S1: Hello, friends. So I got back from the road Saturday night feeling very weary, I had a headache and I just felt just run down.
S2: And on Wednesday, comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan told his 13 million Instagram followers that he had COVID 19.
S1: So we immediately through the kitchen sink at it, all kinds of meds, monoclonal antibodies. Ivermectin z
S2: Ivermectin. It’s the latest unproven Covid treatment to blow up the Internet. It’s an anti parasitic used to treat things like river blindness and lice in humans and quite commonly worms and other parasites in horses, cows and dogs. But now that it’s all over the Internet, people who can’t get a human Ivermectin prescription are trying to get their hands on the veterinary version, something the Food and Drug Administration is warning against, because animal formulations are different from the ones approved for humans and can be dangerous. A couple of weeks ago, the agency tweeted, you are not a horse, you are not a cow. Seriously, all. Stop it.
S3: You rarely see a government organization tweet in a voice that sounds so much like your own.
S2: That’s Brandy Zadrozny, who covers the Internet and platforms for NBC News.
S3: From the y’all to the just obvious exhaustion at all of this insanity. Like I that was my tweet. They stole it from my brain.
S2: Brandy spends her days trying to understand why certain things catch hold in certain corners of the Internet. A lot of the time, she says, it’s a defensive strategy, a response to something that could threaten a group’s worldview.
S3: We’ve been seeing that so often during the pandemic. We’ve just seen the goalposts move and move and move and move.
S2: So today on the show, she’s going to do that for us with Ivermectin. We’re going to talk about where it came from. Who’s pushing it and why this kind of thing keeps happening. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us. I want to take this story bit by bit. How big an issue are we talking about here? Is, is people taking Ivermectin a crazy fringe thing or is it really exploding?
S3: So we know that a lot of people are taking Ivermectin. The CDC has statistics that say prescription for Ivermectin have risen something like 88000 per week in August. And the pre pandemic, we were seeing like 3600 per week. So a lot of people are taking Ivermectin, a ton of people are taking Ivermectin. And that in itself, you know, actually to be sort of nuanced about this, isn’t that big of a problem, right? Like Ivermectin is a wonder drug. Ivermectin is generally safe and low dosages. 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 being inundated with cases of possible Ivermectin toxicity. So it is a real problem enough so that, you know, the FDA, the CDC, poison control centers are all sort of talking about, please stop doing this.
S2: Ivermectin for people is used in a few ways topically for lice and rosacea and aurally for parasites. It’s actually been a key part of the World Health Organization’s strategy for fighting the disease known as river blindness in sub-Saharan Africa by killing the worm that causes it. There have been some rumblings about using it for Covid since 2020. But while there are some clinical trials examining Ivermectin as a potential treatment for COVID 19, none have suggested that it reduces the disease. Indeed, one analysis that touted it as an effective treatment had to be withdrawn for ethical reasons. But Brandy says by that point, the drug had already caught people’s attention online.
S3: I first heard about Ivermectin a couple of months ago. There is this sort of stable of professional curmudgeon’s and contrarians known in some circles as the intellectual dark web. These folks that hang out on clubhouse work touting Ivermectin as the new sort of wonder drug for Covid. At the same time, there was this meta analysis that came out, and there are some other studies that were later retracted as fraudulent, which claimed that Ivermectin had therapeutic properties or protective properties against COVID 19. But the damage was sort of done a couple of months ago. Then you saw it slip from those circles to the larger right wing sphere.
S4: We know that our FDA has in many ways failed us by not allowing for the use of Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine Ivermectin, which can
S3: and is Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, folks like Phil Valentine, the Nashville radio deejay who touted Ivermectin just a few days before he died as something that had helped saved him. That was the misinformation pipeline that it flowed through. And all the while, these groups were bubbling up on Facebook, Reddit, telegram.
S2: Talk to me a little bit about how that information pipeline works, because I’ve read in your reporting, you know, pro Ivermectin Facebook groups have popped up and there is discussion on Reddit threads. But it sounds in the way you’re describing it, like this information moves almost in predictable patterns.
S3: It totally does. Small group of people gets blasted through a far right Web site or right wing news source, and then it trickles down to Facebook groups, to Reddit groups, to online communities which show people how to actually get the thing in their hands.
