Sara Rubin here, after a couple of random encounters in which I asked new acquaintances about their media habits. It’s an easy conversation starter when you work for a newspaper—as in, “do you read the Weekly?”—but I was alarmed to hear twice in the past couple weeks from people who don’t read the news. Instead, they rely on social media.
This has long been a theme as social media empires grow and we learn more and more about the impact of misinformation. Again and again we see that how information flows has tangible implications—to the outcomes of elections, to a riot at the U.S. Capitol—and it’s not just about abstract ideas, but about reality.
In the case of Covid-19, misinformation is a matter of life and death.
We’re seeing the tragic outcome of an information ecosystem that is so politicized and short on trust that people are still dying from something we could have prevented. In Monterey County, the Covid-19 infection rate among vaccinated residents is 3.4 new cases per 100,000 people, while among unvaccinated residents it’s more than double that, 8.4 new cases per 100,000 people.
Who are the voices who lend credibility to dangerous lies, and who amplifies those voices? The cover story in this week’s print issue of the Weekly takes a deeper dive into those questions with a look at a book publisher called Chelsea Green, and one particular doctor, an osteopath named Joseph Mercola.
Mercola has 4.3 million followers across 14 social media platforms, and he’s been identified as the No. 1 spreader of pandemic falsehoods on the internet by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. He pushes stories about so-called vaccine injury and questions whether masks are effective. He’s a dominant voice with just enough credentials to lend him credibility among an audience primed to believe his arguments, and his book, The Truth About Covid-19, was a No. 1 best-seller on Amazon in multiple categories in mid-September. It was the site’s 25th-most popular title and its top result for the search “Covid-19.” That ranking prompted U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Los Angeles, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, to send a letter to Amazon asking them to modify the site's algorithms.
In the cover story, journalist Chelsea Edgar, who is based in Vermont, digs into Mercola’s arguments. But she also looks at the Vermont-based publishing house that has helped legitimize his and other conspiracy theories.
Edgar describes an unsettling middle point, where the far right and the far left begin to converge—the place where a healthy (and justified) skepticism of Big Pharma and of government spills over into fringe territory, no matter your politics. Chelsea Green has long been better associated with anti-establishment titles on topics like fermentation, herbalism, toxicity of pesticides, the case for restoring beavers.
Dan Wing is a retired doctor and author of a 1999 book published by Chelsea Green (it’s still in print) about artisanal bread, The Bread Builders. He described this intersection—where the left and the right meet in a place of unhealthy skepticism—to Edgar like this: "Every once in a while, something does get peeled back—look at the conservatives packing the courts, gerrymandering, the EB-5 scandal. Is American agriculture just an economic phenomenon, or is it a conspiracy? It's easy to imagine how someone might start with organic apple farming and go down the rabbit hole."
That’s where we return to the need for trusted information, regardless of our politics. We in the news business are always trying to find ways to propel the truth forward, above the noise, but if people turn to conspiratorial books instead—perhaps published by a publisher they trust—there’s no clear path for how to position the truth in a way that it wins. If you have ideas for how to do that, I’d love to hear them.