The spread of pseudoscience myths has taken off like, well, a social contagion. Just a few weeks after the reality of Covid-19 hit North America, the snake oil vendors were already up and running. Here’s a quick rundown of some of what I’ve been seeing, which include bleach amulets, trojan advertorials for supplements and fake “coronavirus protection” masks.
Many marketers co-opt real terms of public health such as flatten the curve to lend a false legitimacy to their products, or they leverage products that are functional in one context to justify their use in a the pseudoscience context. These are both tried and true marketing strategies for pseudoscience and it’s no different during a pandemic.
What is especially alarming, though, is their use of conspiracy theory rhetoric to boost their sales.
The first Covid-related article of faith I saw online was a plastic amulet filled with hardened industrial bleach, with the claim it could ward off coronaviruses. It’s called the “Corona Necklace” and sellers claim it can kill off coronavirus up to one meter away. The Corona Necklace is made by some of the same people who make Miracle Medical Solution (MMS), a phony cure people also ingest, believing it can cure a variety of conditions including autism.
Like most pseudoscience purveyors, the bleach-cure marketers are always looking for a new disease to “cure” because it means more profits for them. Most successful pseudoscience marketers sell to multiple markets. In fact, this is a red flag for pseudoscience: If it can cure everything under the sun, it’s a fake for sure.
Pseudoscience marketers also leverage existing truths and then distort them–to get confused buyers to purchase their products. In times like these with a pandemic going on, there are ample opportunities for this. With increased public interest in bleach as a cleaner for surfaces such as sinks and countertops, it was a quick leap for marketers to assert that ingesting bleach could prevent the Covid. And for those who couldn’t quite stomach that idea (or for markets where their ingestibles had been banned by regulators), they created the hardened-bleach amulet.
Amulets serve a powerful role in culture. The idea of warding off evil spirits, death and disease with a symbol is ancient, and our ancient superstitions tend to resurface in times of uncertainty. Like now. Unfortunately, when people embrace magic protective objects instead of taking appropriate steps (for example, sheltering in place), they are endangering public health (More on that below).
Bogus face masks
Let’s move on to another pseudoscience product: bogus “protective” face masks. This scam also operates under the pseudoscience strategy of distorting existing truths to get confused buyers to make a purchase.
While communities are sewing cloth masks for health care professionals to wear over their functional face masks (N95s) to extend the life of the N95s, pseudoscience marketers are aggressively infiltrating this movement to promote masks to “protect yourself from Coronavirus”, DIY books and kits on Amazon and eBay and profit-turning #Masks4All YouTube videos. One YouTube video, which has gained more than half a million views in 48 hours, states that wearing cloth masks can “significantly slow coronavirus”. Sellers have co-opted familiar terms from science like flatten the curve for their own unscientific marketing rhetoric.
Product sellers often allow/encourage conspiracy theories: “The CDC has blood on their hands for lying to Americans about how masks do nothing,” reads a top comment on a DIY face mask YouTube video. “CDC coverup about face masks will bankrupt them when this is over!” claimed another viral post. Fear helps to sell pseudoscience, so marketers have no motivation to challenge it, and they don’t. Myths are also being encouraged by some quite random blogs with inaccurate country data on mainstream media websites, too.
While there is evidence that people who are sick may offer a moderate level of protection to others by wearing a mask, there isn’t evidence that wearing the masks prevents the mask-wearer from catching coronavirus. Also, it is a myth that masks in public were the primary reason for decline in coronavirus cases in various countries. As Tara Haelle writes: “A popular—but very misleading—graph circulating from #Masks4All [shows] a red circle around the high case numbers of many European and North American nations…labeled ‘No masks,’ and a blue circle around the low case numbers in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong… labeled ‘Masks. The absolute best use of this graph is to teach the fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation, and even then it’s not entirely accurate.” (Read the full article for specifics).
We know that the best way to flatten the curve is to stay home. But if someone thinks a cloth mask will protect them from contracting the virus, there is a good chance they will go out into the community more. Myths about masks, like all pseudoscience, carry risk to our communities.
“Immune boost and body repair”
In times of fear and uncertainty, pseudoscience marketers profit most when they attach their “solution” to conspiracy theories and hostility aimed at mainstream medicine and public health leaders.