S2: In this case, one of the main promoters of Ivermectin is a group called America’s Frontline Doctors. They call themselves, quote, the trusted name for independent information. But most of what they say ranges from unproven to unsafe. Last year, they were instrumental in promoting hydroxychloroquine as a Covid treatment, much like Ivermectin. It was pumped up online with little to no evidence that it was effective and with significant and potential side effects at high doses. But none of that seems to have stopped this group from replaying the same story this year.
S3: America’s frontline doctors are a group of technically doctors. Most of them are not clinical professionals, which means they don’t treat Covid patients, which means they are not actually on the frontlines. And over the last like year and a half, they have been steadily pumping out incorrect, unsupported, unscientific information about COVID 19. They are, as a rule, anti mask, anti vaccine, pro unproven therapeutics like Ivermectin.
S2: Where do they fit into this sort of medical. Disinformation universe, how big a player are they?
S3: It’s a big universe. So they’re what I call them the number one threat. No, but they are a huge player in Covid misinformation specifically because they were the first group that really came on the scene wearing white lab coats, saying, you know, you can’t trust the government, but you can trust us. We are doctors. And it’s something called, you know, reputation laundering, where they are benefiting from the idea that they’re in white lab coats, they are doctors. We should be able to trust them. But they’re peddling this misinformation in a bid to sell lots of things. You know, one of the members of America’s frontline doctor is Dr. Stella Emanuel. She is selling her small business, which is a small clinic in a strip mall in Texas for Dr. the Gold. She is selling her brand, which is a private, bespoke, fancy practitioner in California. So it’s they each have something to sell and they come together, put on white coats and stand under the banner of America’s front line doctors. And that’s where their power comes from.
S2: It seems, I think, sort of crazy when you listen to you detail this, that this is even is even legal.
S3: You know, we call it the misinformation beat, but it’s really the grift beat. And for a decade, I’ve been sort of looking at the anti vaccination movement, the health supplement movement, the wellness community movement, and the people that are now, you know, spreading Covid misinformation have for a decade been spreading false cancer cures, been selling false cures for everything from psoriasis to HIV. I mean, it’s just this is a really common graph.
S2: How much money are we talking about?
S3: We know that health misinformation is a super profitable business. We look at people who are like at the top of the game, like Joseph Mercola, like Mike Adams, so-called health ranger, like these people live in palaces and make millions of dollars. So there’s no wonder why people would want to get in that game. You add to the fact now that people can become not only medical or health misinformation peddlers and supplement sellers and things like that, but you add that they also now, because politics and health misinformation is so deeply entwined at this point because of the pandemic. And now people can also become media stars. So there is a name and there’s money to be made for yourself.
S2: According to Brandy, some of that money is made online on websites like speak with an MD Raycom that make it easier to get prescriptions. Right now, if you go to the speak to an M.D. site, there’s a pop up message saying they are experiencing overwhelming demand.
S3: When you go with speak with an MD Ekom, you are greeted with a sort of survey saying, what do you want basically? Do you want Ivermectin? Do you not know what you want? And then they set you up after that survey with a network of doctors in your state who will prescribe you the thing that you want off label. So they’ll prescribe you that off label. Ivermectin. Then what happens is they send that prescription to an online pharmacy. And that online pharmacy is supposed to get the medicine to you. It’s worth noting that there are thousands of complaints that this whole thing is a scam from people who never get linked up with a doctor, who never get linked up with the prescription. So it’s not a perfect system.
S2: Talk to me about the links between speak with an M.D. and America’s frontline doctors.
S3: America’s frontline doctors seems to be working in a sort of affiliate role for this website. Speak with an M.D.. I looked at speak with an MD Ekom and the website was just started in March of 2020. There is no about s. There’s no way to contact their owner. There’s no there’s just no there’s no way to find out as of yet who owns that. But speak with an M.D. dot com slash America’s front line. Doctors will take you to the Ivermectin and hydrochloric and request page. So it seems to suggest that America’s frontline doctors is actually getting a cut or a percentage of every person that gets referred to the site that way.
S2: When we come back, why this cycle of Covid misinformation keeps repeating itself. You’re listening to what next TBD I’m Lizzie O’Leary, and I’m talking with NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny about Ivermectin and how it became the latest unproven Covid treatment to take over certain corners of the Internet. When you look at groups like this, are they targeting places or people who are already primed to be skeptical of the mainstream medical system, or are they converting folks who are unsure and frightened?
