Inside one network cashing in on vaccine disinformation

The couple in the website videos could be hawking any number of products.

“You’re going to love owning the platinum package,” Charlene Bollinger tells viewers, as a picture of a DVD set, booklets and other products flashes on screen. Her husband, Ty, promises a “director’s cut edition,” and over 100 hours of additional footage.

Click the orange button, his wife says, “to join in the fight for health freedom” — or more specifically, to pay $199 to $499 for the Bollingers’ video series, “The Truth About Vaccines 2020.”

The Bollingers are part of an ecosystem of for-profit companies, nonprofit groups, YouTube channels and other social media accounts that stoke fear and distrust of COVID-19 vaccines, resorting to what medical experts say is often misleading and false information.

An investigation by The Associated Press has found that the couple work closely with others prominent in the anti-vaccine movement — including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his Children’s Health Defense — to drive sales through affiliate marketing relationships.

According to the Bollingers, there is big money involved. They have said that they have sold tens of millions of dollars of products through various ventures and paid out $12 million to affiliates. Tens of thousands of people ponied up cash for an earlier version of their vaccine video series, they said.

“This is a disinformation industry,” said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, who specializes in vaccine policy. Reiss said that unlike other multi-level marketing businesses, in which products are sold through low-level sub-sellers, the anti-vaccination industry is sustained by grassroots activists.

“They have many, many passionate believers that serve as sales people of the misinformation on the ground,” she said. “For the top, it’s a product. For the people below, they passionately believe it. They’re very sincere. And it comes across.”

The Bollingers and others were already in the business of selling vaccine disinformation before the coronavirus began its inexorable march across the globe. But the pandemic presented the couple and others a huge opportunity to expand their reach.

The Bollingers aligned themselves with right-wing supporters of former President Donald Trump — establishing a Super PAC to push what they call “medical freedom,” participating in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and promoting lies like the assertion that the election was stolen from Trump.

On the afternoon of Jan. 6, the Bollingers held a rally a few blocks from the Capitol. As emergency vehicles screamed past, responding to the invasion and the ransacking of the building, Charlene Bollinger celebrated from the stage. She called it an “amazing day” and led a prayer for the people she called “patriots.” Meanwhile, Ty Bollinger stood at the doors of the Capitol, waiting to get in.

The couple’s social media accounts have been identified as among the top vaccine misinformation super spreaders by organizations such as NewsGuard, which analyzes the credibility of websites, and The Center for Countering Digital Hate, which monitors online disinformation. They have more than 1 million followers on Facebook, and Charlene Bollinger said in a video conversation with Kennedy posted last year on their Super PAC’s website that their email list has “a couple million” people on it.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate said that from December 2019 to May 2021, five of the Bollingers’ biggest social media accounts gained 117,273 followers.

Public health experts say the spread of such disinformation undermines the effort to immunize enough of the population to stop the pandemic. A recent AP-NORC poll shows about 1 in 5 Americans are hesitant to get vaccinated. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said last month that misinformation and disinformation circulating online about COVID-19 present a “clear and present danger” to people who need to be protected and who could get vaccinated.

The Bollingers declined interview requests and did not respond to a list of questions emailed to them by the AP about their business and political activities and backgrounds. Ty Bollinger later complained on an Internet show that “journo-terrorists” and “mainstream media whores” were about to release a “hit piece” on him and his wife.

Ty Bollinger began their business several years ago with books and DVDs such as “Cancer: Step Outside the Box” and “The Truth About Cancer,” which medical experts say included unproven information about alternatives to chemotherapy and cancer prevention. The company even sells a series that purports to show “the truth” about pet cancer.

Ty Bollinger describes himself as a “medical researcher” on bios posted on his website and in at least one book. He holds degrees in accounting and taxation from Baylor, but the AP could find no indication that he has any scientific or medical training, and he declined to answer questions about his credentials.

In 2017, in what Ty Bollinger has called a “natural progression,” the business expanded its work into vaccines. The couple styled themselves as “vaccine safety advocates,” while they simultaneously minimized the threat of diseases such as measles. They also published articles questioning whether life-saving vaccines work and claimed unvaccinated children are healthier. Decades of research has shown that the opposite is true.

When coronavirus hit, the business pivoted again, producing and marketing false or baseless information about COVID-19.

The Tennessee couple has been promoting “The Truth About Vaccines 2020” at least since April 2020, and updated it in the fall. Their false and unsubstantiated claims about the virus and its vaccines run the gamut, from assertions that COVID cases are overreported and adverse reactions to vaccines are underreported, to theories about 5G wireless signals being linked to the virus, all ideas that medical experts said are flat-out wrong.

Among the materials they have produced is a 78-page “Coronavirus Field Guide” offering unsubstantiated claims that COVID-19 is “man-made,” when there’s no data to support that. In addition to books and DVDs, some of which cost hundreds of dollars, they sell an “Insiders Legacy Membership” that costs $5 per month, or $47 per year, for a “premium monthly newsletter.”

The Bollingers’ more recent Facebook posts focus on
subjects such as ketogenic diets and the nutritional benefits of mangoes, while their most strident anti-vaccination content is reserved for the messaging app Telegram or their own website.

On Telegram, they spread misinformation — including the claim that the COVID-19 vaccine “is a killer” — and link public health efforts to fight COVID-19 to the “Deep State.”

On their “Truth About Cancer” website, to which their vaccine website often links, they recently posted an article containing false claims. Among them: “it looks as though the new vaccines are 67% MORE LIKELY to kill you than the virus itself.” In studies of hundreds of thousands of people the vaccines were proven to be safe and effective at preventing severe disease and death, and those results have been confirmed as tens of millions of vaccines have been administered.

“We don’t trust these vaccines,” they said in the post. “We don’t trust the ‘authorities’ who are working so hard to administer hundreds of millions of doses over the next 2 months. And we’re 100% willing to gamble that the vaccine is much more dangerous than the virus.”

Below the post, commenter after commenter said they were swayed.

“Thank you so much for all the information you provide us! I will not get the vaccine!” one commenter wrote. Another said she had received the first dose and asked for counsel on how to refuse the second. A third shared that she was being treated for cancer and her doctor said she should not be afraid, but that she was “terrified to get the vaccine.”

While the Bollingers describe themselves as “advocates,” they are running a for-profit business. It’s not clear how much money they have made from their vaccine-related marketing efforts, or from their business more broadly, but there are some clues.

The Bollingers’ company, TTAC Publishing LLC, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit last year in which it stated that TTAC had secured over $25 million in customer transactions since 2014. The lawsuit, which calls the company an “industry leader specializing in the marketing of information relating to health care” and cancer, does not say how much of that was profit.

Dun & Bradstreet, which provides estimates for company revenues, has two listings for TTAC Publishing. The first, at its former address in Nevada, estimates sales and revenue at $2.9 million last year. For the one listed at TTAC’s current address in Tennessee, Dun & Bradstreet…

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