Last Sunday afternoon, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, former TV producer and anti-vaccination activist Del Bigtree bellowed a warning: When the comeuppance arrives for what he described as authorities' mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, "Unlike the Nuremberg trials that only tried those doctors that destroyed the lives of human beings, we're going to come after the press," too.
He wasn't alone. Although the chief villain of Sunday's anti-vaccination Defeat the Mandates rally was probably Dr. Anthony Fauci — depicted in a jail cell on multiple rally-goers' signs — the media wasn't far behind. Texas ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Urso led the crowd in a call-and-response that began with, "Does anyone trust the news media?" An Idaho pathologist who came under professional investigation for allegedly claiming that COVID vaccines actually cause COVID disease goaded the crowd into chanting "Do your job!" at the press platform behind them. And virologist Dr. Richard Malone concluded his warning that vaccines might leave children with brain damage or fertility problems with a rare note of promise, saying, "I sincerely believe we can break through the effects of the madness of crowds, the mass formation," because the "dark winter … pushed by fear-mongers in the press is failing to materialize."
Perhaps only second to anti-vax hero Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Malone was the man most in the crowd had come to see. Amid the Gadsden flags and "healers not dealers" signs, at least one attendee carried a poster reading "Malone/McCullough 2024," fantasy-drafting Malone and his anti-vax colleague, Dr. Peter McCullough, as a ticket for the next presidential election.
These days, Malone is probably best known as the "mass formation" guy who got kicked off Twitter and promptly went viral on Joe Rogan's podcast — which, with an estimated 11 million viewers per episode, has a larger audience than most news outlets. But before last year, Malone was best known as an immunologist and virologist who contributed early research towards the development of the mRNA vaccine technology that underlies some of the COVID-19 vaccines in widespread use today. That is, if Malone was known at all, which turns out to be a key piece of the psychological backstory in understanding how he became what he is today. That also helps explain why, amid all the other reasons the big anti-vax rally made headlines this week — its cynical invocation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington; Kennedy's strategically inflammatory suggestion that unvaccinated Americans have it worse than Anne Frank during the Holocaust; how it drew Proud Boys and groypers together with anti-vaxxers in what's quickly becoming a unified, far-right machine — Defeat the Mandates is a media story too.
Over the last year or so, Malone has loudly and repeatedly complained that he was "written out of [the] history" of the COVID vaccines that have now saved millions of lives. As Tom Bartlett reported in an Atlantic profile of Malone last August, the doctor wrote multiple, vaguely threatening letters to another scientist he felt had unfairly received more credit, and went on a conservative media tour to promote himself as the true "inventor" of mRNA technology. "To say that Malone remains bitter over his perceived mistreatment doesn't do justice to his sense of aggrievement," Bartlett writes. "He calls what happened to him 'intellectual rape.'"
Since then, PolitiFact's Bill McCarthy adds, Malone has "written himself back" into that history, "but as someone who has made inaccurate claims that cast doubt about the very vaccines he insists would not exist without him."
He did that largely through right-wing media, where Malone has apparently found the public recognition he long felt he deserved. "The high degree of skepticism among Trump supporters and the right about vaccines and COVID-19 creates an audience for folks who, for whatever reason, haven't gotten as much attention as they wish they had," said A.J. Bauer, a media professor at the University of Alabama and co-editor of the 2019 book "News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures." "There's this second-tier celebrity network of people you may never have heard of, but within the right-wing social media sphere, they're huge."
Most notably, in August, Malone went on Steve Bannon's show "War Room: Pandemic," to argue that vaccines lead to worse COVID infections than those suffered by the unvaccinated and to air the groundless claim that the FDA had approved different versions of the vaccines than those being offered to the public. On Twitter, where Malone grew a following of around 500,000, he shared a torrent of disinformation, including, last fall, a video that falsely suggested a high school athlete who died in 2013 was killed by a COVID vaccination.
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In late December, Twitter banned Malone for violating its policy against pandemic misinformation. But the next day, Malone made his scheduled appearance on Rogan's podcast, wearing a tie festooned with images of the spiky COVID-19 virus and making a startling new claim: A third of Americans are living in a state of "mass formation psychosis," wherein isolated and anxious people are "literally … hypnotized and can be led anywhere" by their leaders.
After Malone's deplatforming, the three-hour Rogan interview took on the air of forbidden knowledge, particularly after YouTube removed the video in early January for violating its own misinformation policies. Clips of it were shared widely by right-wing figures like former Trump White House aide Seb Gorka; a Texas Republican congressman entered the show's full transcript into the Congressional Record as a protest against "big Pharma, big media" censorship; and Malone embarked on a new media tour, appearing on multiple Fox News shows, Infowars and smaller operations that target niche audiences like the Christian right. On one such outlet, an ebullient Malone pointed out a meme swapping his head onto the body of Dos Equis' brand character "The Most Interesting Man in the World" ("I don't always lose half a million followers on Twitter, but when I do, I gain 50 million views on Rogan"), noted that his Substack had "just exploded," and gloated that, in ousting him,Twitter had badly miscalculated "from a strict media standpoint."
