Coupon Book Spread Conspiracies—and Sparked Furious Backlash

Coupon Book Spread Conspiracies—and Sparked Furious Backlash 1

At a 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 in recent days noticed something new and disturbing amidst its usual barrage of hokey design and 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]” (A spokesperson for UNC Chapel Hill did not respond to a request for comment on this long-debunked conspiracy theory.)

Within an hour of finding out about this, I got on the phone with the publisher.

Chance Nyman

Elsewhere, the unnamed author falsely claims that masks and social distancing are all about stoking fear, that safe 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.”

Echoing many months’ worth of fact-free far-right panic, the screed also features baffling half-thoughts on Bill Gates’s vaccine advocacy and attempts to equate America’s pandemic response to Nazi policies. Oh, and it includes this gem: “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!”

Plenty of Americans have encountered baseless theories like these over the last 20 months. But many readers found their 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 drivel showing up inside something as mundane as a coupon booklet. Such an approach to spreading outlandish ideas is virtually unprecedented because it’s unlikely to sway many locals. But it has already triggered 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 for this story, personally authored the unsigned diatribe, just opted to run it, or allowed someone else to insert it into the mailer without his full awareness or engagement. 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.”

However, one disconcerted area resident posted about the mailer in a closed group of Charleston-area progressives on hyperlocal social-media platform Nextdoor, sparking a vibrant discussion among a few-dozen locals about how to respond to what felt like the intrusion of extremist ideas into their homes.

I left a message, explaining that we had received messages from community members who were disturbed by the piece, and that we would appreciate a call back.

Brandon Fish

One group member, Chris Moore, took it upon himself to create and share a list of companies with ads and coupons in the $aver, as well as their contact information. He said in an interview that he was concerned that they might not have been aware of the mailer’s conspiratorial turn, and about the damage association with that content could do to their brands, so he wanted to facilitate outreach and raise awareness.

But some Nextdoor group members apparently came in pretty hot with dire warnings.

“On the 26th, a man sent me an email, and pretty much stated that my support of this could ruin my business, demanded my public rebuke [of the mailer’s conspiracy content], and said that he wishes me all the luck in the world,” Joe Harrison, the owner and sole operator of Optimal Power Washing, which started running ads in the $aver this spring, told The Daily Beast.

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.”

Low Country Saver

“Within an hour of finding out about this, I got on the phone with the publisher,” added Chance Nyman, owner and operator of Lowcountry Roofing. “I said, ‘You’re not supposed to be into politics. You’re supposed to print ads. That’s how you get paid.’

“He just thought it was his right to run this, and this is what he believes,” Nyman said of his conversation with Oser. “I said, ‘I understand that, but I can’t be associated with this… I’ve got people calling me and they’re pretty upset.’”

Nyman said he decided, while on that call, to end his deal with the $aver, after 15 years of advertising, telling the publisher that his ideas were too extreme for his taste.

Aside from advertisers, no one The Daily Beast spoke to who’s tried to call Oser said they had any luck getting a reply. That includes the Charleston Jewish Federation, which took issue with the false and patently offensive equivalence in the $aver rant between the Holocaust and life-saving public health measures. “I left a message, explaining that we had received messages from community members who were disturbed by the piece, and that we would appreciate a call back,” said the CJF’s Brandon Fish, who hopes Oser will retract and never repeat those claims.

While Nyman and a few other businesses seem content to pull their ads from the $aver and walk away, Moore’s still searching for ways to hold the mailer accountable for spreading misinformation, and in his eyes implicitly defaming dozens of major local businesses. In a post on a legal-advice forum, he asked if anyone knew whether he could report the mailer to any specific authorities. He’s also urged local business owners “to sue for breach of contract and possible defamation.”

But Anuj Desai, an expert on the intersection of free-speech law and the usage of the U.S. postal system at the University of Wisconsin Law School, explains that the mail is considered a conduit for the free flow of ideas. In other words, the First Amendment protects people’s ability to mail out even baseless conspiracies and falsehoods freely.

“Part of the United States Postal Services marketing is that direct mail is a good way to reach a lot of people with your political message,” Desai stressed in an interview. He added that this is why “those of us in purple states get political mailers full of falsehoods every four years.”

“If some other law prohibits what you’re doing through the mail, like making threats, the USPS cannot stop you from sending that,” Desai told The Daily Beast. “But authorities might be able to get a warrant to tap your mail, so to speak,” for evidence of a potential crime.

