A Kiwi group that's made headlines for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines has denied it's planning to launch a multi-level marketing business.
But an expert in social media influencers and conspiracy theories says they'd be stupid not to cash in.
A page on the website for Voices for Freedom touting "happier, healthier living using essential oils and other natural solutions" via a multi-level marketing company called doTERRA was removed earlier this week after Newshub made enquiries about the group's plans.
The page was spotted by a Newshub reader, who found it "really upsetting", calling it "a combination of things that take advantage of people's trust and fear".
Voices for Freedom, which recently distributed misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout to households nationwide, told Newshub it was "laughable" to suggest they'd get involved in selling essential oils.
"When you have experience with a certain website platform it makes sense to use what you have already created in terms of layout and functionality," spokesperson Alia Bland told Newshub.
"The draft page... was just that - a draft. The content hasn't been changed as we are not pursuing a membership option at this stage."
Claire Deeks, food blogger, former Advance NZ candidate and one of the founders of Voices for Freedom, is a 'platinum wellness advocate' with doTERRA, whose members sell essential oils. Last year she was listed as one of three doTERRA sellers featured on a website called 'Oil Alliance' - it appears content from this site made its way onto the Voices for Freedom website, which launched at the end of 2020.
The Oil Alliance site went offline in February, and was replaced by the Inspired Collective, now a duo - Deeks scrubbed from the site. The Inspired Collective didn't respond to Newshub's request for comment.
Essential oils, wellness and COVID-19 misinformation
While Voices for Freedom might call the possibility "laughable", there is a strong link between wellness influencers and COVID-19 misinformation. Celebrity paleo chef Pete Evans - who interviewed Deeks for his podcast last year - has spread false claims about the virus and the vaccine, and was recently booted off Instagram and Spotify.
In March, magazine Harper's Bazaar looked at a number of influencers who pivoted to COVID-19 misinformation in 2020, and former 3 News journalist David Farrier has been keeping track of a number of them on his site, Webworm.
"Probably the least surprising thing one could imagine would be this group selling essential oils and other woo on their website," Farrier told Newshub.
"It's a common trend we've seen time and time again: build up your loyal audience with whatever you're preaching, get their email address, and there you have your inbuilt customer base."
doTERRA the company is no stranger to making false claims about COVID-19. Last year it was warned by US officials to stop letting its members "unlawfully advertise that certain products treat or prevent [COVID-19]".
Deeks has in the past urged followers to put essential oils in their food. One of her recipes tells the reader to use up to 10 drops of doTERRA peppermint oil in a recipe for 'peppermint chocolate bliss balls', which one expert in 2019 told RNZ would be the equivalent of using 1.5kg of peppermint leaves - except without any of the vitamin or mineral content.
The Ministry for Primary Industries confirmed to Newshub it is looking into a complaint about Deeks' recipes.
"Actions arising from an investigation will be dependent upon a number of factors including risk to consumers and range from educational advice through to more directed actions such as a recall of the food and prosecution," director of compliance services Gary Orr said.
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Follow the money
Voices for Freedom said earlier this month its most recent pamphlet drop was 'timed to coincide with the Government's new vaccine campaign".
The group has not answered Newshub's questions about where its funding to date has come from, or how its stated intention to become a "registered entity" is going. The group sends several emails a week to its supporters. Since the start of May, each has ended with a link to its online store, where it sells "everything from mugs and tees to books and bags".
Farrier said influential US broadcaster and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones "isn't rich from selling misinformation on his podcast - he is a millionaire from selling oils and tonics to disillusioned, confused men".
"It wouldn't be very surprising to me if Voices for Freedom - who are simply spreading cooker-cutter information from their American counterparts - are set to do exactly the same thing. They'd be stupid not to."
In addition to warning doTERRA not to spread COVID-19 lies, US officials told the company to stop making claims that "misrepresent that consumers who become doTERRA business opportunity participants are likely to earn substantial income".
"In the classic pyramid scheme, you are incentivised to recruit more people who pay money into the scheme, who then recruit more people... there's very rarely a tangible product that changes hands," chief executive Jon Duffy told Newshub, saying it was more like Amway.
Pyramid schemes typically collapse because eventually, they run out of people to recruit. doTERRA avoids this by limiting the number of levels to four - you and three levels below.
"If you took the product out of the equation, you'd have a pyramid scheme," said Duffy, warning people to stay away - particularly since similar oils can be purchased much cheaper on shop shelves.
"What I don't like about it, but isn't necessarily illegal, is it actually encourages people to prey on friends and family with a product with - in my opinion - questionable efficacy."
The Commerce Commission declined to comment on doTERRA specifically, saying anyone who fears they might be getting involved in a pyramid scheme should check out the information on its website.
Whether essential oils work or not depends what you're using them for.
"Currently, there is no evidence-backed research showing any illnesses that can be cured through the use of essential oils," Scientific American reported last year. "The results on the other possible benefits of essential oils as, for example, mood elevators or stress relievers, are more mixed. But most are still inconclusive."
Questioning the science
Newshub asked Voices for Freedom what medical or scientific qualifications their organisers had. Bland said the group's material was "not intended to be taken as medical or legal advice".
"We also are in contact with scientists, epidemiologists, virologists, molecular biologists, psychiatrists, and legal teams from within New Zealand and around the world. We see these voices and opinions as just as valid as those that regularly appear in NZ news stories."
Newshub asked Voices for Freedom to name which "scientists, researchers and experts in their fields" they've engaged with to date, epidemiologists - experts in the spread of infectious disease - and virologists in particular. Bland said Voices for Freedom does "not seek to bring conflict and disarray into anyone's lives, which is exactly what would happen if we were to name them in the media", so declined to name any.
There are some 'experts' they're happy to cite, however. Earlier this week the group promoted an online summit called 'Truth over Fear', featuring "frontline doctors, scientists, attorneys, researchers, and journalists".
Newshub had a look at some of the people involved. They included people who've touted unproven COVID-19 cures, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, a retired property valuer, people involved in the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, far-right bloggers and a man who's speculated the biblical flood was caused by a close encounter with another planet.