By Rob Kuznia, Scott Bronstein, Curt Devine and Drew Griffin, CNN
She was a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show — an Ivy League-educated OB-GYN who often spoke about women’s health and holistic medicine.
She was a media darling, and in 2013 made Reader’s Digest’s annual list of 100 most trusted people in America. If you go to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s Facebook page, her posts dispensing advice on health and aging to her 558,000 followers seem consistent with that persona of several years ago.
But Northrup also uses her Facebook page to direct followers to Telegram, where another side of her is apparent. Here, on this platform with lax moderation, lies a miasma of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“Best Explanation I’ve Seen About Why the COVID Jabs Are Killer Shots,” reads one post that she shared.
“Me realising I don’t have to take revenge on my enemies as they’ve all had the jab,” says a meme she posted in late August that shows a sly-faced Morticia from the Addams Family.
“Another hero emerges,” Northrup writes of a doctor who refused to see vaccinated patients.
Northrup is among a small group of doctors who have emerged as a huge source of misinformation — whether as social-media influencers or family doctors meeting with patients in person — about COVID-19 vaccines, which have thus far proven the most effective weapon against the deadliest pandemic in 100 years.
The physicians are fueling the fire at a time when COVID-19 deaths in the United States have surpassed 724,000, and as the casualties increasingly come from the ranks of the unvaccinated.
For the most part, they do so with impunity.
In late July, the board of directors at the Federation of State Medical Boards released a statement notifying physicians that promoting dangerous falsehoods about the COVID-19 vaccines could put their medical licenses at risk. But while several state medical boards told CNN that complaints about misinformation are piling up, only a handful of low-profile doctors have been formally punished to date. And the high-profile doctors spreading misinformation to millions of followers have faced no such regulatory scrutiny.
“These doctors are taking advantage of the trust in them,” said David Lazer, a political science and computer sciences professor at Northeastern University. He cites a monthly survey by the COVID States Project showing how, when it comes to trusted professions and groups, doctors rank at the very top for Democrats and Republicans alike. “They are using the prestige of that term ‘doctor’ to convey misinformation,” said Lazer, who co-leads the COVID States Project.
‘The best thing that could happen is you get COVID’
Dr. Rashid Buttar often appears on his promotional materials donning scrubs or a white coat.
The bio in his 2010 book, “The 9 Steps to Keep the Doctor Away” — which landed on USA Today’s best-seller list — is a three-page compendium of credentials: double major in biology and theology from the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis; doctor-of-osteopathic-medicine degree at the University of Osteopathic Medicine and Health Sciences, College of Medicine and Surgery in Iowa; visiting scientist and nutritional scientist at North Carolina State University.
His website adds another: “MOST CENSORED Doctor.”
Buttar has shared all manner of outrageous claims and misleading statements about the pandemic: Most people who took the vaccine will be dead by 2025. It’s all part of a “depopulation plan.” COVID-19, he wrote on Twitter — where he has 88,000 followers — was a “planned operation.”
In a recent interview with CNN’s Drew Griffin, Buttar stood by it all.
“I’ve told people the best thing that could happen is you get COVID,” he said.
“The best thing that can happen is get COVID?” Griffin asked.
“Of course,” Buttar replied. “You’re going to build your own innate immune system and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
He later said, falsely: “More people are dying from the COVID vaccine than from COVID.”
Northrup and Buttar are sowing doubt about the COVID-19 vaccines at a time when roughly a third of eligible Americans — a large share of whom are Trump Republicans — are not yet fully vaccinated.
Other high-profile doctors in this milieu include Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician who has turned his supplement business into a booming enterprise and has been warned by the FDA for selling phony COVID cures; Dr. Simone Gold, a former emergency room physician who has referred to the COVID vaccines as an “experimental biological agent whose harms are well-documented” and faces charges for entering the US Capitol during the riot on January 6 (she’s pleaded not guilty); and Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, a longtime anti-vaccine activist who gained infamy this summer when she testified to Ohio state legislators that the COVID-19 vaccines cause magnetism, meaning metal objects such as keys and silverware would stick to people’s foreheads.
CNN has reached out to all of them.
Only Buttar agreed to comment. But Mercola has told The New York Times that he believes he is being targeted for political reasons. Tenpenny stood by her testimony in an interview with The Washington Post and added, “People should have a choice on what gets injected to their bodies because once you have injected it you can’t uninject it.” Northrup has said in a Facebook video that she is “doing God’s work on the earth plane at this now particular moment, facing down evil. What’s in it for us? Our souls. That’s what’s in it for us.”
