Ivermectin: the latest unproven COVID treatment to blow up the internet. It is an antiparasitic that is used to treat things like river blindness and lice in humans and quite commonly worms and other parasites in horses, cows and dogs. Although there are some clinical trials investigating ivermectin as a potential treatment for COVID-19, none has suggested that it reduces the disease. An analysis that considered it an effective treatment had to be withdrawn for ethical reasons.
But now it is praised everywhere on the internet – on Facebook, Reddit, Clubhouse – as an effective COVID cure. People who cannot get a human ivermectin prescription are trying to get hold of the veterinary version, something The FDA warns against, because animal formulations differ from those approved for human use and can be dangerous.
On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD I spoke with Brandy Zadrozny, covering the internet and platforms for NBC News, about how certain corners of the internet helped ivermectin take off as a COVID cure – and why it’s not the first and certainly will not be the last bit of health failure to gain steam thanks to a handful of closely connected online communities.
Lizzie O’Leary: I will take this story little by little. How big of a problem are we talking about here? Are people taking Ivermectin a crazy fringe, or is it really exploding?
Brandy Zadrozny: Vi know that many people take Ivermectin. The CDC has statistics that say prescriptions for ivermectin have risen to 88,000 a week in August. And pre-pandemically, we saw 3,600 a week. So lots of people are taking ivermectin.
And that in itself is not the big problem. Ivermectin is generally safe in low doses. The problem is that when you take a whole lot of ivermectin, that’s when things get dangerous. We know that poison control centers are flooded with cases of possible ivermectin toxicity.
So it’s a real problem, enough for the FDA, CDC, poison control centers to say, “Stop doing this.”
How did Ivermectin capture people’s attention online as a COVID cure?
I first heard about Ivermectin a few months ago. These people hanging out in the clubhouse proclaimed ivermectin as the new miracle cure for COVID. At the same time, this meta-analysis was emerging, and there were some other studies that were later withdrawn as fraudulent, claiming that Ivermectin had therapeutic properties or protective properties against COVID-19. But the injury happened a few months ago. Then you saw it slide from these circles to the larger right ball: Laura Ingram, Tucker Carlson, people like Phil Valentine, Nashville radio DJ who – just a few days before he died – proclaimed ivermectin as something that had helped save him. It was the misinformation pipeline it flowed through, and all the while these groups were bubbling up on Facebook, Reddit, Telegram.
In this case, one of the major promoters of ivermectin is a group called America’s Frontline Doctors. Who are they?
America’s frontline doctors are a group of technically doctors, although most of them are not clinical professionals, which means they do not treat COVID patients, which means they are not actually in the front line. And over the last year and a half, they have been steadily pumping out incorrect, unsupported, unscientific information about COVID-19. They are usually anti-mask, anti-vaccine, pro-untried therapies like ivermectin.
Where do they fit into this medical disinformation universe? How big players are they?
It’s a big universe. Would I call them the number one threat? No. But they are one huge playing in COVID misinformation specifically because they were the first group to really come on the scene wearing white lab coats that said, “You can not trust the government, but you can trust us. We are doctors. “And it’s something called reputation laundering, where they take advantage of the idea that they’re in white lab coats, they’s doctors we should be able to trust, but they’re getting started on this misinformation in an attempt to to sell many things.
One of the members of America’s Frontline Doctors, Dr. Stella Emmanuelle, she sells her small business, which is a small clinic in a strip mall in Texas. For Dr. Simone Gold, she sells her brand, which is a private, bespoke, fancy GP in California. So they have something to sell, and they come together, put on white coats, and stand under the tab America’s Frontline Doctors, and that’s where their power comes from.
It seems a little crazy that this is even legal.
We call it the misinformation punch, but it’s really frugal. For a decade, I have been looking at the anti-vaccination movement, the health subsidy movement, the wellness community movement. And the people who are now spreading misinformation about COVID have for a decade spread fake cancer cures and then sold fake cures for everything from psoriasis to HIV. This is a really common operation.
How much money are we talking about?
