The term “superspreader” has been popularized during the COVID-19 pandemic, typically in reference to large-scale events with minimal or no protocols in place to prevent the spread of infection. Big weddings without masks or social distancing or conferences with many attendees were among those reported to have resulted in a high rate of transmission. Yet even more dangerous than a superspreader event is a person who works to deliberately broadcast information that runs counter to science and government recommendations, like Dr. Joseph Mercola, the subject of The New York Times Presents: Superspreader.
When referring to conspiracy theorists, many people imagine someone who is clearly out of touch with reason and doesn’t do a good job of blending into society. But those who rest on their alleged credentials and purport to be experts can be even more influential and toxic, since they have a built-in platform of those who turn to them for guidance. Appearing like a typical, mainstream institution can boost credibility and make objections to commonly-accepted claims seem like just another perspective that deserves equal time.
Among the many disturbing facets of this 48-minute investigation into Dr. Mercola, chief among them is the fact that someone being accused of being wrong serves for many as confirmation that they must be right. One subject interviewed in the film blasts Big Pharma as out just for profit and uninterested in the fates of those who take their products, yet somehow excuses Dr. Mercola, who sells his own line of homeopathic remedies that his own advocated research essentially demands that engaged listeners go buy them right away. The idea that being discredited is itself a badge of honor is highly problematic, but the image of Dr. Mercola preaching his beliefs loudly shows just how much that is the case these days.
Dr. Mercola ranks at the top of the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Disinformation Dozen, highlighting the people most responsible for broadcasting “misleading claims and outright lies” about COVID vaccines. The one thing that does make a great deal of sense is that Dr. Mercola, a proponent of alternative medicine, has always been against vaccines, meaning that he, unlike many right-wing individuals decrying the suppression of personal liberties, has not chosen to make societal responsibility a purely political argument. But the fact that he strongly opposes vaccines of all kinds doesn’t make him any less guilty of propagating tremendously damaging misinformation.
There is a montage shown midway through the film of his many claims, and it’s hard to believe how, presented back-to-back in such a striking and undeniable way, anyone could fall prey to his influence. Perhaps the most poignant and upsetting interview featured is with a woman whose cancer has returned, and she describes how she went to Dr. Mercola to discuss treatment options and hasn’t even thought to consult her oncologist. For her, Dr. Mercola, in a way similar to a figure like Donald Trump, represents the ultimate anti-establishment, and his balking of authority should be seen as a knowledge of the real truth, bolstered to greater prominence by the volume of voices warning against him.
Superspreader is the latest installment of The New York Times Presents, an FX series composed of individual documentary films looking at content including COVID-19, the death of Breonna Taylor, and Britney Spears’ conservatorship case, among other subjects. This second season’s first installment, Elon Musk’s Crash Course, tackled Tesla’s self-driving cars, and its second, very thoroughly-researched and assembled film, Superspreader, arrives at a vital time, highlighting how susceptible so many reasonable people are to the vocal cries of those who spread their claims while wearing the badge of censorship victimhood. Its brief runtime is still effective to showcase the need to watch for and identify those with a power to influence for the opposite of good.
The New York Times Presents: Superspreader premieres on FX and FX on Hulu on Friday, August 19th.