Not too long ago, I wrote about how all science denial is a form of conspiracy theory. Ever since that concept crystalized in my mind, I’ve been finding more and more examples that reinforce just that conclusion: All science denial is conspiracy theory. Last week, CNN did a story about just one such example, the case of Ty Bollinger and his wife Charlene. I’ve written about them before, as this pseudoscience- and quackery-loving couple represent two of the most prominent members of what I like to call the “Cancer Truth” movement. That CNN story struck me as an excellent reason to check in on the Bollingers to see what they are doing in the age of COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, they’re grifting, and they’ve conveniently glommed on to the conspiracy theories of 2020 and beyond, the better to profit from promoting misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“The cancer truth movement” is a movement that denies that chemotherapy and other conventional oncologic treatments for cancer are effective (indeed, it’s often claimed that these “cut/burn/poison” treatments do more harm than good) and that claims that various alternative medical treatments can cure cancer. Like all science denying movements, “cancer truthers” base their denial of science-based oncology in conspiracy theories, in which big pharma and conventional oncology doctors “suppress” the evidence that chemotherapy does more harm than good and that alternative medicine “cures” cancer, unconcerned about all the patients they supposedly harm or kill as long as pharma and oncologists profit off of chemotherapy. It’s very similar to the way antivaxxers also claim that the CDC, physicians, and big pharma are “suppressing” the “proof” that vaccines cause more harm than good, as long as pediatricians and other doctors, as well as big pharma, can profit off of vaccines. Truly, at its core the central conspiracy theory of the cancer truther movement is basically the same as the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. Both are variants of the central conspiracy theory of science denial.
Before I discuss the CNN story, first let’s take a moment to look back Ty and Charlene Bollinger’s history. One thing that this couple is known for is a series of videos entitled The Truth About Cancer. As I like to point out, when you see anything entitled “The Truth About” something, almost invariably you are looking at something that is anything but the “The Truth.” What you are looking at is propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation, and, as Harriet Hall pointed out, there is a ton of misinformation about cancer and chemotherapy in The Truth About Cancer. Harriet did the overview, and I dug deep into one episode, in which the Bollingers promoted Rigvir, an unproven treatment promoted by Latvian doctors.
Unfortunately, Ty and Charlene Bollinger are experts at what we call “fire hosing,” the art of spraying so much misinformation over so many hours that countering it becomes so onerous that most skeptics will demur. Certainly, I did, because I just didn’t have the time to devote ten hours just to watch the series, plus who knows how many more hours to dissect the hundreds of individual bits of disinformation. Dissecting YouTube videos and video series that quacks produce is incredibly time-consuming, and, I suspect, the quacks know it. No wonder Ty and Charlene Bollinger soon pivoted to a series they called The Truth About Vaccines, which used much the same technique of “fire hosing,” only this time to spread antivaccine misinformation.
I well remember how Ty Bollinger victimized a young cancer patient. Does anyone remember Cassandra Callender? She was a 17-year old who came to my attention over five years ago, when there was a national furor over her case. In brief, she developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma and refused standard-of-care chemotherapy, with the support and encouragement of her mother. There was a court case, and it was ordered that she undergo chemotherapy, and it was shortly after this point that Ty Bollinger interviewed her to promote cancer quackery and “resistance” to chemotherapy. She did, but as soon as she turned 18, she stopped therapy. Unfortunately, ultimately she relapsed and her cancer progressed. Sadly, she died last year, and her mother continues to blame science-based oncology for her death, rather than the quackery that she pursued as soon as she turned 18, while the Bollingers continue to blame dark conspiracies “suppressing” evidence for “natural cures” for cancer.
So no one should be surprised by the CNN story:
As the Trump faithful gathered around the Capitol on January 6, two conspiracy theories peddling in government mistrust converged: The fraudulent belief that the election was stolen, and the dangerous narrative that Covid-19 vaccinations are wildly unsafe.
“We’re being led off of a cliff,” Del Bigtree, an anti-vaccine activist, told the crowd at the “MAGA Freedom Rally D.C.” about a block from the Capitol.
“I wish I could tell you that Tony Fauci cares about your safety…” he said. “I wish I could believe that voting machines worked… but none of this is happening.”
In the wake of Trump’s electoral defeat, some leaders of the anti-vaccine movement latched onto the “Stop the Steal” crusade, advancing their own conspiratorial claims and, in some cases, promoting private business ventures, CNN has found. Some prominent anti-vaxxers say they directly coordinated with organizers of the DC rallies in January and pushed their message at other MAGA demonstrations, and on pro-Trump podcasts and social media platforms.
