Commentary

What online health gurus don’t want you to know

Now that we know that they make more from AdSense than the biggest commercial TV channel in a year it is time to look at online health gurus and what motivates them. (Spoiler: it is not the goodness of their hearts)

The Putin-regime must have made a fortune placing ads next to their propaganda

A think tank looked up how much the major fake health websites made in 2021, just from AdSense. In a tiny language market, not even in English. It was more than what the biggest Hungarian commercial TV channel makes in a year from advertising.

But these self-appointed health gurus also sell you stuff so their actual revenues are even higher than that. And now that one of them (a pandemic success story who grew to prominence by denying the virus, the vaccines, everything) embarked upon a seemingly political career they should really get some scrutiny (even though the guy is just using the fake party loophole Orbán wrote into the election law that makes it easy to soak up subsidies in the name of non-existent parties).

Their basic method is to point out that medicine gets money from healing you – so they twist it to claim and they keep you sick on purpose just to get your money.

It is a tall order from any actor as diverse and uncoordinated as “medicine” as such. Even if all the pharmaceutical companies would conspire on all the things they are accused of, it would be an amazing feat of organization and secrecy that just doesn’t exist in real life. They even claim that the virus (that doesn’t exist) was invented, created and fabricated by those who ended up benefitting from it (that you know of). Which would be an amazing achievement – even if evil.

Anyway, these quacks have an easy time. The less information one possesses the more confident they are about their opinions – simply because nothing in their mind contradicts. And it doesn’t just apply to the quacks’ audience – but to the quacks themselves. They can just sit around at home and make up stories for free. Stories about Big Pharma, stories about miracle compounds, stories about miracle cures that captivate, excite and give hope. These stories are as exciting and hopeful as they make them. They are not bogged down in their fictional endeavors by the boring and unsatisfying details of reality that somehow always fails to deliver back and white answers, miracle cures and stories that captivate.

Here is my story with them.

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.

Mark Twain, Letter to Mrs Foote

It infuriates and scares me in equal measure when people educate themselves off the internet. My reason for that is that I used to put falsehoods on it and I didn’t even know.

A long time ago I had one of those student jobs: maintaining a website, translating content from English, managing orders from a webshop. It was a flexible job with good money. I had to work from the home office of my employer, a respectable, white-haired doctor. He had just upgraded his small nutritionist practice to an online shop. It was before social media but he already had devout followers and knew where to plug his name for a bigger reach. He was on TV and in magazines.

The webshop was picking up quickly. I was there when the first order came in – and three weeks later two more staff were hired to pack and ferry hundreds of parcels a day to the post office.

The doctor was jovial and respectable – but also stern and opinionated when he talked to the few privileged patients who still knew him from his private practice days and called him from time to time. I was his favorite because I figured out online selling quickly. He sent me articles to translate. I added stock photos of the suggested home remedy and occasionally links to our own nutritional supplements. In just two weeks I understood his taste so well, he let me post articles on my own, didn’t even look at it.

That should have been my first clue.

The articles were all identical and came from American health and nutrition websites. They started with a long list of symptoms (one of which you were bound to have) then offered a simple and natural ingredient to cure. Sometimes herbal remedies, sometimes nutritional supplements. More water, vitamins, lemon, honey, baking soda, olive oil were the cure for most of your problems. (It was well before the coconut oil-craze, and almonds were not yet in. Garlic and onion were falling out of favour because the audience wasn’t happy with the smell and wild things like drinking bleach and overdosing iodine were not on this doctor’s menu – those came later with he aforementioned pandemic quacks who copy their scams from Russian sources.)

When the cure was not an ingredient from the kitchen (they were very clickable articles) but one of the more complex supplements, the doctor told me to plug in his equivalent products in the articles. He ordered them from China, without any labels. He had his own labels designed by a very skilled young designer. They looked so good, I felt like taking some of the supplement myself. Unlike the plastic-upon-plastic look of the Chinese boxes we received, our labels were stenciled on recycled paper, way before it was cool. They really looked natural and they were designed like the containers that held remedies your grandma picked the herbs for. Sometimes I wondered how the runners (or indeed the doctor) knew which unlabeled Chinese container holds what but they always seemed on top of it.

