Anti-Vax newsletters earn Substack $2.5 million

Popular messaging platform Substack generates about $2.5 million each year from anti-vaccine newsletters, according to a new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCHR).

Controversial doctor, Joseph Mercola, DO, runs one of the platform’s most popular newsletters. Mercola Newsletters and Alumni New York Times Journalist Alex Berenson accounts for more than $2.2 million of that revenue, according to the report. They raise a total of $183,000 per month.

While Substack gets 10% of that revenue, 90% goes to the authors. Both are listed as having “tens of thousands” of paying subscribers, the report notes.

Three other newsletters that publish anti-vaccine claims — by Robert Malone, MD; Steven Kirsch; and an anonymous writer – generate the bulk of the remaining $300,000 in annual revenue, according to the report.

Earlier this year, Mercola said it would move all of its posts deleted by other platforms to Substack. This “censored library” boosted him from thousands to tens of thousands of subscribers, the report said.

Mercola has used its newsletter to make claims such as: “More children have died from COVID Shot than from COVID.”

Berenson, who was banned from Twitter last year for spreading false COVID vaccine claims, pushed ideas such as that vaccines won’t stop COVID-related hospitalizations or deaths, and that vaccines to mRNA contributed to the spread of COVID.

Other claims from the five newsletters reviewed by the CCDH include: “Mass vaccination and life booster program are part of the ongoing technocratic coup” and “The data is very clear: vaccines kill many more people than they could save from COVID.”

Substack’s content guidelines prohibit authors from conducting “harmful” activities, but the company does not categorically prohibit users from spreading misinformation.

In an article published last week, Substack co-founders Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi wrote an article titled “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.”

“[As] we are facing increasing pressure to censor content posted on Substack that some may find questionable or objectionable, our response remains the same: we make decisions based on principles, not public relations, we will defend freedom of expression and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation,” they wrote.

Imran Ahmed, director general of the CCDH, told the Guardian that companies like Substack “might just say no” to producers of anti-vaccine content and misinformation. “It’s not about freedom, it’s about profiting from lies,” Ahmed said. “Substack should immediately stop profiting from medical misinformation that can seriously harm readers.”

Katelyn Jetelina, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist at UT Health Science Center in Houston who handles a popular Substack email, said she had mixed feelings about how Substack should respond.

“Proactive solutions” are needed to mend the fractures in society, and Substack’s strategy could provide a solution, she said. “I’m willing to give Substack the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not excited or happy about it.”

Although she said she didn’t want to complain without offering an alternative solution, she noted that she thought the company’s solution “is risky and I hope that will be recognized. Not only risky for the health of our population, but risky to the safety personnel of me and my fellow scientists who fight misinformation every day.”

“My life and the life of my family have been directly threatened throughout this pandemic by the followers of this misinformation,” Jetelina said. MedPage today. “And we had to take certain steps to keep my family safe. The threat is real and scary. It’s also incredibly exhausting and I’m tired.”

“I hope,” she added, “this will start a constructive and meaningful conversation about the smart way forward and effective solutions to some of our societal downfalls.”

Other digital platforms have come under pressure to tackle misinformation. More recently, musician Neil Young tried to pressure Spotify to remove podcast host Joe Rogan over his alleged COVID misinformation. Young asked Spotify to remove her music, and singer Joni Mitchell later pulled her own music from the platform in solidarity. Hundreds of doctors, researchers and scientists have also tried to ask the platform to remove Rogan and take a proactive stance against misinformation.

  • Kristina Fiore leads MedPage’s corporate reporting and investigative team. She has been a medical journalist for over a decade and her work has been recognized by Barlett & Steele, AHCJ, SABEW and others. Send story tips to [email protected] To follow

Harry L. Blanchard