In addition to Mercola and Tenpenny, Northrup and Buttar were named on a list of the 12 most influential spreaders of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines released this spring by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), an NGO that monitors misinformation. The report, called the “Disinformation Dozen,” prompted President Joe Biden to chastise the social-media influencers for putting out information that is “killing people.”
Buttar, who has made light of his inclusion on the “disinformation dozen,” suggests the vaccine is part of a plot by elites to commit mass genocide.
He likens Dr. Anthony Fauci — presidential adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — to Adolf Hitler, saying the number of deaths caused by Fauci will exceed those of the Holocaust.
“Dr. Fauci is not an innocent bystander,” Buttar told CNN in an interview filled with vague insinuations that the pandemic was somehow planned or enabled by shadowy elites. “He’s very well aware of what he’s doing.”
To date, there have been just three confirmed cases of deaths caused by a COVID-19 vaccine — each died of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome after taking the vaccine by Johnson & Johnson, said Martha Sharan, a spokesperson with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, some 8,600 deaths have been reported to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, often referred to as VAERS. None of those deaths has been confirmed (outside the three), and all need to be fully reviewed and verified, Sharan said. Even if all were confirmed as being tied to a COVID-19 vaccine, it would be out of 390 million doses administered. That amounts to .0021 percent, or about 2 deaths for every 100,000 doses.
(The mortality from COVID-19 in the United States currently stands at about 220 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to a tracker by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.)
Buttar, 55, has long been popular among anti-vaxxers and parents of children with autism. He has reportedly drawn patients from most US states and more than 40 countries. (Buttar puts the country count at 94.) In an especially high-profile case in 2009, then-celebrity couple Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey — both noted vaccine skeptics — referred a woman who said that she’d been sickened by a flu vaccine to Buttar for his unorthodox treatments, according to the 2013 book, “Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine,” by vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit.
Buttar is a believer that environmental toxins such as mercury and lead are at the root of many chronic maladies, from autism to heart disease to cancer. He has treated patients — hundreds of them children with autism — with a patented cream that he claims removes poisonous metals from the body, according to Offit’s book.
Buttar has twice been reprimanded by the North Carolina Medical Board, in 2010 and 2019.
The first ding from the board stemmed from Buttar’s treatment of several cancer patients with substances like hydrogen peroxide, ozone or glutathione, and his treatment of a child with autism using a skin application as part of a metal-extraction procedure known as chelation therapy. One researcher has referred to these kinds of applications for autism as a “modern-day scam.” The North Carolina board said, “Dr. Buttar’s treatment modalities have not been proven effective by randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies.”
The second reprimand pertained to an accusation from another physician that Buttar’s treatment of a patient was adding to their “pain and suffering”; the board concluded that Buttar’s documentation for treating the patient failed to conform to industry standards.
“He deals in the industry of false hope, capitalizing on the fear we all have that our environment is a toxic hell,” Offit told CNN. “He is the lowest level of charlatan, taking advantage of parents who are desperate.”
Buttar scoffed at this claim.
“That’s just an absurd statement,” he told CNN. “People go where they’re going to get results.”
Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of CCDH, said while he was pleased to see some social media accounts of the “disinformation dozen” get banished, too many of them — such as Buttar — are still allowed to spread pseudoscience and conspiracy content on mainstream platforms like Twitter.
“What you’ve got to do is reduce the transmission rate of misinformation,” Ahmed told CNN. “And the way you do that is stop giving them the world’s biggest megaphone in the history of communications — social media — where they can transmit to billions of people for zero cost.”
CCDH said the dozen were responsible for 65% of all anti-vaccine content on Facebook or Twitter. Facebook countered that the dozen were responsible for only a small fraction of a percent of its vaccine-related content.
In any case, mainstream social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made efforts to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation. Facebook, for example, said in August it took down more than three dozen pages, groups and Facebook or Instagram accounts associated with the so-called disinformation dozen.
In the wake of the spring release of CCDH’s report, Buttar was booted from Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. In March, just before its release, he boasted a combined following of more than 1.2 million people, according to CCDH. He now just has the Twitter account with about 88,000 followers.
After CNN flagged some tweets from Dr. Rashid Buttar that contained coronavirus misinformation, Twitter required Buttar to delete those tweets in order to regain access to his account, the company said on Monday. Buttar’s account remains active.
A company spokesperson said Twitter is focused on improving the enforcement of its COVID-19 misinformation policy and has suspended about 2,000 accounts for violations. The company permanently suspended three members of the disinformation dozen for spreading COVID-19 misinformation, the spokesperson said, although only one — Tenpenny — is a medical doctor.
Still, false claims continue to flourish on the platforms. And when users stumble across the page of a misinformationist, algorithms on Twitter and Instagram continue to serve up others. The resulting repetition has a way of hardening people in their positions, said Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
“It’s not the case that you take action on some single piece of information that has floated by your screen at any point,” Donovan said. “There’s something about the rabbit hole … that is very persuasive.”