That was my second clue.

All the articles we posted ended with a list of two or three scientific papers published on the subject. I studied social sciences so I thought I knew when a reference looked flimsy.

  • A simple link to another article was frowned upon – although widely used.
  • But a surname and a year carefully plugged in in the text (Anxiety, M. 2015) and a list of papers at the end were always reassuring.

I always copied the list of references that appeared in the translated English article to the end of my translation, unchanged and unchecked. Someone must have checked them before posting them on American sites, right?

That was my third clue.

I also dealt with the emails. One day an email arrived from a lady who suffered from cancer. The doctor instructed me, not even looking up, to send her a certain supplement. I absentmindedly asked what exactly pancreatic cancer was. (I have heard the term before but didn’t even know where the organ was in the body.) It was an innocent question but the doctor got inexplicably irritated and went on an unexpected rant about not lecturing him on his own profession. What was I thinking where my salary came from?

Then he went on to rant about “those douchebags” who attack him because he told people to stop their medications. They knew nothing, he said, but after a lawsuit he made a point of never suggesting stopping their medications again. He just said things like “illness has a cause and you have to deal with the cause”. And that these nutritional supplements in certain combinations do things the medical profession doesn’t want you to know. And so on.

I realised, of course, that his venting had nothing to do with me or pancreatic cancer. The rant went on and on until he got so worked up, he decided he cannot trust a “traitor” like me, and sent me home. Frankly, by that time I was looking at the door to escape. It was a different man.

Next day I felt remorse. I have, of course, blamed myself. I turned up to work but no one, not even the runners answered the door. I didn’t get my month’s wages and I had no money left. I needed a new job immediately so I quickly forgot about the incident. This was not the first shitty student job I took and lost unfairly.

***

Fast forward to the 2010s when I read about an investigation by consumer protection against a widespread and extremely profitable scam. (To be precise, journalists are hunting the operators down and the authorities react grudgingly.) The scam operates a plethora of near-identical websites that feed on AdSense and offer overpriced and shitty supplements to cure any ailment you have googled lately. They are all operated by a company whose name I’ve heard before – and it cannot be a coincidence.

Turns out, the doctor wasn’t a doctor. Or at least he was self-licensed. Of course, you might add, but what reason did I have to check the serial number on his license or degree? Someone who maintains an office with a license on the wall, someone who carries himself with the confidence of a doctor, someone who is regarded as a doctor and with awe by his patients.

I am sure he believed everything he said – back then. Believing in his own superpowers was the source of his authority and at the end of the day he sold authority. And hope. His modus operandi also hasn’t changed. He read the same articles on the same spoof websites he used to (written by American undergrads on a summer internship or bored housewives who totally found out what’s best) and he repeated their gushing revelations with his own authority thrown in.

He thought he knew as much as a doctor, right? You may be genuinely and completely undereducated, but if you really don’t know anything about your subject, you will be confident. Gaining the trust of someone who just arrived to the field from Google search is child’s play. Besides, everything he said sounded so logical. Of the three things he mentioned, “A”, “B” and “C”, the logical conclusion was indeed “D”. Never mind that “A” and “B” were false claims and “C” had nothing to do with the matter. And there were probably a hundred other variables that had but he never mentioned and you never learned. “D” was always so obviously right and he also happened to administer that to his patients.

He could rant for hours about how the pharmaceutical industry is a business and medical tests are all faulty and cheated – which may be true. It is just that he would never know himself because he couldn’t tell a p-value from a freight train. And miraculously, by the time he finished blasting medicine and pharma, you came to the conclusion that he, on the other hand, knows. He is the only one who could save you from the horrors he just let you know existed. You needed a new certainty, so you didn’t check his claims. Pharma has to prove itself. The “doctor” doesn’t.

He promised a shortcut – but where did it lead to? If plenty of tests and science cannot provide certainty – that doesn’t mean that his solution is true. He didn’t wonder around in nature for millennia, meeting all kinds of ailments and trying all the plants on them. Nor did wise old women or untainted cavemen. Don’t give me that inherited wisdom BS. All I can see now is the power he holds over people by posing as The Source Of Wisdom. That power is real. And people pay for it. The rest is just unfounded claims.

