Anti-vaccination ideas increasingly shared by extremists
WASHINGTON — Far-right extremist influencers and leaders have increasingly jumped on the anti-vaccination bandwagon since COVID-19 took a deadly grip on the United States over the past two years.
From anti-immigration livestreamer Nick Fuentes, to onetime Enrique Tarrio, leader of Proud Boyto the champion of the conspiracy theory Alex Jones, they post memes, jaw-dropping misinformation videos and fake vaccine statistics on social media daily. They are calling the public health crisis a “scam” and spreading lies vilifying prominent scientists such as Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser.
On Sunday, thousands of protesters descended on the nation’s capital in near-freezing temperatures for a “Defeat the Mandates” rally, listening to right-wing flag bearers tout their philosophies.. A few young men wore Proud Boys badges, and many in the crowd donned MAGA shirts and carried flags bearing messages against Biden.
There was also “Defeat the Mandates” gear – including masks, a nod to the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 860,000 Americans.
Organizers said the purpose of the rally was “to stop mass layoffs. Stop separating by vaccination status. Stop calling Americans ‘unpatriotic’ for making a personal medical choice.”
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Sunday’s march moved from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where the crowd listened to musical performances and impassioned speeches.
Many speakers drew broad comparisons between their activism and the civil rights movement, recalling Martin Luther King Jr.’s messages of love, unity and freedom. At one point, a speaker asked the crowd to turn to your neighbors and give them a hug.
Asked as he walked to his speech, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the event’s headliners and a leader in the anti-vaccine movement, pushed back against the idea that extremists are clinging anti-vaccine messages and use them. attract new recruits.
“It’s not my experience,” Kennedy said. “My experience is that there are unions here, there are students here, there are people of all political persuasions here.”
Del Bigtree, another Defeat the Mandates march headliner and CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, said any group that bases its views on hate is not welcome in his movement.
“It’s a unity movement,” Bigtree said. “If you believe in divisiveness of any kind, if you have issues with race, religion, or sexual preference, I don’t think you truly represent that movement.”
This was echoed by Brian Willcutts, a healthcare worker who attended the rally from central Virginia.
“I’m sure this movement will distance itself from any group that attempts to reclaim our message in order to communicate a message that goes beyond what we seek,” Willcutts said. “Certainly anything that would be violent, we are opposed to.”
Draw in the disenchanted
The decision to attract the anti-vaccine crowd is part of a concerted effort by the hard-right to appeal to a growing and credible audience that has little faith in “mainstream media”, medical science or statistics, experts said.
“The far right has certainly seized on anti-vaccine ideology as an important new front in its ideological and cultural struggle,” said Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University. “They see anti-vaccine sentiment and COVID denial as a market they can tap into for views, clicks, and merchandise sales.”
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In its modern form, the anti-vaccine movement emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, primarily in opposition to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, which conspiracy theorists believe led to an increase in autism. This debunked claim persisted throughout the 2000s, attracting a sizable following but remaining largely apolitical until 2010, said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and an outspoken critic of anti-vaccine protesters.
By 2010, the anti-vaccine movement had started to turn political and aligned itself with the Tea Party and other far-right politicians. Vaccine opponents formed political action committees that lobbied for religious exemptions and other legislation to hinder the spread of vaccines.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the time of COVID, the cogs really kicked in and it became a full-fledged political movement,” said Hotez, whose activism made him a target of the anti-vaccine movement. “Now some of the non-governmental groups that were anti-vaccine have also aligned themselves with the political extremists.”
Hotez describes this alliance as nothing less than an attack on science itself. While doctors are trained to be apolitical, he said the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding anti-vaccine rhetoric has caused some doctors to take a stand against misinformation that kills people.
“200,000 Americans since last summer, who are unvaccinated, have lost their lives to COVID because of this far-right anti-science defiance and assault,” Hotez said. “It kills far more Americans than global terrorism, or nuclear proliferation, or cyberattacks, or any of the other things we’re building to fight. The refrain I use is: “Anti-science kills”.
The far right thrives on conspiracies
Researchers say the fusion of far-right extremists around vaccine conspiracy theories is not surprising. The extremist movement has always thrived on conspiracy theories, especially those that point to complex and far-reaching actions by the federal government, said Jared Holt, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
“This is an issue that hyper-partisan far-right groups and movements have certainly sought to capitalize on to advance anti-government sentiment,” Holt said.
Holt said the anti-vaccine talking points currently being pushed by extremists come after months of that camp’s support for other anti-government demands such as the “Stop The Steal” campaign which falsely claims that the election was illegitimate and the fight against ordering businesses to cease in-person exchanges to stem the spread of COVID-19.
This glomming over controversial new talking points is what the extremist movement does, Holt said. It’s about recruiting new members by finding ‘soft’ issues that resonate with mainstream conservatives. The goal: to find ever-larger pools of recruits for more extreme ideas, he said.
“It’s the bread and butter of extremist movements — to find developing issues and try to capitalize on them,” Holt said. “It’s the salesman’s tactic. You find a point of agreement and go from there.
A “national security crisis”
Hotez describes the current threat from anti-vaccine activists as a “three-headed monster,” made up of promoters of anti-science misinformation, especially in the conservative media, nonprofit anti-science nongovernmental organizations that provide false statistics and talking points to experts and state actors such as the Russian government, which has flooded America with misinformation about vaccines.
Hotez sees the problem as nothing less than a national security crisis. As vaccine conspiracy theories spread, he said, more people will die from them.
The Biden administration’s response to that threat has been frustrating and lukewarm, Hotez said. Given the magnitude of the vaccine misinformation problem and the resulting death toll, this should be a top priority for the federal government, he said.
Last but not least, the increasingly hostile environment for vaccine scientists, who find themselves under attack by political activists and extremists, is detrimental to science as a whole, Hotez said.
“I’m concerned that this is having a chilling effect on science and scientists,” he said. “We are a nation built on our research universities, and therefore we are the real patriots, not these chuckleheads.”
Contributors: Ella Lee, Jasper Colt and John Bacon