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Some influencers in wellness communities are using their platform to promote conspiracy theories. We examine the social media phenomenon that's having a real-world impact. Stephanie Sy takes a closer look at how one mother was pulled into this world of disinformation and how she got out.
Tonight, we examine a social media phenomenon that's having a real-world impact. Some influencers in wellness communities are using their platform to promote conspiracy theories.
Stephanie Sy takes a closer look at how one mother was pulled into this world of disinformation and how she got out.
In her home yoga studio in Topanga Canyon, west of Los Angeles, Seane Corn can breathe deeply and tune out the noise.
But when she logs on to her Instagram, it's impossible to avoid it. A yoga instructor for nearly 30 years, Corn has more than 100,000 Instagram followers. but,a few years ago, she began noticing a dark change in tone on her social media.
Seane Corn, Yoga Teacher:
I started to receive a lot of information from my friends just via text, online, sending me all this propaganda, Pizzagate and their talk of drinking the blood of children.
The look of the posts blended in with the other content on her feed.
They'd be beautifully curated, the font, the colors, the layout, the photography.
Corn saw that those carefully curated facades were being used to peddle conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccine and QAnon, the belief that child sex traffickers and pedophiles have infiltrated the government and that President Trump was sent to stop them.
What's more, QAnon's online recruiters were specifically co-opting yoga language.
You bring up this yogic idea of, I can't be free unless my community is free.
QAnon's motto is, where we go one, we go all.
Mm-hmm. And when I first heard that statement, it caught me in my throat. They also talk about the Great Awakening and the Great Reset. Language like this is also very much in alignment with spiritual principles. We are here to wake up.
And this was other yoga teachers and wellness influencers?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Was it the majority of them?
If I was just to look at my tight-knit group of colleagues, 50/50.
Fifty percent of your inner circle of wellness teachers and influencers believe that Donald Trump was sent here for cosmic good?
Yes, I would have to say.
Derek Beres, Co-Host, "Conspirituality": OK, let me hit record.
Derek Beres is a co-host of the podcast "Conspirituality," which examines why the wellness industry is such fertile ground for counternarratives.
The intersection between the New Age and the right-wing conspiratorial thinking, I believe, is rooted in individualism. America is an individualist culture. Everything we produce and promote is all about the sovereignty of the self, and sovereignty is one of those words that crosses over between those two communities.
And it intensified during the pandemic.
So you start looking on Instagram, and then there's your favorite yoga instructor talking about child sex trafficking, and 5G causing cancer, and the vaccine that's coming is going to give you cancer or is going to kill you.
And some people looked in horror, but some people were like, wait a second, I'm going to go this route and explore this and do my research.
That phrase, "Do your own research," is rampant on anti-vaccine forums, as well as QAnon spaces. The research often leads people to what the Center for Countering Digital Hate calls the Disinformation Dozen, responsible for some 65 percent of all vaccine disinformation spread online.
They have reached tens of millions of users.
Joseph Mercola, Influencer:
Hi. This is Dr. Mercola, helping you take control of your health.
They include Dr. Joseph Mercola, who peddles dietary supplements to his 3.6 million followers, and has claimed that hydrogen peroxide can cure COVID-19, Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopath physician who claims that wearing a mask has negative health effects, and Sayer Ji, who runs a popular alternative health Web site and shares false claims, like that the Pfizer vaccine has killed more elderly people than COVID-19.
Heather Simpson spent years under the influence of the Disinformation Dozen. She recalls how she was drawn in.
Heather Simpson, Former Anti-Vaccine Influencer:
It all started when I kind of looked into the wellness community when I was trying to get pregnant, and it was like ads started popping up for anti-vaccine issues. It was like one and the same. Like, look up wellness stuff, anti-vax stuff pops up.
Simpson soon found herself watching videos about the dangers of vaccines and approached her doctor.
He was like: "You're not one of those crazy anti-vaxxers, are you?" and like conversation dead.
All of the, I feel, gaslighting by the medical community and then them just brushing me away, like, was completely opposite from what I would find on the Internet with the holistic world. They welcomed me.
Conspiracy theories gain traction when people lose trust in institutions. Alternative theories take root, espoused by authentic and relatable influencers masquerading as truth-tellers, says researcher Stephanie Baker.
Dr. Stephanie Alice Baker, University of London: Really, what's at play here, rather than social media being the cause of this kind of anti-vaccine sentiment, is that, actually, social media creates the conditions for these trust relationships and for intimacy to be fostered to a different degree.
We have got to move away from seeing misinformation as an information problem to really seeing it as a relationship problem.
Baker has examined how social media influencers may manipulate mothers like Simpson.
Dr. Stephanie Alice Baker:
What we have found is that a lot of that content was dedicated towards actually specifically targeting mothers, and trying to encourage them to refuse vaccination, and really playing on this idea that a mother's intuition is superior to the abstract professional knowledge.
Mother Heather Simpson soon became an influencer herself.
Looking back, I feel like I got reported enough for misinformation that Facebook could have and perhaps should have taken that stuff down. But it was racking up so many comments and just user engagement that, why would they?
She had discovered the magic formula that makes so many wellness influencers rich. Social media algorithms are known to push more provocative content, because it increases engagement, great for the social media companies, and for people selling false promises.
Almost everyone in the wellness community that I knew was involved in a multilevel marketing company. A lot of them are stay-at-home moms or single moms. Some of them are making $20,000 a month at this point. Some are making $100,000. And so, naturally, I fell into that.
And so I sold a product that claimed basically to detox your body.
At the time, Simpson saw the scheme as a way to gain financial freedom from her husband, whom she's now separated from.
I was just doing anything I could just to get out, just be independent and be strong for my daughter and do everything I could to make an income and get out there and get out — out of there.
Simpson eventually grew disillusioned with the wellness community, a feeling that only increased during the pandemic, and led her to publicly denounce the persona she'd cultivated.
I realized, if you're not 100 percent brainwashed, you're not — yes, you are the enemy.
COVID hit the next month, and they changed their tune to: Don't mask me. I have freedom.
And I was like: Why not? Just wear a mask. Like, it could save an entire life.
She's now not only fully vaccinated. She runs a group encouraging others to get the COVID vaccine.
Seane Corn is also fighting against the tide of conspiracy theories that have gripped her yoga community, but it hasn't been easy to take a stand. When she posted a statement against QAnon, the backlash came quick.
The vitriol was intense. The messages that I received privately were definitely violent.
Her tactic for helping fellow yogis find their way back from the conspiracy brink goes back to a basic yogic principle, engaging the student in their own healing.
I want to ask questions. Like, tell me more. Why do you believe that? And then see if we can get to the root, because the root is always going to come down to fear.
It's a process, she says, and, like the practice of yoga, a slow one.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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