A Montana doctor claims COVID threat ‘exaggerated’
But while celebrity doctors are broadcasting bunk vaccine information to mass audiences on social media, other physicians are spreading misinformation at the local level the old-fashioned way: face-to-face.
Across the country, complaints to state medical boards about doctors misinforming patients about COVID-19 are on the rise, said Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, president of the Federation of State Medical Boards. He told CNN that at least a dozen directors of state medical boards have told him that they’re receiving “a lot” of complaints about physicians sharing coronavirus misinformation.
But few have led to disciplinary action, he acknowledged.
“The system has been set up as a complaint-based system,” Chaudhry said. “These state boards simply do not have the resources … to monitor what’s happening on the internet or what’s going on even in an individual patient encounter.”
A case in point is Dr. Annie Bukacek, a Montana fixture who believes the response to the pandemic has been an orchestrated attempt by elites to control the masses.
Bukacek, 63, is not only a practicing physician; she also occupies a seat on the Flathead City-County Health Board, which is the local authority on how to manage public health outbreaks like COVID-19.
“Imagine a vaccine so safe you have to be threatened to take it — for a disease so deadly you have to be tested to know you have it!!” said a message she posted last month on Facebook.
A folksy physician with a down-to-earth delivery, Bukacek, who often goes by “Dr. Annie,” lives and works in Flathead County, a deeply conservative county of about 104,000 people where just over a third of the residents are fully vaccinated. The death toll in Montana recently surpassed 2,000, and Montana is among just a handful of states where COVID-19 case counts were on the rise earlier this month.
“So you can have a vaccinated man, sleep with an unvaccinated woman..and she will become INFERTILE,” said a February post by Bukacek on Facebook, which flagged the claim as false.
“If COVID is so dangerous, we’d be seeing people die left and right,” Bukacek said at a school board meeting that same month.
“It’s widely accepted COVID-19 danger was exaggerated,” she told a sympathetic local audience in March.
CNN caught up with Bukacek in late September at a weekly “Freedom Rally” held every Friday night by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers in the town of Kalispell, where she runs a Christian provider named Hosanna Healthcare.
Standing with others on a sidewalk near a park beside the courthouse and holding up a placard that read “The only thing mutating is the COVID lie,” Bukacek was among dozens who lined up alongside a thoroughfare to chant slogans and shout or wave at passing motorists.
A large pickup truck thundered up and down the block, its Trump and American flags flapping in the wind.
When CNN approached Bukacek and asked why she — a doctor — was anti-vaccine, she bristled.
“I’m not anti-vaccine,” Bukacek said. “Nice talking to you.”
Asked if she felt any responsibility towards the more than 2,000 Montanans who have died of COVID-19, she turned to her friends and asked, “Could you take a photo of these CNN guys?”
Several Montana doctors reached by CNN declined to discuss Bukacek, in part because they feared the blowback from her followers. But Dr. Peter Heyboer, a primary care physician — and a fellow member of the health board — said she has intentionally undermined the work of the board on which she serves.
“Physicians who use their authority in their position as a trusted adviser to spread misinformation … they share part of the responsibility for the level of illness and death we are experiencing,” he told CNN.
Dr. Cory Short, a hospitalist at Logan Health in Kalispell — Bukacek’s hometown — said he has seen the ravages of COVID-19 firsthand.
He said by the time COVID-19 patients get to his hospital, they’ve often “reached that point where they are having a very difficult time breathing,” he told CNN. “When they come in, they’re scared.”
In December, about 50 Montana residents signed on to a complaint submitted to Montana’s medical compliance unit against Bukacek.
“She states that COVID-19 death certificates are manipulated, she discredits PCR testing, and by the nature of her medical profession and health board status is leading naïve members of the community in promoting and participating in anti-masking propaganda that is endangering our citizens,” states the complaint, which CNN has obtained.
Ten months after the letter was received by the compliance unit, the state medical board’s website shows no disciplinary action has been taken against Bukacek, who is popular locally. She was appointed to her public post by Flathead’s county commission, and a petition to kick her off the board was met with an even larger petition to keep her on.
A spokesperson for Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry told CNN that no cause has been found on any complaint filed against Bukacek.
Across the country, there are exceptions to the rule of impunity. CNN contacted medical boards in all 50 states; half of them responded. Only two — Rhode Island and Oregon — said they had disciplined doctors for coronavirus misinformation or related violations.
