Mike Adams behind mass misinformation campaign

October 20, 2021

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Pseudoscience, Scam

Mike Adams is well known to skeptics. For many years he’s run the Natural News website, which started out as a source of medical misinformation paired with a shop selling expensive, useless supplements. Some of his sillier posts included using a microscope to take zoomed-in photos of McDonald’s chicken nuggets as a way to make them look unappealing.

@youtube (opens new window)

(Spoiler - the fibers and other structures are just small pieces of herbs, spices and other seasonings in the batter that look really weird when under extreme magnification)

On Monday someone sent me a fascinating article (opens new window) from Ars Technica titled "Hacker X"—the American who built a pro-Trump fake news empire—unmasks himself. The article talked about an IT engineer called Rob Willis who started work for an unnamed company back in 2015. Rob was tasked with setting up a social media wing of the company, posting regular news articles to the company’s website and other places. But after a while the kinds of stories he was asked to post - chemtrails, the healing properties of lemons - were supplemented with political stories. The tactics changed as well, using techniques such as astroturfing - which is creating the illusion of a grassroots movement. This involves setting up lots of websites, Facebook groups, Twitter accounts, etc to make the original website’s messaging look more authentic and widespread. They also carefully chose what time of day to post different kinds of news stories, in order to maximise engagement - an upbeat item in the morning, the day’s big story at 11am, and fringe conspiracy content late in the evening. The political stories also started to change, being less about the evils of government and more about the evils of Hillary Clinton and the genius of Donald Trump. Rob managed to increase the website’s reach to cover 30 million people a week, before he eventually quit in 2017.

Well, now a follow-up article (opens new window) from Ars Technica has named the company behind this massive misinformation campaign - and, surprise surprise, it was Mike Adams’ Natural News. Mike’s website selling brain boosters and other snake oil had morphed into a political juggernaut. Thankfully at some point after the 2016 US election, Google and other companies started delisting Natural News and Mike Adams’ other websites, ensuring that they no longer showed up in search results or were promoted to users. But it seems a lot of the damage had been done already. Along with Russian misinformation campaigns and other interests, in hindsight it appears that effective domestic social media marketing was also used to sway an election.