Contrary to what people have come to believe, there is absolutely no one who would pre-test each and every chemical and supplement that hits the shelves and gets into our homes. Authorities may act retroactively if someone complains and starts to campaign against a compound that he or she thinks caused their cancer. But no one checks those supplements in advance for healing qualities, maybe just a bit for safety. And the authorities only check if the dandelion extract contains as much dandelion that it claims – not whether dandelions really cure autism.

These quacks and their Chinese import liquids get even less attention because they are classified as food, not medicine. No one even checks whether the claimed supplement is in the container in the first place, nor whether it is good for you – and let’s be frank, Chinese had even figured out how to fake an egg. Shell and yolk and everything. Without a hen. Cheaper, too.

So if you’re lucky, you get something neutral like magnesium solution from these self-licensed witch doctors. If you aren’t lucky, the Chinese found magnesium too pricey and packed whatever was lying around in the factory.

I’ve been working there when I was a freshman and I had never given much thought to health before, so I was easy to impress. I only read the basics info “The doctor” supplied. It was always clear and self-evident, without any contradictions or dilemmas or frustrating unknowns, and it was assembled in a way that made them easy to read. And I, too, felt that everything was so obvious and everything was falling into place. Until I read further and realised just how deep the rabbit hole really was, how little we know and how slow it is to gain new knowledge – until that, too, is replaced by even better understanding. That is science. Not the satisfactory certainties of the lies quacks tell.

I think the “doctor” was just as dazzled by references (the names and years put in brackets like Anxiety, M. 2015) as I was. I never bothered to look them up and nor did he. Those names can be false, the articles fake – or actual articles by actual scientists but ones that never claimed that olives are the cure for AIDS. Maybe they were real just not about olives. After all, some of those claims could never even be proved by research without an illegal human experiment.

The confidence and the wild claims of the articles are good indicators that something is fishy. No self-respecting and responsible expert would ever give a simplistic and one-size-fit all advice, such as Vitamin-C cures cancer but they don’t want you to know. Quacks may even tell you to also see a doctor but they know that you are there because doctors didn’t satisfy you. So the quack just covers his ass when he says that. It is the equivalent of QAnon telling you do go do your own research – but also supplies the conclusions and the YouTube videos you should watch as “research”. The illusion of an informed choice.

Back when I worked for him that quack was really just a rookie. He had an offline practice where he received people with ailments medicine could not solve conclusively. He told them it was because “they don’t want you to be healthy”. Big Pharma, the medical profession, corporations – they all conspire to hide simple, cheap (or not so cheap), natural solutions. He listened because he needed more info about you to influence you – and also because his time was cheap. he never invested a decade and millions into med school. He empathized, he felt with his clients – whom he began to consider his patients. And himself a doctor. He never had to tell. We all assumed. So would you.

Since then, he upgraded into an impersonal, web-based scam machine using AdSense. Seeing patients took time and he could use that time more efficiently tinkling with algorithms to bring them through his virtual door.

As of the source of their wisdom? There isn’t any. If you follow the thread of references you end up in a circle. Because they copy each other. There is no actual source at the end of the thread. They circulate the same inane solutions, like doing stuff on empty stomach – and they can count on your laziness and desire to have conclusive, easy solutions.

The more ubiquitous the message, the bigger the sales. In clicks or in actual products. Reading the articles must make you feel enlightened, smart, and confident in your opinions. (Their opinions, really.) And you will be more confident the less you know.

Please catch yourself when you feel compelled to suggest someone a solution. Wherever did you read it, anyway? Did you see the person who wrote that 600-word post? How does she make her living? Does she even know where the pancreas were in the body? Apple cider vinegar and coconut oil may be nice but won’t cure your cancer. You haven’t been googling last year when avocado slices strapped behind your ear were hyped and advertised as cure-all.

Memes like these die hard. The demand for this kind of simplistic certainty is so overwhelming, it would be odd if someone wouldn’t supply it. But just because they offer solutions doesn’t mean they actually have it. Especially when they are confident.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.