Which brings us not just to Del Bigtree, a frequent topic of this blog, but to Ty and Charlene Bollinger:
The event was organized in part by a political action committee run by Ty and Charlene Bollinger, a married couple who run websites and sell documentaries that claim to reveal “the truth about vaccines” and range in price from $199 to $499. They also market alternative health books and other products.
The Bollingers have engaged for years in what they describe as health-freedom activism. But in recent months they took up another cause.
In early November, they co-authored a post about “voter fraud and election meddling” for the website of political operative Roger Stone, who has taken credit for coining the phrase “Stop the Steal” to help then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Last November, Stone wrote in a webpost that he “strategized” with the Bollingers.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve often alluded to how a lot of people have been surprised at just how fast antivaxxers joined forces with COVID-19 cranks, antimaskers, and anti-“lockdown” activists—and even QAnon conspiracy theorists—but shouldn’t have been. All one has to understand is the concept that all science denial is a form of conspiracy theory. Once that is understood, it becomes utterly unsurprising that antivaxxers joined forces with all manner of COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and pro-Trump conspiracy theorists. Indeed, it was basically inevitable that they would. Moreover, when it comes to grifters like Ty and Charlene Bollinger, the inevitability is even more obvious, because the opportunity for grift has been magnified by COVID-19 and “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories.
Back to the CNN story:
In a video posted on January 4, Charlene Bollinger said she was working with other organizers on plans for the January 6th protests including “Ali” — an apparent reference to Ali Alexander, a leader of the broader “Stop the Steal” movement.
Two days later, Charlene Bollinger introduced the speakers at her group’s rally near the US Capitol, plugged her documentaries and blasted what she called, “the forced Covid vaccine, such a scam.” She also told attendees that her husband Ty wasn’t with her because he had gone to join the siege.
“I told him… they are storming the Capitol, and he looked at me and said, ‘Do I need to stay here?’ I knew he wanted to go. I said, ‘Honey go,’ so he did,” she said.
Charlene Bollinger added that Ty texted her and said he was “outside” the Capitol. She then prayed “for the patriots that are there now inside. They’re trying to get inside that Capitol. Lord, use these people to eradicate this evil, these swamp creatures.”
CNN also gets it (mostly) right:
While outlandish claims of a stolen election may appear disjointed with vaccine fearmongering, their union at recent political rallies does not surprise Ahmed, of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Ahmed said fulltime anti-vaccine advocates often search for new audiences within other fringe movements with which they can build alliances. And he said it’s not a coincidence that some of these professionals sell products like health supplements.
I say “mostly” right because Imran Ahmed misses what a lot of people miss. It’s not just about the grift, although there is no doubt that it is about that. It’s not just about building alliances, although there is no doubt that it is about that. It’s about a lot more than the grift and building alliances. It’s about an affinity for conspiracy theories and how, if you believe in one conspiracy theory, it’s very likely that you will be receptive to believing in other conspiracy theories. The grift is just the icing on the cake for people like the Bollingers.
Again, if you look at this through the lens of the concept that all science denial is a form of conspiracy theory, and it should not be the least bit surprising that Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Del Bigtree, Sherri Tenpenny, and other antivaxxers would naturally join forces with COVID-19 conspiracy theorists like Simone Gold and with “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theorists who believe that there was a grand conspiracy to falsify vote totals and “steal” the election from Donald Trump. I will admit that even I was somewhat surprised at just how quickly antivaxxers inserted themselves into this entire conspiracy ecosystem surrounding COVID-19 and the election.
At this point, I will again point out that, contrary to the belief that antivaxxers are all crunchy hippie-dippy lefties, antivaccine beliefs are the pseudoscience that encompasses all political orientations from left to right. That being said, right now, in 2021 (and at least since 2015), the loudest, most radical, most dangerous voices in the antivaccine movement are right wing. Sure, there are occasional exceptions, like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but the vast majority of the antivaccine movement has tacked right. The reason dates back to the battle over SB 277, the California law passed in 2015 that eliminated nonmedical exemptions. It was then that antivaxxers discovered the true effectiveness of using messaging emphasizing “health freedom,” “parental rights,” and the castigation of “government overreach” as a gateway to antivaccine conspiracy theories, and now the Republican Party has become, in essence, the party of antivaxxers dating to at least a couple of years before the pandemic.