The pseudoscience empire of Joseph Mercola, for example, asserts that “COVID-19 virus is a chimera. It includes SARS, an already weaponized coronavirus, along with HIV genetic material and possibly flu virus.” On their website, Mercola & Co. couple this horrific lie with folksy, homey advice about nutrition, supplements and the immune system–all with product tie ins. His website is promoting Coronavirus prevention through probiotics, Vitamin D, Maca, “Beta 1,3D Glucan” and a host of other products that the company sells, with the ad content running directly beside “news” headlines like China Poised to Attack America and World Health Organization Should Be Renamed Chinese Health Organization.
Supplement companies are also repurposing other cure-alls to fit the Coronvirus narrative. “Covid-19 Coronavirus can most likely be fought by vitamin D,” claims Bio-Tech, the vitamin D supplement company. Like many, Bio-Tech took the easy way, simply trading in on its usual rhetoric but swapping out diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses with a new one (Covid).
Bio-Tech’s marketing is pretty straightforward–an old-school, Blogspot-style website that sells the product up front…but some other sellers are using more of a stealth approach. For example, the pretend newspaper (Medium) is running advertorial content about “slowing contagion” through pseudoscience, such as “Don’t Just Avoid the Virus — Defeat It by Strengthening Your Immunity“. After acknowledging the importance of hand washing and social distancing, authors Amory Lomens and Eric Rasmussen then call public health guidance into question, writing: “We’re told to avoid exposure, but not to reduce ‘host hospitality’ (us being hospitable to the virus) by making ourselves more resistant to viral infection. Slowing the spread and flattening the curve will take both.” The solution, in their telling, is to take vitamins–especially vitamin C.
In part 2 of their series on Medium, “A User’s Guide to Vitamin C in the context of Covid-19,” Lovins and Rasmussen recommend a specific brand of vitamin C (PERQUE PotentC Guard). They write: “Lovins gets his from www.vitamins-today.com or 800–806–8671″. I Googled Lovins and learned that he also writes for Dr Russell Jaffe’s natural wellness website, which promotes PERQUE PotentC Guard to prevent oxalate kidney stones and other ailments. Dr. Jaffe is author of The Alkaline Way and (almost forgot to mention!) the founder of Perque Integrative Health, a supplement company that specializes in Vitamin C.
What’s the harm? And what can we do?
You might be asking, well, what’s the harm if someone wants to take some vitamins or wear a special necklace and it makes them feel safer? So what? If these fill an emotional need in these tough times, is that a bad thing?
Yes. Yes, it is definitely a bad thing.
People who buy pseudoscience products are supporting a predatory industry. Bleach necklaces and useless vitamins provide psychological comfort at the expense of public health while feeding an industry that is at its very heart anti-scientific. This predatory industry, which swoops in on people at their most vulnerable moments, is responsible for real violence against autistic and developmentally disabled people in the form of “treatments” and has led people to refuse life-saving medical care for cancer and other conditions. It is not “the CDC” that has blood on its hands—it is the pseudoscience industry.
Within just a week of the early viral posts about DIY masks, distrust in the CDC recommendations has significantly increased on social media–at a time when we need public confidence in these institutions. Now, some stores in Canada are refusing to allow customers to shop if they aren’t wearing masks, even though Health Canada doesn’t recommend we all wear masks. Perhaps most critically, social media hype is causing panic, which leads to hoarding, which endangers our health care workers by depriving them of life-saving supplies.
There is no safe amount of pseudoscience to tolerate in this crisis. Guys, we are on skis in an avalanche zone and we have one instructor: the public health officials. What they say will guide us down the hill. All the other voices are just noise…and some of that noise can in fact trigger an avalanche. And even if we can skid past that avalanche of misinformation, others will be buried alive. We survive now by listening to our instructor (Public Health Canada and our provincial Public Health ministries) while tuning out the rest of the noise.
I understand that this is personal—people’s emotional health can be tied in with the objects and choices that will reduce their anxieties about safety. But while we’re considering that, let’s also keep in mind the wellness of our public health officials, who need to be trusted for providing the information that is saving lives. The leader of the coronavirus taskforce in the US is facing a barrage of death threats. Public panics lead to violence and make everyone less safe. It is not okay, especially in these times, to support products that enrich and promote the pseudoscience market just on the off-chance that they might magically be an “immune booster”. These products are part of a massive disinformation network that works against public health.
And we need to ask: what impact does it have on our children who are watching these rituals, other than to confuse them about what is safe–and indeed, their notion of how “safe” our world even is now? These are ethical questions that can’t wait. They reflect the long shadow of the Covid crisis and its impact on our psyches and our children’s future well-being. It’s why we all need to intervene when we see Covid-19 pseudoscience and use our own influence to promote resources that are based on science. Not just for today, but for tomorrow.
Take care, everyone. #StaySafeAtHome.