.”

He bears some resemblance, in both wardrobe and dance routine, to Michael Jackson, and his story might in fact rival Jackson’s for sensationalistic details. According to the song’s lyrics, the trouble begins while in line for a vaccine shot, and once injected, everything spirals downward quite quickly.

When I took the shot then my face turned blue
I started feelin’ hot inside but I didn’t have a clue what to do
My temperature was hundred and two
Then my nut sack shriveled up and fell off too
The nurse screamed and said something was missin’
she called the physician who said he had a suspicion
that the vaccine caused a neurological condition
and soon I would see the mortician
They started cuttin’ out my brain happy as can be
Bunch of undead doctors from the CDC
I finally figured out what happened to me
When they said we got another vaccine zombie!

The single was written, recorded, produced and performed by Mike Adams, AKA The Health Ranger. Adams is a leading voice in the anti-vaccine movement, and his website, Natural News, is a collection of eccentric content on the subject. Purported scientific proof of most every misleading and dangerous claim about vaccines can be found in an article bearing his byline. The one about vaccines containing toxic levels of mercury? He covered it. The link between vaccines and autism? Adams asserts not only that it’s proven, but that there has been “systematic suppression” of the evidence. The entire Jenny McCarthy-Jim Carrey affair, wherein two Hollywood celebrities used their platform to champion a rightfully discredited study? Adams printed and promoted their public statements. Via a press handler, Adams refused several requests to speak to ThinkProgress for this article.

Over the years, Adams has expressed a wide range of unpredictable and unorthodox views that span the ideological spectrum. His belief that poisonous vaccines are nothing more than a plot by “Big Pharma” to drum up corporate profits is joined by a conviction that 9/11 was an inside job, a faith that onions, garlic and cauliflower will cure cancer, and a confidence that the James Holmes/Aurora shooting in the summer of 2012 was staged by the FBI in order to justify a United Nations plot to disarm American citizens. Other articles published by Adams and his staff warn, “U.S. School District To Begin Microchipping Students” and “Forced Vaccinations, Quarantine Camps, Health Care Interrogations and Mandatory ‘Decontaminations’” Time and again, Adams has found a way to foster and monetize the most current fear gripping the cultural zeitgeist.

By the measure of scientific experts and historians, Adams’ views are fringe. Dr. David Gorski, Managing Editor of the website Science-Based Medicine, calls Natural News, “a one-stop shop, a repository if you will, of virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general.” And yet, Adams is emblematic of a growing cadre of anti-science spokespeople who have cultivated significant influence and followings. How has Adams achieved this? The answer goes back nearly two decades, and highlights many of the means by which digital snake oil salesmen build their brands.

Profiting From the Apocalypse That Wasn’t

Towards the turn of the millennium, the Y2K bug was much on the mind of the media, representing perhaps the first great conspiracy of the digital age. True believers held that the seemingly simple switchover from 12/31/99 to 1/1/00 would cause computers and electronic systems the world over to crash, triggering international crises of every conceivable sort. Adams saw the opportunity in the situation, and began to sell supposed “information products” that would insulate his paying audience from the oncoming chaos, which, of course, never came.

In a since-deleted excerpt on Adams’ site published by ZDNet, Adams boasted that in 1999, “in an effort to fine-tune his web marketing techniques, Michael [Adams] launched a six-month experiment to determine what kind of revenues are possible when combining his proprietary techniques and technologies with a high-awareness topic. The result? 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.”

This subscriber base was largely won over by Adams’ then infamous “39 Unanswered Questions about Y2K.” In a foreshadowing of the sorts of the “listicles” that would drive traffic to both Natural News and the site’s advertisers (not to mention BuzzFeed), Adams demonstrated a remarkable ability to frame a controversial issue in a manner perfectly suited for digital consumption. The widely shared email consisted of a series of fear-mongering questions such as, “Why is there not a single Fortune 1000 firm that has said, in its 10-Q SEC statement, that it is fully, unequivocally Y2K-compliant?” Critics panned the listicle as, “a national spamming campaign against the press and politicians to stir up enough anxiety to clear the shelves of Y2K supplies” and, “the best publicity stunt I’ve seen.”

