Standing before a local school board in central Indiana this month, Dr. Daniel Stock, a physician in the state, issued a litany of false claims about the coronavirus. He proclaimed that the recent surge in cases showed that the vaccines were ineffective, that people were better off with a cocktail of drugs and supplements to prevent hospitalization from the virus, and that masks didn’t help prevent the spread of infection.
His appearance has since become one of the most-viewed videos of coronavirus misinformation. The videos — several versions are available online — have amassed nearly 100 million likes and shares on Facebook, 6.2 million views on Twitter, at least 2.8 million views on YouTube and over 940,000 video views on Instagram.
His talk’s popularity points to one of the more striking paradoxes of the pandemic. Even as many doctors fight to save the lives of people sick with Covid-19, a tiny number of their medical peers have had an outsize influence at propelling false and misleading information about the virus and vaccines.
Now there is a growing call among medical groups to discipline physicians spreading incorrect information. The Federation of State Medical Boards, which represents the groups that license and discipline doctors, recommended last month that states consider action against doctors who share false medical claims, including suspending or revoking medical licenses. The American Medical Association says spreading misinformation violates the code of ethics that licensed doctors agree to follow.
“When a doctor speaks, people pay attention,” said Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, president of the Federation of State Medical Boards. “The title of being a physician lends credibility to what people say to the general public. That’s why it is so important that these doctors don’t spread misinformation.”
Dr. Stock joined physicians including Dr. Joseph Mercola and Dr. Judy Mikovits, and a group that calls itself America’s Frontline Doctors, in generating huge audiences for their bogus claims. The statements by them and others have contributed to vaccine hesitancy and a resistance to masks that have exacerbated the pandemic in the United States, public health officials say.
The doctors often stand in lab coats and use simplified medical jargon, lending an air of authority. They often take advantage of a ready audience online by livestreaming news conferences, and keep interest alive by promising new evidence that will expose corruption and support their arguments.
Some state medical boards have disciplined doctors for their conduct during the pandemic. In December, the Oregon Medical Board ordered an emergency suspension of the medical license of a doctor after he violated a state order by not wearing a mask, or requiring patients to wear masks. The ruling bars the doctor from practicing medicine in Oregon until the governor lifts the state of emergency issued for the pandemic.
In January, a San Francisco doctor who had been falsely claiming that 5G technology caused the pandemic volunteered to surrender his license to the California Medical Board.
“Publicly spreading false Covid-19 information may be considered unprofessional conduct and could be grounds for disciplinary action,” Carlos Villatoro, a spokesman for the Medical Board of California, said in a statement.
But Dr. Chaudhry said it was impossible to know how many states had opened investigations into doctors spreading misinformation. Such investigations are typically not publicized until a decision is reached, and the process can take many months.
Dr. Stock, 59, did not respond to several requests for comment for this article. He has been a licensed doctor in Indiana since 1989, a year after he graduated from the Indiana University School of Medicine. He has worked in several hospitals, urgent care centers and private practices in the state, according to a profile on LinkedIn.
On Dr. Stock’s website he sets himself apart from conventional medicine. “By presenting patients with all of their treatment options — whether that’s a pill, lifestyle change, therapy, or supplements — I help patients choose the option that works best for them,” the website reads. “This results in permanent healing, not merely the temporary relief found in the traditional system.” He sells dozens of vitamins and supplements on the site.
In the video that spread widely this month, Dr. Stock is shown speaking to a Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation board meeting in Fortville, just east of Indianapolis. Standing with his back to the camera, and speaking at a rapid, nearly monotone clip, he opens his statement with the line, “Everything being recommended by the C.D.C. is actually contrary to the rules of science.” Then he selectively cites academic studies to give the impression that widely held medical advice, such as wearing a mask and getting vaccinated, does not work.
YouTube, which forbids videos that spread false information about the virus, said it would not take down the full video of the meeting that the school board had put online. “While we have clear policies to remove harmful Covid-19 misinformation, we also recognize the importance of organizations like school boards using YouTube to share recordings of open public forums,” Elena Hernandez, a YouTube spokeswoman, said.
The original video of the meeting has over 620,000 views. Previous videos by the Mount Vernon school board on YouTube each collected only a few hundred views.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
YouTube has taken down videos of the meeting that have been edited to show only Dr. Stock’s talk. But some of those versions spread widely before YouTube made that decision, with views climbing as fast as 15,000 an hour in the days after the meeting, according to a New York Times analysis of available YouTube data.
People shared his talk on alternative video platforms like Bitchute and Rumble, and on blogs like “Hancock County Patriots” and “DJHJ Media.” One version of the video on Twitter, shared by a onetime adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, collected over six million views. Another was shared by Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio.
Dr. Stock also appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News, repeating the false claim that there is not “any consensus that masks work — the data is very murky on this.”
Eric Sears, a spokesman for the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, which oversees the granting of medical licenses in the state, said the Indiana attorney general’s office was responsible for investigating the public’s complaints about doctors spreading Covid-19 misinformation. The attorney general’s office sends its findings from those investigations to the Indiana Medical Board.
“As of yet, we have not been informed by the attorney general’s office of an investigation pending” into Dr. Stock, Mr. Sears said. “The board would likely not take action until an investigation had been completed by the attorney general’s office.”
David A. Keltz, a spokesman for the Indiana attorney general, said the office could not discuss whether any complaints against Dr. Stock were under investigation. Mr. Keltz said the state would issue a public statement about any such investigation only if the office decided to file a formal complaint with the Indiana Medical Board.
Doctors spreading coronavirus misinformation “leverage the credibility of their titles and medical expertise to make their arguments appear more authoritative,” said Rachel E. Moran, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online misinformation, including about the Covid-19 vaccines.
“What’s most frustrating about this is how anti-vaccination advocates typically spread mistrust in medical professionals until it’s no longer a useful strategy for them,” Ms. Moran said, noting how they regularly cast doubt on Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Then a ‘doctor’ comes along that aligns with their values,” Ms. Moran said, “and suddenly that institutional expertise is credible.”
Jacob Silver and Michael H. Keller contributed research.