In Rhode Island, Dr. Mark Brody, who describes himself as an “Integrated Medicine” physician specializing in adult and child psychiatry, sent a letter advising patients “not to accept the coronavirus vaccine” and warned of “the possibility of sterilizing all females in the population who receive the vaccination,” according to a consent order. (Studies have found no link between the vaccines and fertility problems.)
Brody, whose practice incorporates homeopathy, agreed to pay $1,100 and pass a medical ethics course, but in July his license was suspended for five years for violating rules related to patient care and medical records. Brody did not respond to CNN’s requests by email and phone for comment.
In Oregon, Dr. Steven LaTulippe had his license suspended in December for counseling patients that masks are ineffective for reducing the spread of coronavirus and that COVID-19 is less dangerous than influenza, according to medical board documents. His license was revoked in September. The board stated that LaTulippe refused to abide by COVID-19 protocols and was negligent in other aspects of medical practice.
An attorney for LaTulippe, Kristina Heuser, said in an email to CNN that her client “had an unblemished record until he dared to express a professional opinion that differs from that of the medical establishment” and that he is challenging the medical board’s decision in court.
‘I will not take the vaccination’
For the high-profile Northrup, the threat of a lost license carries no weight — she voluntarily withdrew hers in 2015 without explanation, a representative of the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine told CNN in an email.
But she and other celebrity doctors have a brand that flourishes independent of licensure. Credentials are a big part of that brand, though, and Northrup often touts her degree from Dartmouth College as well as her OB-GYN bona fides.
For many years, those sterling credentials were bolstered by mainstream appeal.
While it’s true Northrup — who did not respond to CNN’s multiple calls and emails seeking comment — occasionally came under scrutiny in the media in the years before the pandemic, in general she was a media darling whose best-selling books on women’s health led to flattering portrayals in outlets such as NBC News, Today, Vogue and, yes, CNN.
“Having recently spent (20? 50? 80?) hours with it, I’ve come to believe that ‘The Wisdom of Menopause’ is a masterwork,” raved a contributor for The Atlantic about Northrup’s book in 2011.
In 2018, Northrup — a former abortion provider — went on a women’s health and wellness podcast and spoke not only about the importance of keeping abortion legal, but also about how the patriarchy for centuries has been mining “women’s ovaries for the benefit of the patriarchal system.” In the talk with podcaster Sara Avant Stover, Northrup sympathized with “our Black and brown sisters” who have complained that White women have aligned themselves with “White male power structures.”
As recently as August 2020, Northrup was featured on the podcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which serves up interviews from the archives. The episode appears to have since been removed.
Fast forward to this summer.
“I just saved a bunch of money on my taxes — by switching my citizenship status to illegal immigrant,” reads a meme she posted on Telegram in August. “AND it comes with free health insurance!”
In late July, Northrup emceed for a traveling show geared toward Trump Republicans called “Arise USA: The Resurrection Tour,” organized by Robert David Steele, a former CIA spy turned conspiracy theorist who blamed “elite Zionist Jews” for the Holocaust and was an early promoter of the QAnon conspiracy that Trump has been secretly fighting a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
At the event in her home state of Maine, Northrup made a quip when introducing Kevin Jenkins, a Black anti-vaccine activist who tries to dissuade the Black community, which has also shown to be vaccine-hesitant, from getting the shots.
“Kevin and I know each other from the disinformation dozen, which Joe Biden personally has said is responsible for the deaths of so many,” she said, to a rousing applause.
That night she also introduced Steele, who has claimed to be the first person to call COVID-19 a hoax. Donning a cowboy hat, Steele, who had given shout-outs to Mercola and Northrup on Twitter, hugged Northrup and put a red ball cap on her head as she exited the stage.
“The big three problems that I’ve been talking about are election fraud, Wall Street treason and crime and then Satanic pedophilia,” he told the crowd of about 150 people in the city of Belfast.
About a month later, Steele, 69, died of COVID-19.
“I will not take the vaccination,” he wrote in his final blog post.
His death did nothing to interrupt the steady stream of COVID-19 misinformation on Northrup’s Telegram account.
On September 1, just days after Steele’s death was publicly confirmed, Northrup posted a 10-minute audio recording of herself advising her Telegram followers on how to “peacefully” resist masking and vaccination mandates.
In it, she made the baseless claim that people who are getting booster shots are experiencing troubling neurological symptoms.
“People are getting disoriented — kind of starting to lose it cognitively,” she said.
Northrup went on to tell a story of an unvaccinated couple who were asked in a public setting whether they had gotten the shots.
“Her husband goes, ‘oh, of course — yes. We’ve had both of them,'” Northrup said. “That’s peaceful non-compliance.”
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CNN’s Yahya Abou-Ghazala, Audrey Ash and Benjamin Naughton contributed to this report.