How Do They Wring Oil from a Snake?

COVID-Cure Scammers Spread Disinformation

Credit: Randall Enos, Easton, CT

I woke up on a recent Saturday morning to find an email waiting for me, from the owner of my gym — AC4 Fitness. Mildly curious, I opened it up and started reading. As the hair on the back of my neck rose and a growing sense of unease began writhing about in my stomach, I realized what I was looking at. Promulgation of COVID-19 conspiracy theory in the form of a “well-intentioned recommendation.” From the owner of my gym.

The email was promoting a documentary that platformed a group of doctors who claim to have been targeted, censored, and persecuted by an organized, multi-industry (health care, media, and tech) conspiracy. One aimed at suppressing the truth about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine (remember that?).

The email went on to describe how the owner felt it was “important to make [the movie] available.” He provided a discount code (evidencing coordination with the filmmakers) and offered to reimburse anyone who rented or purchased it the post-discount cost. He closed by encouraging them to watch, consider, and share [the film] with friends and family.

My initial intention with this letter was to eviscerate the film itself, to highlight the misrepresentation and deception at its core (I made myself watch the first half of it). I planned to call out how the filmmakers obscured a general lack of expertise; how they tried to bury viewers under an avalanche of technical jargon; how their flawed logic, unjustified conclusions, and manipulative tactics landed on someone who knew how to cut through the chaff. But then I realized that’s not the most important point.

The most important point is that this email is a paragon of disinformation. This is what it looks like. This is how it spreads. In small doses in our own backyards. Misinformation is naïvely spreading false information. Disinformation is doing it on purpose. So, when the owner of AC4 Fitness collaborated with the producers of a conspiracy film, spammed his membership, and promoted the kind of delusional thinking that can lead generally reasonable people in a direction that erodes their faith and trust in our mutually beneficial establishments — the scientific community and public health organizations — he engaged in a disinformation campaign. And that’s something I find more or less impossible to stomach, more or less impossible to stay silent on.

Maybe I’m the only member (ex-member now) who saw this email as a blatant abuse of a platform (i.e., the membership email address database) or as support for an obscene and predatory assault on both reason and vulnerable populations, but I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. Ignorance wins when we shrug off behavior like this as the inevitable and harmless antics of a crazy uncle. Or attribute it to the “outdated and not worth confronting” conduct of a prior generation’s perspective. Ignorance loses when we shine a light on it and call those who promote it to account.

Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where the rationale and arguments of a gym owner are on par with those of the epidemiologists, virologists, and public health officials tasked with responding to a global pandemic. I like experts. I like knowing that they have the necessary education, training, and ability to understand both the nuances of their field and the scientific processes which undergird attempts to respond in times of crisis.

Sure, everyone’s entitled to their opinion — that’s the beauty of freedom of speech. But if that opinion is based on an impoverished ability to comprehend the complexity inherent in a massively monumental undertaking like, say, a coordinated response to a novel, indiscriminate, unusually lethal, and increasingly contagious global disease? Well, maybe that’s the kind of opinion you don’t share. Maybe you should choose to improve your understanding instead. Maybe we should consult with the actual experts. Not the moderators of our favorite online forum, not that friend who took organic chemistry back in college, and not the producers of a blatantly manipulative conspiracy film. We should talk to the actual experts and ask them to explain it in a way that we can understand. And we should demand this of those around us too. We have a greater responsibility to each other than to just be polite and respectful.

Now, I generally don’t agree with the tides of cancel culture or de-platforming (it’s just too damn hyperbolic and herd mentality-ish most of the time), but in this case, I see it as a perfectly legitimate response to the flagrant abuse of a platform that directly endangers the health and well-being of others. We have to look out for those among us who would otherwise be taken in by gambits like this. So, in parting, I enjoin you — in the strongest terms possible — if you have an AC4 membership, cancel it. If you know someone who has one, encourage them to cancel it. Or find some other way to take a stand and make it clear that this kind of behavior is utterly unwelcome. We have to protect the institution of reason, and we have to protect the vulnerable among us. If we don’t, who will?


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