If you read enough far-right internet, you know that Hillary Clinton's evil knows no depths: She's ordered assassinations of misbehaving colleagues, palled around with Islamic terrorists and even killed an enemy's cat.
Now, a lengthy exposé reveals that Clinton and her cronies have been paid off by pharmaceutical corporations to cover up the cancer-killing properties of secret natural cures like "sour honey."
This "Clinton Cartel" is needlessly killing tens of thousands of elderly Americans — all so that pharmaceutical CEOs can reap billions in sales of worthless pills, according to the exposé. Its audio webpage reads, "Will THIS be Crooked Hillary's Secret Revenge?"
There's a prominent sponsored link to the page on DrudgeReport.com, which reaches about 20 million people every month. It's also been making the rounds on Facebook since right before the election, to the tune of 7,100 shares and counting. And the "Clinton Cartel" theory has a powerful proponent in Fox Business Network's Lou Dobbs.
The report claims to expose Clinton's darkest secret: a cartel with ties to Big Pharma
"Your well-meaning doctor prescribes [pills] for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, whatever it is. And you need them, right?" writes author Brian Chambers. "Well, that's what the Clinton Cartel wants you to believe. But today, we're exposing their most dangerous LIE."
After "revealing" a web of campaign donations and backroom deals involving Clinton and unnamed pharmaceutical CEOs and lobbyists, the article teases "very real cures and treatments" for Alzheimer's, MS, heart disease and cancer. And after thousands of words extolling these treatments and trashing modern medicine, the reader is kindly asked to pay for a membership to an organization called the Health Sciences Institute, which offers, among other things, steep discounts on these miracle cures. (More on the HSI shortly.)
It's beyond "fake news" — it's a morally dubious sales pitch masquerading as a conspiracy
This investigation is the kind of evidence-free conspiratorial hokum that pervades hyper-partisan Facebook. The article relies on well-trod stereotypes of the Clintons (shady, conniving, corporatist, money-obsessed) to weave a narrative of deceit which ultimately culminates in a plea to purchase an HSI membership.
And, worryingly, the pitch co-opts the techniques of Facebook's fake news purveyors to attract clicks, shares and purchases of quack medical books and unproven natural cures to diseases.
Indeed, the outcome of this kind of fake news is a shade darker than your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories: Instead of selling banner ads on a junky conservative news site, HSI is using the format of fake news to convince senior citizens to abandon their medications and instead buy natural "cures" for terminal diseases.
"We are now inundated in the oncology field with constant claims of people coming in saying that there are all these homeopathic remedies for cancer," Dr. Scott Stern, a head and neck oncologic surgeon in Little Rock, Arkansas, said in a phone call. "And in fact, there's not a shred of real scientific evidence that any of that works. And in fact, it can be quite deleterious."
Using political anxieties to peddle unproven home remedies isn't new. Nor is advertising ineffective health treatments on the internet: Anyone who has come across an internet chum box with the promise that "Doctors hate this Minnesota housewife!" have seen an online medical hoax in action.
What's new is the potential reach of the grift, thanks to Facebook's laser-targeted ad network and lightly policed ecosystem.
What is HSI, and who is Brian Chambers?
HSI is a direct-marketing empire which has been cashing in for decades on the fears and naïveté of conservatives by selling stock tips and natural remedies.
According to a 2015 investigation by Mother Jones, HSI has been peddling Biblical cancer cures, wild Clintonian murder conspiracies and dire warnings of impending financial apocalypse since the 1990s. It tends to target religious Christians and, with its large font and audio options, the elderly.
It has been fined by the SEC and the Social Security Administration, and has been warned against making false cancer claims by the FDA. And it is unapologetic in its pursuit of "the unconventional, the often disreputable and the ugly shades of the idea spectrum," according to a 2015 letter by founder Bill Bonner.
And as for the listed author of this article, Brian Chambers, his identity remains an internet mystery. He is not listed on the HSI masthead. A 2014 investigation of a different HSI scheme by an Alabama local news affiliate couldn't find any evidence that a "Brian Chambers" actually existed.
HSI's ploys have an enormous new platform on Facebook
In the past, HSI has reached its marks via direct mail — and by renting out the newsletters of prominent conservative figures like Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich.
Just as Huckabee and Gingrich lent credibility to HSI's specious claims, now Facebook is the vehicle for its dangerous anti-scientific screeds.
Using the playbook of the Facebook fake news kingdom — menacing photo, alarming headline, unnamed sources — HSI produced a webpage which looks like news but culminates in a sales pitch. Mic first noticed the article as a sponsored post on the Horn News, a fake-news empire in its own right, whose current misleading headlines include "Obama's VA desecrates lonely veteran's corpse" and "Hillary's secret plot to IMPEACH Trump!?"
HSI manipulates Facebook's design to target unsuspecting seniors. Fact-checking could help stop it.
In a piece for the Verge, Kyle Chayka noted that Facebook's design makes "lies as pretty as truth": that is, a Facebook link to a peer-reviewed article in a medical journal appears identical to a link to a wild conspiracy about Hillary Clinton's decades-long effort to cover up the "tasty herbal tea" that prevents diabetes, and ultimately urges senior citizens not to take the medications prescribed by their doctors.
Dr. Stern, the oncological surgeon, sees that as a problem. He's noticed a rise in patients who have parroted the conspiracy theory that the FDA is colluding with drug companies. Where did they hear it? Usually Facebook.
"[Some] seniors aren't as sophisticated on the computer, with Facebook, and they don't understand what's truth and what's not," Dr. Stern said. "And that is very dangerous."
Misinformation campaigns seeking to boost political campaigns, waged via Facebook, are worrisome. This is darker, and it's exactly the kind of "fake news" that social networks should feel no guilt about stamping out.
Help may be on its way: On Thursday, Facebook announced a new initiative that will enlist a team of third-party fact-checkers to flag certain stories as untrustworthy. If it curbs HSI's reach, the Institute may need to return to renting out Mike Huckabee's email list.