While the exact nature of Adams’ current web traffic is difficult to parse, much of Natural News’ prominence appears built on the back of common “black hat” SEO tactics that are generally considered unethical by search engines. The tactic artificially inflates search rankings by grouping together many websites that reference back to one another, in what are known as link farms.

In one apparent example of this, the IP address for Adams’ site Consumer Wellness Center hosts 86 other addresses, all of which are similar in content and design to Natural News. Among the pages in this grouping are BioDefense (which was launched in early September at the outset of the Ebola scare, and which serves as a receptacle for wisdom on how to keep the disease at bay) and CesiumEliminator (which claims to sell products that will protect people from the dangerous fallout of Chernobyl and Fukushima). Both of these liberally link back to Natural News, identifying that site and its pseudo-science as justification for their existence.

Andrew Westmoreland, an Internet advertising expert who similarly began his career as a mass-email entrepreneur while still in high school, helps explain the psychology behind this unique line of work. “In the early days of email, our psychological petri dish was filled with millions of consumers excited to read our content. One key thing we learned is that there is a profound desire for people to believe in something that is too good to be true. Most advertisers use this aspiration for somewhat benign causes. We all know we’re unlikely to win the lottery but it remains a 70 billion dollar market.”

The same skill-set that enabled Adams to master e-mail marketing was directly applicable to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a process by which adjustments to a webpage, its layout, sentence structures and keywords, were used to increase it’s web ranking. As Google came to dominate the search space in the early aughts, the transition from driving emails to driving readers proved easy.

“We live in a world where 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress and 34 percent of Republicans believe Obama is unlikely to be a U.S. Citizen,” continues Westmoreland. “In this context of unrest, it’s easy for advertising experts to take advantage of this psychological weakness in the consumer… conspiracy theorists prey on our desire to find new authority figures.”

On his Natural News site today, Adams not only perpetuates his unorthodox ideas about health. He also reviews products tested in what he describes as his own personal Forensic Food Lab, and sells his own line of supposedly “clean” nutritional supplements under the “Health Ranger” brand. Reacting to requests for comment on this investigation, Adams’ attorney’s wrote in a letter to ThinkProgress on his behalf, “the lab does exit [sic], and it uses EPA-approved methodologies and laboratory equipment provided by Agilent Technologies. The Lab has applied for and anticipates receipt of ISO 17025 accreditation. Dietary supplement companies have independently confirmed the Lab’s test results.” The correspondence further warned of the general potential for “false and defamatory content” about Adams.

Outsized Influence

According to the service comScore, Natural News hosted over 2 million unique visitors in the month of December 2014. The website’s Google PageRank is a respectable six, the same number enjoyed by other, more mainstream preachers of the “natural” space. The CEO of Whole Foods John Mackey’s blog also receives a six, as do the landing pages for Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra.

Adams claims that he has, “personally authored over 2,000 articles, including investigative articles, satire and op-ed,” and that “his writings have been collectively read by over 100 million people over the past decade.” Every time Adams publishes a story with a headline such as, “Medical mafia calling for gunpoint quarantines of citizens who refuse vaccinations”, it’s pushed out to the newsfeeds of the nearly 1.5 million Facebook accounts who “like” Natural News. This number far surpasses that of The Atlantic, and falls just short of the Los Angeles Times.

Adams further amplified his media attention when he appeared on the Dr. Oz Show this past May, where he was fêted before a national audience as, “a whistleblower who has made an alarming discovery.” The Dr.’s 12- minute segment with the Health Ranger was concerned with Adams’ research into the levels of heavy metals contained in a variety of supposedly organic food products.