S3: Why not both? You have your hardcore stable of. People who have been long in the anti vaccination movement or big consumers of far right media who are primed already to accept this message. But the Delta variant is happening now. And so there are lots of people who were hesitant to get the vaccine, truly hesitant and wanted to wait and see if it had, you know, some sort of long lasting effect, even though we know that it doesn’t. We’re just waiting for some reason. And so those people are seeing their communities and often their whole families being affected by the Delta variant. And we’re seeing those people log on to the group saying, I need Ivermectin now because they’re not vaccinated and they need help because a loved one or they themselves are sick.
S2: I want to talk about that, that fear, because people who are willing to dose themselves with horse paste are afraid of something. Right. And they’re not just afraid of Covid. Like, I wonder where that skepticism of the vaccine or the FDA comes from. And would it be a mistake for someone listening to this to say those are just a bunch of crazy people?
S3: Well, a lot of it is political. I mean, we know that from polling about people who are definite. I’m never getting the vaccine people. It’s a political ideology. I don’t think they’re crazy. I just I that’s just what they believe. And they have, again, just a hodgepodge of outlets willing to tell them that they’re doing the right thing. And then they do go on social media and they find their tribe with the click of a button. And it’s people all around them telling them, you’re making the right decision, your right. Everybody else is crazy. Here is data. Here’s a website with a chart that shows you, you’re right, somehow it’s a non ending feedback loop of you’re doing everything right. And that’s the sort of danger with social media here.
S2: All of the major platforms here are Facebook, Reddit, et cetera, have said that they are taking steps to push back against this. What have you found?
S3: I have like this sort of doomsday outlook when it comes to the platforms at this point, because with health misinformation, it just feels like it’s too late almost. And you see or at least I feel like with the Ivermectin groups is a really good example of how it just seems like Facebook in particular. But but all of the platforms have thrown up their hands at this point. And so they’ll remove stuff. But like, I don’t know, it’s just not effective. You know, Facebook has this policy against promoting misinformation of Covid cures specifically, and that includes Ivermectin. But, you know, we found dozens of groups really easily. We joined them. There’s this thing that that online groups have done forever called leading. And what it is, is, you know, it’s spelled L three, three, TNG. And so people will change the spelling of things to avoid moderation. It’s sort of a cat and mouse game. And so instead of vaccines, it’ll be, you know, veh and then two backward CS with AI and iOS or changing the spelling of anything, really. And so sometimes as as a person who’s steeped in these groups, I can read it. But for an outsider coming in, it’s almost like you have to have an ingroup language to even understand what these people are talking about. And I can tell you absolutely that moderation teams are not well versed enough in this to understand when people are abusing the platform.
S2: I think anyone listening to this will say, wait a minute, we have been here before with hydrochloric when hydroxychloroquine. Why do you think these things keep happening? And would they happen anyway without this online ecosystem and we wouldn’t know about them? Or is it truly amplifying these questionable, quote unquote, cures?
S3: I think to just say that this is an online problem is ludicrous. Right. You know, even the Phil Valentine stuff I think shows us like reminds me at least of the power of radio in conservative circles. So it is a problem of all of these things. It is a problem of, you know, traditional media like Fox News. It has a problem with, you know, far right media, online media, digital media like Breitbart. It is a problem with Facebook. And the idea that they have these online private groups that they recommend or people can have these conversations and and not be seen by the general public, they’re it’s just it’s all of these things together, misinformation and disinformation and just lies. It just means lies. And so who is lying to you? Who is harmed by those lies and. Who is profiting is always sort of the way that I like to look at any of these stories.
S2: Brandy Zadrozny, thank you so much. Thank you. Brandy Zadrozny is a senior reporter for NBC News.
S3: I have dreams
S3: This is not a lie. I have dreams sometimes about Mark Zuckerberg giving a press conference and telling the world that he’s decided to unplug his website.
S2: And that’s like the whole tree. That’s it for us today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and this week were edited by Tori Bosch and Shannon Paulus. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate podcast. TBD is part of the larger What Next family. And it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I want to recommend that you go back and listen to Wednesday’s episode of what next one that is particularly important to me as a new mom. It’s about how national paid family leave might maybe actually happen. What next? We’ll be back next week. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.