Health information is a super profitable business. We look at people who are at the top of the game, like Joseph Mercola, like Mike Adams, so-called “Health Ranger.” These people live in palaces and earn millions of dollars. So there is no wonder why people want to get into that game. You add that because politics and health misinformation are so deeply intertwined due to the pandemic, people can now also become media stars. So there is a name and there is money to be made for yourself.
Some of the money is made online at sites like speakwithanmd.com that make it easy to get a prescription. Right now, if you go to the area speakertoanmd, there is a pop up message saying that they are experiencing an overwhelming demand.
When you go to speakwithanmd.com, you are greeted with a survey that says, “What do you want? Do you want Ivermectin? Do not know what you want? “And then they set you up with a network of doctors in your state who will prescribe you what you want from the label. So they will prescribe you the off-label Ivermectin. Then they send this prescription to an online pharmacy and that the online pharmacy should get the medicine for you. It is worth noting that there are thousands of complaints that it is all a scam from people who never get connected to a doctor who never gets connected to the prescription. So it’s not a perfect system.
Are there connections between speakwithanmd and America’s Frontline Doctors?
American frontline doctors seem to be working in a kind of affiliated role for this site, speakwithanmd, which was just launched in March 2020. There is nothing about section, there is no way to contact their owner. But speakwithanmd.com/americasfrontlinedoctors will take you to the ivermectin and hydrochloroquine request page. So it seems to indicate that America’s frontline doctors actually get a cut or a percentage of every person who is referred to the site that way.
When you look at groups like this, are they targeting places or people who are already ready to be skeptical of the mainstream medical system? Or do they convert people who are insecure and scared?
Why not both? You have your hardcore stall of people who have been in the anti-vaccination movement for a long time or big consumers of right-wing extremist media who are already ready to accept this message, but the Delta variant is happening now and there are lots of people who were hesitant to get the vaccine, really hesitant, and would wait and see if it had any kind of long lasting effects, just for some reason. These people see their communities and often their entire families being affected by the Delta variant, and we see these people log on to the group and say, “I need ivermectin now” because they are not vaccinated and they need help. , because a loved one or they themselves are ill.
People who are willing to dose themselves with horse paste are afraid of something, right? And they are not just afraid of COVID. Where does that skepticism about the vaccine or the FDA come from? Would it be a mistake if someone listened to this and said, “It’s just a bunch of crazy people?”
Well, much of it is political. We know that voting on people who are determined, “I never get the vaccine”, people. It is a political ideology. I do not think they are crazy. That’s exactly what they think. And they have, again, just a hodgepodge of businesses willing to tell them they’re doing the right thing. And then they go on social media and they find their tribe with the click of a button. It’s an endless feedback loop of, “You’re doing everything right.” And that’s the kind of danger with social media here.
All the major platforms here, Facebook, Reddit, etc., have said they are taking steps to push back towards this. What did you find?
I have this kind of doomsday prospect when it comes to the platforms at this point, because with health bug information, it just feels like it’s almost too late. All the platforms have thrown up their hands at this point and said they want to remove things but it just is not effective. Facebook has this policy of promoting misinformation about COVID cures specifically, and that includes ivermectin, but we found dozens of groups really easy. We joined them.
There is this thing that online groups have forever called l33ting, where people will change the spelling to avoid moderation. It’s a kind of cat and mouse game. And I can definitely tell you that moderation teams are not well versed enough in this to understand when people are abusing the platform.
I think anyone who listens to this will say, “Wait a minute, we’ve been here before with hydroxychloroquine.” Why do you think these things continue to happen? Would they still happen without this online ecosystem and we would not know about them? Or does it really reinforce these questionable “cures”?
I just seem to say that this is an online problem, is ridiculous, right? Even the Phil Valentine things show us the power of radio in conservative circles. So there’s a problem with all these things. It’s a problem with traditional media, like Fox News, it’s a problem with right-wing extremist media, online media, digital media like Breitbart, it’s a problem with Facebook. It’s just all these things together.
Misinformation and misinformation are just lies. It just means lies. And who is lying to you then? Who is harmed by these lies? And who benefits from it? It’s always the way I like to look at any of these stories.
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