Along with the usual discount coupons for pizza and carpet cleaning, a recent South Carolina monthly “coupon mailer” came complete with a “conspiracy theory manifesto.”
At first glance, this fall’s editions of $aver Magazine, a coupon book mailed to thousands of homes in the greater Charleston, South Carolina, area every few months, looked as innocuous as ever. But people who read the mailer noticed something new and disturbing amidst its usual barrage of special offers.
Instead of ads, one random page sported a banner reading Our American Republic, a disclaimer (“The following are only my opinions. You decide and research for truth yourself.”), and a wall of typo-riddled text promoting a mélange of near-incoherent, wild conspiracy theories, many focused on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It is obvious that America is under attack. And by our own employees, the government!” the rant opens. “That our personal freedoms are being stolen and the Constitution being trashed. Everything is upside down!”
Among other things, the would-be treatise specifically insists that the IRS is “fraudulent and illegal.” But the bulk of its focus falls upon official attempts to contain the disease that continues to kill hundreds of Americans every day, and the safe and effective vaccines with the power to prevent much of the suffering caused by this scourge.
“The US government and the US military deliberately developed the bio weapon [sic] covid 19 aka wuhan virus,” reads another section. “My understanding [sic] this bio weapon development began at Chapel Hill University, NC. And then moved over seas and partnered with the communist. And then turned loose on America and the world. [sic]”
Elsewhere, the unnamed author falsely claims that masks and social distancing are all about stoking fear, that COVID-19 vaccines are somehow nefarious or dangerous, and that the entire pandemic is clearly part of a sinister plot to usher in “Satan’s new world government.”
The unusually placed manifesto also features baffling half-thoughts on Bill Gates’s vaccine advocacy and attempts to equate America’s pandemic response to Nazi policies.
And rather than an offer for two-for-one burgers, it concludes with, “Most politicians, both democrat and republican, judges, legislators, election officials, poll workers, law enforcement, military, the fake news media, INTERNET, newspapers … are guilty of treason! The punishment for treason is death!”
Most readers who actually noticed and read the diatribe found its inclusion in the mailer uniquely jarring. Perhaps, David Morris, a College of Charleston sociologist who has studied pandemic misinformation, suggests, “because they didn’t get on Facebook, where they know this stuff exists, or seek it out. It was in a place they wouldn’t expect to see it.”
Several experts on conspiracy theory dissemination told The Daily Beast that indiscriminate mass mailing is a rare tactic, to begin with, and none of them had ever heard of this kind of a treatise showing up inside something as mundane as a coupon booklet. Such an approach to spreading radical ideas is virtually unprecedented because it’s unlikely to sway many locals. But it has already triggered a backlash against the $aver’s publisher, David Oser, in the latest bizarre case of pandemic misinformation sowing discord in a community.
It’s unclear if Oser, who did not reply to requests for comment from the Daily Beast or the local press, personally authored the unsigned manifesto, just opted to run it, or allowed someone else to insert it into the mailer without his knowledge. And despite its wide distribution, few people likely actually read the $aver’s raving editorial, given the fact that most people trash such junk mail on sight or after a cursory scan. A few locals who did read it told The Daily Beast that they just rolled their eyes, threw the mailer away, and didn’t give it a second thought.
Local officials canvassed for comment certainly don’t seem too concerned about this specific instance of direct-to-mailbox misinformation. When asked about it, Derrek Asberry of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control gave The Daily Beast a seemingly canned reply:
“Conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation are… steering unvaccinated people away from protecting themselves and their loved ones by getting vaccinated. The DHEC has and continues to urge residents to visit credible sources, such as DHEC and CDC websites, for information on COVID and the vaccine.”
Every business with an ad in the latest edition of the $aver that replied to a request for comment for this story categorically stated they had never seen any editorializing in the mailer before, were not notified about any plans to include the screed before it got sent out, and hadn’t even seen it until consumers brought it to their attention. “We have been running the same ad for years, and the platform remained consistent,” said Robert Word of Holy City Gutterworks. “Honestly, I quit reviewing the mailers after I confirmed [early on that] our ads were running as expected.”