However, the $aver never clearly advocated any actual criminal activity; while it called for people to unite and rise up against supposedly sinister forces, it actually took a hard stand against violence. Although it’s part of an advertising mailer, since it’s not trying to sell anything, solicit donations, or run any discernible type of scam using the disinfo it pedals, the rant doesn’t run afoul of ad regulators either. No legal expert The Daily Beast spoke to was sure advertisers would have a legitimate case against the $aver either; that likely hinges on the exact wording of each ad contract, and wonky arguments about and precedents on reasonable expectations and provable damages.

The only clear recourse for consumers disturbed by the $aver is to request not to receive it anymore, and for jilted businesses is to pull their ads.

Conspiracy theorists and anti-vax misinformation crusaders have made good use of this laissez-faire framework to conduct mass mailing campaigns in the past. But most such campaigns are far more targeted, often towards people campaigners want to intimidate.

According to Amy Pisani of Vaccine Your Family, a pro-vaccination advocacy and education group, direct-mail campaigns trying to convince targeted groups to align with a conspiratorial belief or misinformation cause also tend to be better focused, designed, and argued (albeit using pseudoscience that only sounds authoritative) than the $aver’s wild hand-waving. These campaigns are rare, though, because over the last two decades it’s become painfully clear that it’s far easier—and cheaper—to spread misinformation to wider malleable audiences using social media.

The $aver’s Wake Up Sheeple style of evidence-free rhetoric especially plays best in digital echo chambers and amplification channels. Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which tracks pandemic misinformation, actually reads the screed as “a bizarre example of malicious actors taking the psychological tricks behind social-media misinformation… and applying them to a pre-digital publication.”

This incongruence, alongside the $aver screed’s (even by conspiracy-theorist standards) slapdash presentation and weak rhetoric, leads Ahmed and others to suspect it won’t gain much traction. However, Morris of the College of Charleston does note that, “while Charleston is a pretty progressive city for South Carolina, we obviously have people here with negative views of masks and stuff that might resonate with this.”

Even reinforcing the convictions of—or deepening connections between—staunch pandemic conspiracy theorists and misinformation agents may pose serious complications to efforts to curb the deadly pandemic.

Coupon Book Spread Conspiracies—and Sparked Furious Backlash 2

Low Country Saver

Pisani added that, outside of businesses that specifically cater to conspiracy communities, we almost never see companies double-down on anti-vax or pandemic misinformation in official materials, like the $aver apparently just did—because it’s a great way to alienate a huge portion of a general audience. “If I’d received this, I would probably never open the coupon magazine again,” she told The Daily Beast.

Holy City Gutters’ Word, who said he canceled his longtime deal with the magazine as of Thursday, added, “I have 18 employees who work hard and support their families through this business…. It would break me if their livelihoods were negatively affected based on the assumption that we support the spread of this information.”

No one knows why or how Oser, the $aver’s publisher, might have decided to publish such a significant and dangerous piece of content. But on the $aver’s website, which appears as if it has not been updated, aside from new issue uploads, since late 2020, he does note that the pandemic shook his business to its core; massive social and personal upheavals often drive people towards conspiracy thinking.

This fall’s $aver editions also include an ad for the South Carolina Assembly, a group whose materials claim that “American [sic] went off the rails during the civil war and our lawful states were turned into corporations,” and that it is the true “lawful” government of the state. The group did not reply to a request for comment. However, their language echoes that of the sovereign citizen movement, a loose philosophy that holds that the vast majority of laws passed since the mid-19th century are illegitimate. Believers often claim that America is secretly run by foreign corporations, trade supposedly brilliant tricks they believe will make them legally untouchable, and pull dumb public stunts to try to demonstrate their self-perceived constitutional genius.

The $aver’s editorial rant includes a handful of common sovereign-citizen talking points, as well as a URL, typed out, that leads to a video that features common sovereign-citizen arguments. So, its author and/or publisher may have drifted into a radical community that’s goaded him into extreme action.

“When I called, he was like, ‘Oh, I’m surprised you’re calling. I had a lot of people tell me [the article] was great—a lot of people liked it,’” Nyman recalled of his conversation with Oser.

On the call, Nyman added, Oser made it seem like he didn’t care if he stayed in business. But later that day, the local business owner said, he got a text from the publisher, stating that reactions to his rant had inspired him to keep on putting out the mailer the way he wants, even if he loses all of his customers.

Nyman’s not sure how Oser would actually be able to do so, if he loses all or most of his clients. It’s not cheap to send out a mailer to thousands of homes four times a year. So the roofer—and everyone else in the greater Charleston area—will just have to warily watch their junk mail to see if the diatribe keeps dribbling in.