Dr. Oz directed viewers to Adams’ website in order to find out which Ginkgo Biloba, protein and cacao supplements passed the tests performed in Adams’ own lab. Those pages offer recommendations and esoteric explanations on the levels of heavy metals “discovered” in each product, but nothing on the methodology and instrumentation used to arrive at these vital, and commercially impactful, conclusions. Conveniently, Adams created and sells a “Heavy Metals Defense Powder” via a website he registered a few months before his Dr. Oz appearance. (Reps for Sony TV declined to comment on this article.) The segment itself consisted of little more than softball questions, and preceded, by only a month, the Dr.’s grilling before Congress for promoting “miracle” health products that fail to pass scientific muster.

In an effort to understand the effect that Adams’ reports have on the businesses he reviews, ThinkProgress reached out to eight separate vendors whose products received poor to failing grades on his website. Nearly all of them were aware of his efforts and reputation, and most declined to cooperate with this investigation. One company’s President, whose products are certified organic and meet all the necessary standards of the EU and FDA, agreed to talk on the condition on anonymity, stating that, “People in our position don’t want to validate his arguments or acknowledge them. We don’t want to kick him in case he decides to come after us. The minute you open your mouth in that echo chamber, you’re on the defense and there is no coming back.”

Unknown Credentials

Opaqueness is common throughout Adams’ world, even as he consistently lobbies for greater transparency in the variety of causes he writes about.

The Consumer Wellness Center, a tax-exempt organization based in Wyoming, operates the labs which conducted Adams’ research on purportedly toxic levels of heavy metals in organic foods. While a recent press release from the center originates from Tucson, Arizona, the organization’s website, like many in Adams’ empire, is registered to a P.O. box in Taichung City, Taiwan.

As for the lab itself and the instrumentation it utilizes, the website simply reads that, “our instrumentation is certified by our manufacturers, our external standards are traceable to NIST, and our methodologies are based on EPA-published laboratory protocols.” The letter from Adams’ lawyers states that the lab has “applied for and anticipates receipt of ISO 17025 accreditation,” a typical standard for demonstrating the technical competency of labs.

“With this sort of testing, you have to be able to replicate exactly what you are doing,” stresses Chris Vulpe, an associate professor at the UC Berkeley Center for Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology. “It has to be laid out in excruciating details.”

Vulpe is quick to stress that some of Adams’ research, especially the work on heavy metals, touches on topics that are vital to the public interest.

“To some extent, there is an unavoidable exposure to these elements,” Vulpe said. He even agrees with Adams that, theoretically, trace amounts of metal in foods could have a cumulative impact over a lifetime. “But he doesn’t say where these metals are in the supply chain. Is it from the manufacturing process… or is it due to the natural variation in the products’ source? From a consumer’s point of view, his scientific methods are suspect. It’s hard to say what his results mean… and there is no context for understanding their effect and consider risk.”

Adams’ internet biography mentions that he holds a Bachelor in Science, but fails to identify the awarding institution, describing it simply as a “prominent university in the Midwest.” It does, however, highlight that, “in college entrance exams and graduate school entrance exams, Adams scored in the 99.9th percentile across all U.S. students,” and that he, “aced the English, Mathematics and Science sections of college entrance exams, scoring 100% on 3 out of 4 sections earning numerous offers of scholarships from various universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which he chose not to attend).” However, M.I.T. financial aid has been entirely need based since the 1960’s. Ironically, that same page also brags that Adams was, “the first and only investigative journalist to expose the fake academic credentials of raw food ‘guru’ Aajonus Vonderplanitz.”

Natural News notes 2055 N. Kolb Rd, Suite 131, Tucson, Arizona as its latest place of business. However, according to the building’s owners, Natural News left that location in 2012, and the address is currently occupied by a chiropractor. The site’s privacy page lists its “postmaster” as residing at a UPS Store. Via a press handler, Mike Adams refused repeated offers to comment on this story, claiming that he was declining all interview requests over the next six months in order to either focus on his new “EMP-proof technology rollout,” or concentrate on the launch of a new website that vaguely promises to showcase “a series of groundbreaking ‘low-tech’ inventions for humanity.”

Eugenics, Nazis, And Other Extreme Analogies

The “natural” nutrition and health space is, of course, filled with a range of talking heads offering advice that rejects scientific consensus and, in so doing, crosses the thin line separating personal agency from medical irresponsibility.