Then, of course, there’s the grift, which is why Ty and Charlene Bollinger so happily saw the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theory as an opportunity to profit, just as they had seen antivaccine conspiracy theories as an opportunity to profit before that and “cancer truth” conspiracy theories before that.
It’s particularly amusing to see Ty and Charlene Bollinger respond to the CNN story. Predictably, they call the CNN report “fake news,” taking a page from—who else?—Donald Trump. They also liken the CNN report to Holocaust denial:
Despite over 500 reported deaths from the COVID vaccine (according to the CDC’s VAERS database), the CNN report insinuates that vaccines are undeniably “safe” while totally ignoring the indisputable $4.4 Billion paid out to Americans damaged by previous vaccinations – an amount paid by the DHHS itself! Congressman Adam Schiff once sponsored a House Resolution declaring that there have never been any deaths attributable to vaccinations. This is like claiming that the holocaust never happened –a repugnant and idiotic notion.
No, Mr. Bollinger. That’s utter nonsense, and you’re just using VAERS the way that antivaxxers have always misused VAERS by imputing causation from the reports made to the database. (I just wrote about that two days ago!) But what about Bollinger’s claim about Adam Schiff? I rather suspect it comes from Schiff’s letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in which he pointed out that there is “no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause life-threatening or disabling diseases, and the dissemination of unfounded and debunked theories about the dangers of vaccinations pose a great risk to public health.” None of what Schiff wrote is incorrect.
Bollinger apparently very much resents the claim that he and his wife are profiting from their activities. I laughed out loud when I read this passage:
CNN’s attempts to depict us as “profiteers” running an “empire” is yet another dishonest and deceitful attack. We are extraordinarily proud of the work we have done in our documentary films – The Truth About Cancer and The Truth About Vaccines. And while we have generated income from our documentary films, we find nothing wrong with making a living. What CNN’s “hatchet job” failed to mention was the fact that over the past six years, we have donated over $250K to charities that help people with cancer and vaccine damage, and we also have personally funded events to bring awareness to health freedom and the legitimacy of questioning the safety of vaccines.
And while brazenly disparaging us for selling products, in true “fake news” form, the CNN report failed to mention the record profits made by the vaccine manufacturing pharmaceutical giants in 2020, with the top 10 companies accumulating profits in excess of $400 billion.
Not surprisingly, they also failed to mention that the four companies that make all 72 of our vaccines (Merck, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Glaxo) are four of the most corrupt companies in the world. They are serial felons, and have paid $35 billion the last 10 years for falsifying science, for defrauding regulators, for lying to doctors, and for selling drugs that they knew were poisonous and knew were going to kill people, but still acquired FDA approval and took to market. Even the FDA admits, on its own website, that over 106K Americans die each year from “adverse drug reactions” to pharmaceuticals which are “FDA approved” and properly prescribed and used.
In other words, don’t attack us for our grifting because we donate some of the profits from our grift to charities promoting the same “cancer truth” and “vaccine truth” that we do and big pharma makes so much more money than we do for producing products that work! And look at the false claim based on utter innumeracy and badly done studies that medical errors and adverse drug events kill 100K people a year!
And, says Bollinger, CNN hates our religion:
The CNN piece ridiculed and mocked us for our religion – this is not only elitist but also beneath contempt. The senseless acts of violence inside the Capitol on January 6th were committed by misguided individuals, and we had nothing to do with promoting or inciting violence. Those who were engaged in the illegal and politically senseless acts should be punished, however a broad-based smear of anyone who asked legitimate questions about the integrity of the vote in the 2020 elections and asserting that they are somehow responsible or connected to these unlawful acts is despicable and appalling. It’s the new McCarthyism.
This one puzzled me. I went back and reread the CNN story, looking for any mention of religion and found no mention of Charlene Bollinger’s religion, Ty’s religion, or even any religion, much less any mocking of their religion. While it’s true that there is a strong correlation between evangelical Christian beliefs and QAnon, this particular story didn’t really mention it other than in the video mentioning how the rally on January 6 was “part prayer service,” with a clip of Charlene Bollinger “praying for the patriots” who were trying to get into the Capitol and hoping for their success. I suppose that one could, if one really, really tried, portray that as “mocking” Charlene Bollinger’s religion, but what I saw was a report showing her praying for the mob that overran the Capitol Building.
In the end, conspiracy theories are the problem, and, as Mark Hoofnagle put it:
Antivaccine conspiracy theorist are no different, as I’ve documented when I’ve recounted the increasingly violent rhetoric coming from the antivaccine movement. It’s no wonder that antivaxxers were all-in with the “Stop the Steal” rally.