"I think the Malone development over the last couple months is a really expository case study about how right-wing media works," said Madeline Peltz, a senior researcher at the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America. "Bannon has this unique talent to pull people out of seemingly nowhere and turn them into right-wing media celebrities."
Malone has evidently returned the favor, in helping introduce new people to a broader right-wing agenda. In the days leading up to the Defeat the Mandates rally, notes Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, "Malone made several appearances on hyperpartisan right-wing media programs, many of which have regularly peddled vaccine misinformation that is more blatant and egregious than the general vaccine hesitancy that Malone himself advances," Holt said. "So audiences seeking content featuring Malone may find themselves in the misinformation-soaked swamps where those programs exist online, and in turn could be exposed to more intense and harmful falsehoods."
Over the last few years, political scientists and media researchers have charged that right-wing media has evolved into a separate and unaccountable ecosystem that functions as a "propaganda feedback loop," providing its audience with news and opinions that reconfirm what they already believe, while simultaneously making them distrustful of any outside media source that might serve as a check on disinformation. In the 2018 book "Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation and Radicalization in American Politics," authors Hal Roberts, Robert Faris and Yochai Benkler describe this as "identity-confirming news" that attacks all potential sources of error correction as too biased to be worth considering. As journalist David Roberts has noted, that self-perpetuating cycle was pioneered in part by Rush Limbaugh in the early days of "Climategate," when the demagogic radio host told listeners that the U.S. was divided into two universes: One was a lie, controlled by "the four corners of deceit" (media, government, academia and science), and the other was "where we are," and "where reality reigns supreme."
The last few years have set that cycle spinning faster. And Malone added to its momentum on "The Joe Rogan Experience," when, in addition to proclaiming that "what we're experiencing is coordinated media warfare the level of which we have never seen before," he charged that the Trusted News Initiative, a media-technology partnership founded first to prevent the spread of election disinformation, and then expanded to address pandemic disinformation, is the propaganda arm of the powers-that-be. "So if CDC says the world is flat, then the world is flat, and there will be no discussion about whether or not the world is flat," Malone told Rogan.
As it happened, flat-earthers got a warmer reception at Sunday's rally, where event emcee JP Sears said, "I kind of feel like a flat-earther believing in natural immunity. No offense, flat-earthers."
But the effects of Malone's variety of delegitimation can be immense. Since mid-January, close to 1,300 doctors, other medical professionals and scientists signed an open letter to Spotify, which now hosts Rogan's podcast, asking the audio platform to clarify its policies on spreading misinformation. But that expression of expert opinion is no match for the power of Google search results, where five of the first 10 returns for "Trusted News Initiative" currently lead to anti-vaccination content, often citing Malone.
While Malone has gained the prominence he long sought through right-wing media, he's also driving new audiences toward platforms that might otherwise have far more limited appeal. When Malone told Rogan he was joining the right-wing Twitter-alternative Gettr, founded by former Trump spokesman Jason Miller, Rogan followed suit (if not without complications), allegedly bringing more than a million new users with him. At Media Matters, Peltz reports that Miller subsequently launched a victory tour of his own, including a Jan. 7 appearance on Infowars, where he thanked Alex Jones and his followers for helping Gettr reach a level where it could attract the likes of Rogan and Malone. Not to be outdone, in early January a competing right-wing social media platform, Gab, issued promotional posts and emails advertising that Malone fans could find the doctor and his Rogan interview on their site, too.
This kind of self-accelerating cycle has the potential to draw more people into Gab- and Gettr-style politics, warn media experts. While Malone's appearances on Fox or Infowars are largely preaching to the choir, Peltz and Bauer say that Rogan's show is different. Unlike figures like the late Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, whose audiences are already committed to right-wing politics, Bauer says that Rogan and his avid fans tend to see themselves as "independents" or iconoclasts, even as right-wing ideology transparently informs many of Rogan's programming choices. That fig leaf can make Rogan's elevation of right-wing figures that much more dangerous.
Already, prior to Rogan's 2020 Spotify deal, research such as Becca Lewis' 2018 Data & Society Report, "Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on Youtube," found that libertarian and mainstream conservative shows with mass appeal, like Rogan's, were easy entry points for radicalization, especially by way of a YouTube algorithm that led viewers, within a few video recommendations, from Rogan-esque self-help content into far-right or white nationalist fare.
With or without YouTube's infamous algorithm, the right-wing media cycle exemplified by Malone's recent celebrity shows that the wheel keeps on spinning. "There's a lot of people on Gettr who have been deplatformed from mainstream platforms. Infowars is everywhere on Gettr. So you're going to get stuff there that you're not going to get on mainstream platforms," said Peltz. "If Rogan is bringing people over there, then you're sparking that cycle again, of being a gateway to more hardcore ideologies."
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