In Arizona, the cardiologist Dr. Jack Wolfson has stirred up controversy for claiming that, “we should be getting measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox; these are the rights of our children to get it.” Wolfson believes that these diseases are better than the vaccines intended to protect from them, labelling measles as “benign.”

“Bad things can happen to anybody,” he stated. “We can be in a car accident; we can be in a toaster fire.”

In Chicago, the osteopath Dr. Joseph Mercola, whose reputation and influence rival those of Adams, publishes articles claiming that mammograms are nothing more than a tool by which corporate medicine generates big profits. Hoovers, a division of Dun & Bradstreet that offers business analytics and estimates the revenues of privately held companies, puts Mercola’s annual revenue at more than $8 million. While they have no entry for Adams, Natural News has a higher Google PageRank than Mercola’s main site, which received 2.6 million unique visitors in the month of December according to comScore. The Chicago-based Mercola is fond of Nazi analogies, using them to illustrate mundane points and play up the “risk” of otherwise innocuous public health issues.

For his part, Adams is no stranger to such rhetorical hyperbole; as recently as February 23, he published an article which stated that, “The very arguments used by today’s vaccine pushers to claim that the government should force everyone to be vaccinated against their will closely resemble the eugenics justifications of Nazi Germany.”

This is by no means the first time that Adams has brought Nazis into his discourse.

Two months after his Dr. Oz appearance, Adams found himself embroiled in another controversy, one that crossed over from misguided beliefs into something more threatening. GMO crops and the agrochemical company Monsanto are one more subject on which Adams has written about, claiming that, “They betray humanity. They destroy life. They malign Mother Nature herself, and in doing so, they threaten the very future of sustainable life on our planet.”

In a post that has since been taken down, but is referenced liberally by a number of digital publications and can be found in an archived version here, Adams stated that the GMO community is akin to “Nazi collaborators”, writing:

Just as history needed to record the names and deeds of Nazi war criminals, so too must all those collaborators who are promoting the death and destruction caused by GMOs be named for the historical record. The true extent of their collaboration with an anti-human regime will all become readily apparent once the GMO delusion collapses and mass global starvation becomes an inescapable reality…

I’m hoping someone will create a website listing all the publishers, scientists and journalists who are now Monsanto propaganda collaborators. I have no doubt such a website would be wildly popular and receive a huge influx of visitors, and it would help preserve the historical record of exactly which people contributed to the mass starvation and death which will inevitably be unleashed by GMO agriculture (which is already causing mass suicides in India and crop failures worldwide).

In that same post, Adams’ wrote admiringly of Claus von Stauffenberg’s famous assassination attempt of Adolf Hitler, claiming it proved 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.”

Within 24 hours, www.monsantocollaborators.org launched. The site (which has since been taken down but can be found here) was little more than a list of journalists, publishers and scientists identified as responsible for the suicides of a quarter of a million Indian farmers whose crops had failed, leaving them in financial ruin. The landing page ominously warned that, “until this global Agricultural Holocaust is stopped, these deaths will continue,” and named Discover Magazine, the Daily Caller, and MIT Technology Review among the culprits.

Soon thereafter, a digital information security researcher in Dallas named Nick Price stumbled upon Monsanto Collaborators and decided to engage in a little detective work. “I went and did a fair amount of digging and found evidence in all sorts of places that Mike Adams and/or the person behind Natural News was probably responsible for Monsanto Collaborators as well,” he told ThinkProgress. “There were specific and detailed overlaps in how the code was written on both sites. They had the same wording in places and shared even the same files. I also discovered that Monsanto Collaborators was registered and ready to be put online before the article it was purportedly in response to was even put up.” The details of what Price discovered can be found here.

For his part, Adams quickly snapped into damage control mode, disavowing Monsanto Collaborators, stressing that he’d always been a non-violent activist, and claiming that the whole thing was a “false flag operation” by the GMO industry in order to discredit him and his brethren.

In keeping with much of Adams’ history, the post is long on claims and short on evidence.

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