Joseph Mercola, who researchers say is a chief spreader of coronavirus misinformation online, said Wednesday that he would delete posts on his site 48 hours after publishing them.
In a post on his website, Mercola, an osteopathic physician in Cape Coral, Florida, said he was deleting his writings because President Joe Biden had “targeted me as his primary obstacle that must be removed” and because “blatant censorship” was being tolerated.
Last month, the White House, while criticizing tech companies for allowing misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines to spread widely, pointed to research showing that a group of 12 people were responsible for sharing 65% of all anti-vaccine messaging on social media. The nonprofit behind the research, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, called the group the “Disinformation Dozen” and listed Mercola in the top spot.
Mercola has built a vast operation to disseminate anti-vaccination and natural health content and to profit from it, according to researchers. He employs teams of people in places like Florida and the Philippines, who swing into action when news moments touch on health issues, rapidly publishing blog posts and translating them into nearly a dozen languages, then pushing them to a network of websites and to social media.
An analysis by The New York Times found that he had published more than 600 articles on Facebook that cast doubt on COVID-19 vaccines since the pandemic began, reaching a far larger audience than other vaccine skeptics. Mercola criticized the Times’ reporting in his post Wednesday, saying it was “loaded with false facts.”
Mercola said in his blog post that he would remove 15,000 past posts from his website. He will continue to write daily articles, he said, but they will only be available for 48 hours before being removed. He said it was up to his followers to help spread his work.
Rachel Moran, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories, said the announcement by Mercola was “him trying to come up with his own strategies of avoiding his content being taken down while also playing up this martyrdom of being an influential figure in the movement who keeps being targeted.”
Aaron Simpson, a Facebook spokesperson, said, “This is exactly what happens when you are enforcing policies against COVID misinformation — people try extreme ways to work around your restrictions.”
Facebook, he said, “will continue to enforce against any account or group that violates our rules.”
YouTube said that it had clear community guidelines for COVID-19 medical misinformation, that it had removed a number of Mercola’s videos from the platform and that it had issued “strikes” on his channel. The company also said it would terminate Mercola’s channel if it violated its three-strikes policy.
Twitter said that it had taken enforcement action on Mercola’s account in early July for violations of its COVID-19 misinformation policy, putting his account in read-only mode for seven days.
“Since the introduction of our COVID-19 misinformation policy, we’ve taken enforcement action on the account you referenced for violating these rules,” said Trenton Kennedy, a Twitter spokesperson. “We’ve required the removal of tweets and applied COVID-19 misleading information labels to numerous others.”