Last week, NBC News reported that a 4-year-old boy from Colorado had died from the flu — and that users of a Facebook group, “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” might have helped contribute to his death by offering anti-vax-style medical misinformation. The man behind that group is Larry Cook. He is the second leading anti-vax advertiser on Facebook, a key player in an increasingly dangerous anti-vaxx community, and he’s profiting.
In his group, members ask one another for medical advice that aims to replace traditional medicine with so-called natural remedies such as breast milk, vitamins, and supplements in lieu of prescribed medicines like Tamiflu and, of course, vaccines. Worse still, these groups offer a conspiratorial tone that pushes parents away from trusting the medical establishment (i.e. their pediatrician) over the advice of mostly uncredentialed people who have done their own research into vaccines, or naturopaths who tout supplements over medicine. The results, as one four-year-old found, can be devastating.
The mom of the boy, who has three other children, two of which she said were not vaccinated against the flu, was one of the 139,000 members of the group and posted frequently in the group before her son died. She asked for natural remedies for the flu, and notably refused to give her children Tamiflu her doctor prescribed for the whole family. Much of the coverage has been on Facebook for allowing groups like “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” which is one of the largest misinformation groups on the platform. But not as much has been said about Cook — the man behind the group who by his own admission, stands to gain from being able to continue to share disinformation. After all, he’s built his business off of vaccine misinformation. Here’s what we know about Cook based on previous media interviews and extensive online activity.
Cook bills himself as a “healthy lifestyle advocate,” author, filmmaker, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist. Doing so apparently includes organizing campaigns to harass parents whose children have died to suggest that vaccines are the cause. The group, which was created over five years ago, is just part the way that he helps disseminate anti-vaccine information. He also buys ads that target women 25 and older who live in areas with measles outbreaks, ostensibly to ensure that when lawmakers inevitably bring up tightening vaccine exemptions, a group of organized and angry parents are there to fight it every step of the way.
Per Cook’s website, he became passionate about so-called “natural living” about 30 years ago after reading John Robbins’ Diet for a New America, a Pulitzer-prize nominated book about the health benefits of vegetarianism and the perils of the farm factory meat industry. The book does not mention vaccines in its 464 pages. But Cook’s interest in vegetarianism and a “healthy lifestyle” at least according to his website, somehow eventually translated into a “significant interest in the Autism controversy.” He launched a website titled “Biomedical Treatment for Autism.” filled with unscientific rants about “toxins,” conspiratorial wording around gastrointestinal issues. Biomedical treatment is a sham “cure” that is promoted by Focus For Health, who believe there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Cook, who is notably not a doctor nor a person with any medical training or background, took his “fight” about the “Autism controversy,” to a host of major platforms including GoFundMe, YouTube, and Facebook. In February of 2019, Cook told The Daily Beast that he had made $80,000 on GoFundMe alone, and in another report said he had spent at least $35,000 on ads to make parents “question the safety and efficacy of vaccines, which will in turn help them realize why vaccine mandates could be problematic for their children.”
His GoFundMe campaigns were primarily used to raise money to buy ads on Facebook, which helped drive membership to his group, his websites, and products he hawks like his book, “The Beginner’s Guide to Natural Living”. He has a category on his website titled “Autism is Reversible.” When The Daily Beast pressed him on where the money from the GoFundMe campaigns went, he admitted that the money goes directly into his bank account and he sometimes uses it to pay his own bills. One campaign that was to run an ad that claimed that the medical community was covering up the death of infants, raised $12,000 alone. Cook has been de-platformed from GoFundMe since early 2019 and can no longer raise money through the crowdfunding website.
An article published by The Guardian in November 2019 found that over half of Facebook ads that promote anti-vaxxer bias were funded by just two organizations: the World Mercury Project, the pet project of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, the group run by Larry Cook (this is compared to 83 different health organizations promoting pro-vaccine information.) The article also found that simply spending $500 on an anti-vaccine ad could get it in front of the eyes of anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 Facebook users, and those ads usually also link to “natural” remedies, books, or seminars on “healthy living.”
Many anti-vaccination ads are still running on the platform despite the fact that in March of that same year, Facebook announced that it would take down and target all vaccine ads that contained misinformation about the so-called risks of vaccines. And it did seem like Cook was, at least for some time, prohibited on Facebook, as they took down $5,000 in advertisements that he paid for promoting vaccine disinformation.
Facebook also said that it would disable accounts that abused it’s anti-disinformation policy. It appears that most anti-vaxxers have been able to get around this by simply stating opposition to vaccines; not publishing ‘disinformation’ about them. A January 2020 article published by Buzzfeed found that anti-vaxx ads are still rampant on the platform despite the new policy — partly due to Facebook’s policy that only disinformation would be banned on the platform, so ads that, say, are about whooping cough and mention “vaccine controversy” are able to stay on the platform; as are ads that promote ‘alternative’ cures to the illness, which kills 160,000 people a year.
Another place where Cook was de-platformed somewhat surprisingly, YouTube, who announced they would de-monetize all YouTube accounts peddling vaccine misinformation in February of 2019. Until that point, Larry Cook (LarryCook333 on YouTube) had been able to make money from major advertisers while peddling lies.
While he has been booted from GoFundMe and Youtube, Cook’s platform on Facebook is still formidable. He’s also been able to fundraise through his website by having “membership” tiers between 5 and 300 dollars a month — although it’s unclear what such memberships actually buys members.
Cook’s Stop Mandatory Vaccinations is still one of the most popular anti-vaxx groups on Facebook, and has a private group alongside it with over 150,000 followers, as well. The group had one million shares over the last year — and even if Cook can’t run ads anymore, it’s the ads that got him to such a prominent position in the anti-vaxx community, where he’s able to spread disinformation that can harm children and the elderly and bring users back to his site to make money.
Whether or not Cook really believes that vaccines cause autism is irrelevant. Cook stands to gain from the proliferation of the groups, and to lose if he were to be de-platformed or barred from running ads on Facebook.
His website says his “latest project and passion is fighting vaccine mandates” and links out to two separate websites that promote anti-vaccine information and that regularly feed content to his Stop Mandatory Vaccination group. These groups remain insular disinformation spaces that can lead vulnerable parents and people down rabbit holes, recommending them to join other, anti-vaxx or anti-proven medicine groups. And as long as Facebook and other platforms don’t take a stand, people like Cook get to profit off of the fears of these parents, with shady GoFundMe campaigns, unclear “membership” packages, and books peddling disinformation, the groups will continue. Kids will die. Kids have died.