The Price of Misinformation


As COVID swept through the country and pharmaceutical companies raced to develop a vaccine, contrarian voices arose. There was a group of organizations that vociferously fought against the advice of the CDC and other medical groups.

It turns out, there was a lot of money in this contrarian stance.

The Washington Post recently looked into four nonprofits that capitalized on the spread of "medical misinformation" during the heart of the COVID pandemic by bringing in way more money than in previous years.

(A note on the terminology here. "Misinformation" is the term used by the Post in their article. However, in recent years, many sources have weighed in on the difference between "misinformation" and "disinformation." According to the American Psychological Association, "Misinformation is false or inaccurate information—getting the facts wrong. Disinformation is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead—intentionally misstating the facts." It comes down to a question of intent: Were these organizations true believers, or did they see a money-making opportunity? With an inability to know intent, from a journalistic standpoint, "misinformation" is the safer choice.)

According to the Post, "Four major nonprofits that rose to prominence during the coronavirus pandemic by capitalizing on the spread of medical misinformation collectively gained more than $118 million between 2020 and 2022, enabling the organizations to deepen their influence in statehouses, courtrooms and communities across the country." The four nonprofits are Children’s Health Defense, Informed Consent Action Network, Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, and America's Frontline Doctors.

That last group, America's Frontline Doctors, may sound vaguely familiar. The group made itself known on the national stage after a July 2020 event in Washington, DC, where the group claimed that the drug hydroxychloroquine could cure COVID. A video of the event was retweeted by then-President Trump, which was then taken down by Facebook and Twitter for violating their policies on misinformation.

One of the doctors who spoke at that event, Stella Immanuel, was later revealed to have a somewhat unusual set of beliefs. She has claimed, in both videos and in articles, that "medical issues like endometriosis, cysts, infertility, and impotence are caused by sex with 'spirit husbands' and 'spirit wives'"; Immanuel describes this phenomenon "essentially as witches and demons having sex with people in a dreamworld."

Following the takedown of the DC event video, Immanuel declared that Facebook's servers would be destroyed by Jesus Christ if her videos weren't put back online. (In another strange twist, Joseph Ladapo, who would eventually be named Surgeon General of Florida by Governor Ron DeSantis, was also at that event. Ladapo has appeared in the news very recently for his strange response to Florida's measles outbreak.)

Despite having such a controversial figure in the news, donations shot up immensely for the group.

The name Children's Health Defense may not quite ring a bell, but the organization also has a link to the contemporary political climate. The group was founded by current third-party presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He has been a very vocal antivaxxer.

The organization's most recent IRS Form 990 paints an interesting picture. In 2022, the organization paid Kennedy $510,515 as its chairman and chief legal counsel. They show zero dollars in grants and similar amounts paid. As for other expenses, they show $2,692,115 for "Educational Activities Contractors." This amount that supposedly goes toward accomplishing the organization's mission is dwarfed by over $4.5 million in wages. The group also spent over $3 million in legal fees, though those legal fees partly went toward mission-related litigation. (For example, they defended a Maine physician, Meryl Nass, after the state medical board alleged that she improperly prescribed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Nass' medical license was later suspended by the board.)

Speaking of the organization's mission, it is stated thusly in the 990: "Our mission is to end the epidemic of childrens [sic] chronic health conditions by working aggressively to eliminate harmful exposures, hold those responsible accountable, and establish safeguards so this never happens again." They don't say what the "this" they want to prevent from reoccurring actually is.

The Post points out how the influx of money to these organizations has resulted in greatly increased executive pay. Kennedy's salary has doubled since 2019. In 2022, Paul Marik, of Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, earned eight times what he made the previous year. The founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, Simone Gold, saw her pay in 2022 increase 17-fold from what she was paid in 2020. (Gold would eventually end up serving 48 days in jail after trespassing in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.)

So who is funding these groups? Where is this $100 million increase in donations coming from? While in most circumstances, nonprofits don't need to disclose their donors, the Post found that a number of major gifts were made through donor-advised funds. These funds allow individual donors to personally direct where their charitable dollars go. The largest group of dollars the Post could trace was made by the National Christian Foundation, which over a course of three years gave over $1.8 million to the four groups. Beyond dollars given by registered charitable groups, the donations are a mystery.

What lessons can nonprofits take from this story? We can hope that one of them isn't that one can monetize misinformation. While the organizations profiled by the Post had a windfall over the three years of the main portion of the pandemic, that won't last. A funder, DonorsTrust, that previously donated $1 million to three of the organizations stated that it gave them less than $10,000 in 2023.

The fervor that can build around misinformation will often subside. Would you risk your organization's future for an immediate windfall? Staying true to your organization's mission, and to your constituents and stakeholders, is part of building a sustainable organization.

Unfortunately, organizations like the ones we've looked at here will continue to come and go. In a post-truth society filled with "alternative facts," there will always be money in taking the contrarian stance. Organizations dedicated to trying to create a better society must hope that by sticking to their morals and advocating for positions that actually help people, they will come out on top in the long run.

Action steps you can take today