Inside one network cashing in on vaccine disinformation
|Toronto Star 13 May 2021 at 11:45|
“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.
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 Bolligers 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.